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Hemlines up, up and away

1913: Hemlines on dresses reached 2 or 3 inches above the ankle.  1926: Women wore mid-calf hemlines by the early 20s. By the late 20s, brazen "flappers" moved hemlines to the knee and 1 or 2 inches beyond.  '30s-'40s: After the stock crash of '29, dresse
1913: Hemlines on dresses reached 2 or 3 inches above the ankle. 1926: Women wore mid-calf hemlines by the early 20s. By the late 20s, brazen "flappers" moved hemlines to the knee and 1 or 2 inches beyond. '30s-'40s: After the stock crash of '29, dresses dropped for a couple decades to 1 or 2 inches below the knee. '50s: Hemlines rebounded to the knee as shorter poodle skirts replaced longer silhouette dresses. '60s: The miniskirt, named after the British Mini car, regularly showed 5 to 6 inches above the knee. '70s: The hippie movement's descent from mainstream's pop fashion pushed the hemline nearly to the ground on their loose, flowing maxiskirts. '80s: Miniskirts made a comeback but most ladies wore hemlines at 1 or 2 inches below the knee. '90s: an anything-goes stage when hemlines regularly reached as high as the pockets. '00s: a mixed-fashion era from past decades with the high-hemline continuation of the '90s__Caption here for modest hemlines
illustration by michellechristensen, deseret news

I'm shifty. Always have been, always will be. Ask anyone, young or old. I go up and down depending on the era, the time of day, your mood.

I wasn't always unpredictable. For centuries, I stayed in pretty much the same place: between the floor and a woman's ankle.

But then things changed. Fashion elites called me boring and prudish. Young people snubbed me. They thought I was old-fashioned — something only their mother would wear. So I started changing.

My given name is Hemline.

I first stepped it up around 1913. I gave them what they wanted: more flesh. I revealed 2 or 3 inches above the ankle. Sure, some rejected me. But I still won over the crowd. And throughout the next decade the crowd would help me win the rest, eventually persuading everyone who first abandoned my progressive shift to lighten up, to get with the times.

My forward thinking only took my popularity so far, though. And if I hadn't made another move by the early 1920s, I would have risked my reputation for being up-to-date. I upped my game and made a woman's midcalf my home, showing the world good, clean, moral girls could still have fun. I call it my almost-era: I was almost to the knee, a place only seen by intimates up to that time. I'll admit it: I was a tease. I was constantly taunting women's imaginations to accept more vogue possibilities — and men's imaginations to … just imagine more.

Getting to my next stop, though, wasn't easy — not on my own anyway. But I got there. I always do.

Image expert Judith Rasband, executive director of Conselle, said between 1925 and 1928 I rode the wave of loosening sexual mores, faster jazz music and Prohibition contempt all the way up to an inch or two past a woman's bare knee.

Sexy Hollywood women in movies like "Flapper," who were wearing me daringly high, transformed me from a radical craze to an established fashion. That's what they do best: normalize crazy things. After Hollywood accepts me, it matters very little if you or your daughters do, because, let's face it, you'll eventually come to my level. Because that's what you do best: fit in.

I had a slight setback after the sobering stock crash of 1929. I dropped to a couple inches below the knee. Economist George Taylor predicted this in 1926 with his "Hemline Index" theory, which says hemlines generally follow the rise and fall of the stock market.

I hovered around a woman's knee for the next three conservative decades: the '30s, '40s and '50s.

By 1960, British feminist and fashion extraordinaire Mary Quant adopted me. She used me to jump-start the sexual revolution by popularizing an ultra-high version of me: the miniskirt. When New York Times Magazine asked the purpose of her barely there fashion, Quant frankly replied, "Sex."

At this time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published its first For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, which outlined ways to keep me at appropriate levels.

Quant also told a British daily newspaper at the time one of my dirty little secrets, my desensitizing strategy, how I can jump from modest to shamelessly sexual in just a couple years: "People call things vulgar when they are new to them," she said. Then "they become good taste."

However, Dallin H. Oaks, then president of Brigham Young University, wasn't fooled by the assertion of "good taste" for the new "mini" me. In 1971 he accused me of contributing to the "immorality of this age." Elder Spencer W. Kimball blamed me for the same thing 20 years earlier. Spoilsports!

Elder Oaks said that although my appropriate level on a woman's body is difficult to define, "there is a point" where my wearer is "calling attention to herself," "exposing too much," "sending signals" and "inviting responses." Fun-hater!

I settled down in the '70s, though — way down. The hippie movement's protest against mainstream pop fashion landed me back at their ankles. My lowly position on those loose, paisley-printed maxi-skirts didn't last long, though. It never does.

I jumped right back up during the shoulder-pad, big-belt '80s era. Although divas and trendy elites returned me to my former miniskirt status at the time, most women wore me knee-length.

Then something happened: the '90s. I became a free-for-all. Girls regularly sported me as high as their derriere. I was consistently higher than the bottom of their pockets; loose change would dangle below my frayed denim self. It was an everything-goes era, a time of "dress-down casualization," according to Rasband.

Today, I'm as hip-high as ever. Last month, Elle, the world's largest fashion magazine, reported that underwear-high hemlines are this season's new trend: "Designers are raising the stakes this spring with hemlines so high you might find yourself mistaken for a call girl."

Sure, that's "vulgar" now. But 'member how Mama Quant trained me: I'll have your daughters believing it's "good taste" in no time.

— Jacob Hancock