Too old for short skirts?

A new study raises a "mini" tempest

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 2, 2009 3:03PM (EDT)

One of the double-edged byproducts of being over 40 is that doing the exact same things you did 20 years ago is suddenly cause for astonishment and occasional applause. You’re having sex? Wow, you go, cougar lady. You won a race? You're a  miracle. Your skirts are still above the knee? STOP THE PRESSES.

A report in today’s Daily Mail reveals that the average age women give up short skirts has “soared” to 40, as women are no longer concerned about looking like “mutton dressed as lamb.” This, by the way, is from the same paper that a mere day before scolded 46-year-old Elle Macpherson for falling victim to ”saggy knee syndrome, a cruel and distressing affliction that can randomly strike any woman over 40,” pronouncing ex cathedra that “there comes a time when every woman in her 40s must accept that her days of wearing miniskirts and hotpants are over, and she must embrace a wardrobe that consists of below the-knee hemlines.”

Yet Macpherson is far from alone in her thigh-exposing ways. That news flash comes courtesy of a report by the department store Debenhams, which is a little like research from Coca-Cola stating that people like carbonation. Nevertheless, inches don’t lie -- when the store looked at the age profile of women buying short skirts, the average customer age had jumped from 36 in 2000 to 40 today. (At about 42, they note, skirts start getting longer again, as modesty overtakes potential goosebumps). In celebration of this sartorial breakthrough, the company promptly issued the chipper statement that “women now have an increasing confidence in their bodies and are happy to dress accordingly.”

So which is it – should we consign ourselves to Mom jeans or keep flaunting the goods? The Mail, for its part, decided that clearly further research was called for, and rounded up several experts to weigh in on the matter.

Editor Emma Soames unhesitatingly decreed that “long skirts are the precursor to the shroud,” while ex-model Jilly Johnson warned that a mini “smacks of desperation and low self-esteem.” Demi Moore, Cindy Crawford and Madonna, meanwhile, show no signs of sudden knee shame. And Charla Krupp got a bestseller last year by brazenly commanding women to raise their hemlines in ”How Not to Look Old."

As with all choices, it’s best to be one’s own fashion police. It isn’t about the age; it’s about the assets – and the limits to which one goes. There’s a vast expanse of leg between throw-in-the-towel midcalf and hello-sailor butt grazing -- surely there’s a place for everyone. The First Ladies of the United States of America and France continue to amaze the planet with every stylish, leg-baring step. And the patron saint of the mini, Tina Turner, who will be 70 in November, is still rocking the hemline all the way to her Nutbush City Limits.

Knees, like midriffs and cleavage, are not all created equal. But with life expectancy rates at an all-time high, it’s understandable that more women are thinking, what the hell. If we’ve got decades ahead of us anyway, maybe we’re not quite ready to lower skirts – or our own sartorial standards – quite yet.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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