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THE HISTORY OF... THE MAXI SKIRT: Down to the ground

THE RUNNING joke in fashion is how often skirt lengths change. The maxi skirt - one that is slightly fitted, full and reaches down to the ground - comes in and out of fashion from time to time and is currently a hot favourite with designers Calvin Klein, Gucci, Narciso Rodriguez and Clements Ribeiro, to name but a few.

Up until the beginning of this century, women have had little other option than to wear skirts and dresses, and throughout history their skirts have almost always been "maxi" in varying shapes and sizes.

In the 16th century it was fashionable to wear constricting bodices with tight sleeves and wide skirts, and by the 17th century women were wearing similar bodices over a long skirt with three underskirts.

Crinolines - cage frames made out of steel hoops - were fashionable underskirts in the 1850s and, by the 1890s, Edwardian ladies were wearing a bustle under their skirts to increase the fullness around their hips and bottoms.

At the turn of the 20th century Paul Poiret revolutionised women's dress by designing clothes that were more "natural" against the female form, a change from the exaggerated proportions of the previous centuries.

He introduced the "hobble skirt", one that was so long and fitted that the wearer could only take small steps when walking. This evolved into the "trotteur" or walking skirt, a straight, off-the-ground skirt that allowed ease of movement and rapidly became a classic. Poiret's new, straighter silhouette was paving the way for women finally to move into trousers in the Thirties and Forties.

Skirts started getting shorter in the Twenties and hemlines danced between ankle and knee until the early Sixties. It wasn't until the late Sixties that hemlines hit the floor again. Hippies favoured long, flowing skirts in ethnic prints and by January 1970 the Paris collections were emphasising a longer shape. Yves Saint Laurent in particular was showing skirts that fell to the floor. Another popular length was the midi, that was half way between the ubiquitous mini and the maxi.

The Eighties focused on power dressing, using trouser suits and shoulder pads, and maxi skirts didn't make a noticeable appearance again until autumn 1996 in the shape of Bohemian maxi skirts and coats from designers such as Richard Tyler, reworking the Portobello look.

This season, the maxi is everywhere, predominantly in cashmere and wool, providing an alternative to slouch trousers.