Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

From Jil Sander’s S/S 2012 campaign, the pencil skirt is an elegant classic that flatters all would-be femmes fatales.

Named for its shape, long and slim like a pencil, the skirt emerged from World War II Europe. Cut in a straight line from the hip to the hem, the narrow fitting skirt was designed to save precious fabric rations.

Despite its frugal beginnings, nothing says hardworking glamor like the 1940s pencil skirt. Perhaps it’s because for the first time in history, women were expected to go out and work while the men were  fighting.

Dior’s version of the tight fitting skirt with a small waist that emerged during World War II rationing when fabrics became too expensive.

Throughout the decade, the skirt was widely worn by everyone from female French resistance fighters to Hollywood’s Joan Crawford. Alfred Hitchcock’s version of the film noir heroine exemplified by Grace Kelly, Kim Novak and Tippi Hendron, saw the pencil skirt’s continued popularity throughout the 1950s. In his taut psychological thrillers, Hitchcock projected his vision of an idealized woman – always tailored and blonde, and giving off some major heat beneath an icy veneer.

Marilyn Monroe reminds us why the pencil skirt’s waistline fits at the true waist and not lower – giving even lesser mortals an hourglass shape.

Which brings us back to the essential appeal of the subtly sexy pencil skirt. The body-hugging skirt that both reveals and conceals, its genius lies in its ability to suggest propriety and the possibility of passion all at once.

Keeping the flame of past pencil skirts alive, the streamlined style has been adopted by designers Victoria Beckham, L’Wren Scott and Roland Mouret, as their silhouette of choice. Modern style icons such as Carine Roitfeld, Angelina Jolie and Michelle Obama are frequently photographed looking elegant and chic in a pencil skirt, teaming their longer hemlines with bare legs and a pair of heels.

Christina Hendricks as Mad Men’s Joan Holloway has single-handedly brought back the hips, shown off to great effect in her character’s pencil skirts and fitted tops.

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Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.