Legwork

First hypothesis: Fashion developments in the modern period must always be understood as acts of cross-dressing. Across gender, certainly, but also across status, class, even race—not my subject here, but those are the parameters. Such cross-dressing is bound by rules. Fashion is neither tyrannical nor unpredictable, and changes of fashion adhere to a system.

Let’s begin with women’s new legs. For the last decade, the female silhouette has been dominated by legs and more legs. Impossibly long legs, often visible to the crotch and lower butt. Legs in leggings or in tight pants. Legs with opaque stockings beneath shorts or very short skirts. Boots—of all lengths—even sometimes coming up to the knee. The tallest boots are mostly flat soled, while the lower boots, falling in folds or grossly chunky, almost menacing, have an edged heel. Or the legs may be extended by platform soles, which make them appear even more endless. In such shoes, there is no mincing or teetering. The woman’s leg in motion is determined. The boots in soft folds, especially, recall those one sees sometimes in woodblock prints of the 16th century—as the footwear of Swabian mercenaries.

Such legs are very clearly the opposite of the “classic female leg” that was constituted by sheer nylon stockings and their play of nudity and enclosure. Over the last thirty years, nylons have been supplanted by sophisticatedly patterned and embroidered stockings, lace and crochet tights, thick wool tights in rainbow colors—not to mention the ubiquitous leggings and knee-highs or thigh-highs. No longer is the leg seen through the silky nylon stocking, but the dressed, decorated, ornamented leg has taken center stage to bewitch its onlookers. Thus the old censorious question, How much leg does it show?, like the technical question, How high is the slit of the skirt?, has been shelved. The puritanical or, actually, prurient question, whether “you” can “see up” the skirt, formerly connected to the pinup iconography of grown women riding swings, skirt-clad adults awkwardly shifting to cross their legs, secretaries bending to pick up the boss’s papers, the “snug” skirt bottom, the hem that “slips too high” or “reveals too much,” the ambiguous speculation about whether a skirt might suddenly blow up in a gust, “revealing everything,” even as it covers the helpless wearer’s blushing face—all these archaisms are equally done for.

Marilyn Monroe, standing on top of a subway vent during a New York summer, hot air blowing up her skirt from underneath, was the erotic icon of the last century. Visible thighs signaled the fulfillment of one’s wildest dreams. From Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel all the way to Mad Men and its mock-turtle Sixties, garter straps have been the shorthand formula for “making love.” The play between hiddenness and exposure, which keeps the focus on the shielded female sex, has become peculiarly irrelevant for the new female legs that have defined street style over the past ten years. Up until now, every attempt to replace this silhouette with another—with flared pants, longer skirts that swirled around the legs, swinging A-line skirts—failed miserably. Yet the fact that the “classic skirt” has been advertised in nostalgic settings and pastel colors, for example by Prada, illustrates how outdated the once inevitable form has finally become. It can and will only return now in the soft focus of retro, a quotation from the past.

The new legs of women, in fact, turn out to be the long-ago legs of men. Before the fashion innovations of the so-called sans-culottes, before men hid their handsome legs beneath long pants, they proudly showed them off. These finely turned, prerevolutionary men’s legs in tight stockings have become women’s new legs, which move just as freely, decisively, and extensively as those of the freemen of the Renaissance. Another characteristic that recalls those men and their legs is the open approach of the eye to the visible outline of the sex, or, rather, the abandonment of the classic zone of female shame. With the new female legs, the old opposition between showing (male) and hiding (female) is replaced with an indifference toward the sex, which suspends shame.

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