Life on the hemline, or why I'm glad short skirts are back

SHORT skirts are back and I for one am glad. In my salad days, I wore them in ever-shortened versions (to the rising dismay of my mother). After I got back from a trip to Europe while in college, I chopped off my hair and adopted a more refined look. My knees have been hidden ever since. Oddly enough, it's the innocence of wearing short skirts that appeals to me; I feel as if a sculptor has carved away the marble, freeing up a French schoolgirl.

I'm sure others will feel that they've been put in bondage; you can't take as long strides in these short ones, and anyone with a scrap of modesty will agree that adjustments have to be made in how one sits and picks up things. But long skirts are no picnic, either; you have to lift them up every time you climb stairs. Real great when you're carrying a briefcase.

But the true reason I'm glad short skirts are back is that I can start sewing again. For the past few years, when styles were long and wool expensive, it was a whole lot easier and cheaper just to buy them. Especially the ankle-length kind with all those tiny pleats.

In junior high and high school, short on cash, I sewed everything from smocked aprons for my mother to pants to nightgowns, and whipped up A-line and straight skirts all the time. Skirts took a yard of material, a zipper, a couple of seams, and an hour of time.

Now that I'll be adding such grown-up touches as a kick pleat in the back, lining, and a hand-sewn zipper - things not so important for a 15-year-old southern Californian - it'll now probably take me three hours. But what a wonderful thing to be able to buy a wad of material and a few hours later walk out wearing it.

I've missed sewing. Missed the hours spent mentally polishing the dream until I could see the item, the color and weight of the material, and what I would look like in it. The 20-minute walk to Maxim's, a basement fabric store, with hundreds of bolts of material stacked this way and that on dusty shelves. Pawing through demure cotton prints, fuzzy pink bathrobe material, slinky satins, and coarse burlap until I saw the fabric that matched the vision in my head.

Then came the scary moment of telling the clerk how much I wanted and hoping I had calculated correctly. Unlike shopping in a store, where you can bring back something you've bought, once the salesperson has cut the material you are stuck with it. Committed.

Once I'd gotten back home, I'd wash and iron the material, fold it in half, and line up the selvages (finished edges of the fabric). One of the big thrills was first opening up a new pattern and laying out the thin, crinkly beige sheets on the material.

I always tried to outsmart the pattern folks by finding more economical ways of fitting the pattern on (I used to be convinced the pattern people and the fabric people had a deal going to get us to buy as much material as possible; the waste from all that unused material would clothe a third-world country!).

Next came cutting the material. That, too, was a point of no return. If you put the front piece, which is supposed to go on the fold, on the selvage, forget it! No skirt. So I always spent a long time chewing my lip, checking and rechecking, before taking that first cut.

Once through those potentially devastating decisions, the sewing itself was almost a breeze. Darts. Back center seam. Zipper. Side seams. Waistband: sewn on the outside of the skirt, flipped over, and hand-stitched down. It was always a cozy time for my mother and me. I'd stand on a chair while she would measure the hem with a yardstick (``Middle of the knee, dear?'' ``No! One inch above!''). Slipstitch the hem. Press. Voil`a! une skirt!

NOT all my efforts were successes. There were enough droopy, misshapen duds that one year I banished the machine to the closet and started only buying my clothes. But I didn't realize how much I'd missed sewing until I started thinking recently about the skirts I could make.

It's too bad that sewing is not mandatory in school anymore. It teaches you some great things. Practical things, like making decisions and living with them. Doing it right the first time: When I got too cocky and roared off without reading the directions, that was when I spent a lot of time ripping out seams and starting over. Creative things; imagining and then creating a piece of clothing that expresses exactly how you feel about yourself.

It's been hard searching through the stores and never finding my vision of what is lovely, fun, or practical. I almost never find it, so I always end up making do with someone else's vision. There's an uncomfortable feeling of being forced to fit into an industry's ever-changing (and not usually very positive) concept of womanhood. There were usually two camps, neither of which I fall into: Snooty Upscale or Garish Teen. Nothing really appropriate for a reporter who hates suits and feels, alternately, like Laura Ashley, Annie Oakley, and Audrey Hepburn. All I want is interesting fabrics with life to them, and clothes with clean lines that I can wear everywhere and for a long time without looking boring. And I'd like to get it without spending hours searching for a store that will share my concept of clothing, and will have it in my size and at a price I can afford. Is that too much to ask?

Perhaps it is. But I can get all that from sewing. The ability to sew I put along the same lines as the ability to read. Once you've got it, you never have to be beholden to anybody. You can always have something to wear. What freedom! The time it worked best was when I dreamed up the idea of making a bright yellow linen dress that was sleeveless, Empire-style, with a white collar and a black ribbon tie. I was able to find a pattern and just the right materials and the dress came out fine. It had an extraordinary impact on the ninth-grade boys. I could see in their eyes that the wallflower was, all of a sudden, somebody to be reckoned with. Heady stuff for a 14-year-old. And all from a needle and thread.

`Black Jumper'

Milton Avery was derided in the '30s for being too abstract, and after World War II for being too realistic. Yet well-known younger artists like Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb were influenced by him.

He is known for his use of color; in this work, the orange-brown of the hair, the purple blouse, red table, yellow chair, and pink floor, form a glowing frame around the black hat and jumper.

Hemlines rise and fall from one generation to the next; this schoolgirl was painted in 1944, but with her straight hair and leggy look, she could almost be Twiggy.

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