Fashion’s Perfect Form

Long skirts return to Vienna streets

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | September 2012

Fashion is a fickle thing, and much of it mystifies me. Why do women wear skirts too short to safely sit down in? Or ones that stop just above the knees, thus accenting what is surely our least appealing feature? And why do otherwise perfectly sane and intelligent men go to such trouble and expense to dress like drug dealers? And why would anybody pay designer prices for jeans sliced open with holes?

So, imagine my delight this summer to see long skirts once again sweeping along the streets of Vienna, the soft folds of material flowing with the rhythm of a woman walking. Every woman, regardless of scale or proportion, looks more graceful in a long skirt, a reality that struck me one afternoon as I sat out at the Tricaffe on Rotenturmstraße watching the world go by.

A woman appears out of a café across the way, all in white, her skirt gathered in layers in the Spanish style, getting fuller as it reaches the ground, with a long sleeveless top accented with a wide belt in pale beige leather. Then, two women come up the street from my left, one in a floppy red cloth hat over a pale coral shift falling easily over her hips, the other in a beige skirt with a creamy top, hair up in a knot and sunglasses perched on her head. I am struck by the ease of these clothes, the freedom from the relentless torture of tight pants. And short skirts that cut the line in the wrong place. Women seem to move differently when things are long, instinctively responding to the swaying softness of the fabric.

Most summer clothes aren’t much to look at these days: trashy T-shirts and box-cut shorts with bulging camper pockets, those infernal baseball caps, clodhopper sandals and beach-combers that look wrong even on a beach…

All right, maybe I’m being overly severe, but for better or for worse, the way we dress says a lot about us – which may explain why so many of my friends over the years have undertaken to educate me in things sartorial, in the eternal hope, I suppose, that I was not really as boring as my clothes suggested.

My take was different: I wanted a uniform, something I could just put on in the morning without having to think about it, without having to go through the long, involved calculations over settings and dress codes, over where I would be that day and what message I needed to send. Because there is always a message, particularly for women, although not only, of course (remember the drug dealers!).

Men generally have uniforms, role-specific outfits that convey status and make dressing easy: a few variations on a theme and you’re ready to perform. And while it may offer fewer options, it’s also harder to make mistakes. For women, it often seems that it’s hard not to, with flouncy little fashions designed for precocious 12-year-olds, and enough skin for a Roman slave auction.

So, sitting out at the Tricaffe, these lovely skirts and dresses are a joy to behold, feminine but not confining, dignified but not at all drab, a casual kind of elegance in long simple lines. The long skirt, I decided, is the fashion equivalent of the Golden Rectangle, a set of perfect proportions on the female body that blends into the definition of beauty.

Fashions fade, but style is eternal.

It all felt like a gift: The way we dress becomes part of the landscape of other people’s lives.

Other articles from this issue