21 MARCH 1992, Page 43


Beauty behind the knees

Hardy Amies takes a long view of short skirts Rape clothes,' said my hostess, gaz- ing out on to Sloane Square. She is a very well-born American, once married — now widowed — to a younger brother in a noble English family. She is thus an Honourable Mrs (When she complained that she could

not get staff, a witty nephew suggested, `Just put in The Lady, "Nanny required by almost titled lady" and you'll get masses of replies.') I told her that it is unrewarding to criti- cise fashions of the moment. It makes us, the aged, seem even older. Chanel, that wise old witch, said, `La mode est toujours jolie'. You can't swim against the current of a stream of popularity.

They don't want to be raped but they do want to be desired. I have to admire the verve of it, although it's a pity that so many girls are knock-kneed. Not too high heels (to have none is not to flatter the calves), fine woollen stockings in winter of the same colour as the tiny skirt. This must have some pleating. A bum bandaged in elastic just won't do. Of course the whole `costume' should be in one dark colour. I would love it in what used to be called 'tete de negre': a very dark blackish brown. The `dress' area — stopping as it does just below the crotch — is not big enough to carry more than one colour.

The girls have also learned to wear short, swinging, full 'swagger' coats. These are perfect in waterproof cotton — the mack- intosh — lined in mum's old mink coat. The head must be kept small and neat. No locks flowing to the waist and above all no dead-looking frizz, but short bobs or trim chignons of hair shining from a hundred brushings.

I designed my first collection in 1934. For nearly 60 years I have had to take up an attitude to the length of skirts by day. The influence of Chanel is still with us. The Dior era with the long skirts of the New Look was comparatively short-lived those beautiful clothes are as distant from our lives as are those of Odette de Crecy.

It is a rule of dress design that when you've gone so far that there is no return — and we have almost reached that point today — you have to move quickly in another direction. To make skirts a little longer is to be demode. Equally, you can't drop them to the ankles. There are still long skirts on the streets but they look awfully sad. I think (and hope) that skirts will remain short but will have more stuff in them. A swinging skirt, short and clever- ly pleated, is more beguiling than one made of stretched cloth. The sight of cloth correctly cut and stitched and hanging in harmony with the grain of the yarn in which it is woven is a pleasing and soothing sight. It soothes a man — which can be another way to seducing him.

Seduction is the aim of the couturier. He must make his customers look attractive, which usually means making them look younger. So that is why we keep making short skirts for ladies: of a length that shows off their pretty legs. These are often the last treasures of fading beauties. But they must be careful not to go too far. When beauty leaves the face it is not to be found again behind the knees.

Short skirts, those with a hemline above the knee, were introduced seriously in Lon- don-by Mary Quant in the Sixties. She was aiming deliberately at the working girl. The clothes were, therefore, quite correctly, made by machine. The timing was magnifi- cently right. Courreges was doing the same thing in Paris at the haute couture level, also with great success. Skirts were remorselessly straight.

The short skirt is still completely success- ful in Chanel's haute couture. I have seen a collection organised by the witty and wicked Lagerfeld which out-Chanels Chanel: shorter skirts and loads of false jewellery; many jackets, all based on the body and sleeves of a man's jacket, with any sign of harsh masculinity softened by colour and soft texture of cloth.

It may seem amazing that a philosophy of dress launched by Chanel in the Twen- ties should still be a strong influence as the century flows to its close. Yet the support of industry, of risk banking and of the scent industry, as identified with the house of Chanel, have for four generations com- bined to illuminate the shining power of a short skirt. If there isn't teaute derriere les genoux', there is certainly gold.