Back when American women were doomed to a life of childrearing and kitchen chores, circle skirts reigned supreme. For those who wanted to add a little punch to their petticoats, there were the dubiously named “conversation skirts,” purchased with the assumption that someone – anyone — might fawn over a cute choo-choo train motif, a giant petunia appliqué, or even the (slightly disturbing) repetitive graphic of another woman’s head. It had all the gee-whiz fun of a kindergarten classroom and the fullness of a poodle skirt (without the tiresome decorative limitations of, well, poodles). Yes, what better way to compensate for the utter drollness of your static existence than a conversation skirt!
The genesis of the circle skirt itself points directly to Christian Dior, who, in the rather joyless days following WWII, added some much-needed yardage to skimpy, ration-era pencil skirts. His silhouettes, though modern, were almost archaically feminine, especially considering 350,000 women had just served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Still, the designer’s ode to the Belle Epoque was just what the doctor ordered. The collection – with its soft shoulders and wasp waists reeking of a shelved romance – was heralded as a zeitgeist-shifting success and knighted Dior’s “New Look.”
Of course, not everyone could afford couture. Stateside, the circle skirt became a DIY affair, where anyone with fabric, scissors, and the imagination of a third-grader could appliqué to their heart’s content. Voila! Conversation skirts. Sure, these never quite approached the chicness of Dior’s, but the proportions were spot on. And anyway, you can’t begrudge a woman some flair.
Two shows during Milan Fashion Week rekindled the conversation, so to speak. There was Moschino, who opened its show with an ever-buoyant Pat Cleveland sporting a skirt emblazoned with a beribboned cow. And then we had Prada, a conversation show if ever there were one.
Set to the tune of “Work Bitch” by Britney Spears, Miuccia sent her models down the runway in jewel-encrusted athletic socks, appliquéd bra silhouettes, and massive graphic prints featuring portraits of women of various bygone eras, a kind of homage to the evolution of a woman’s place in society. You’ve got your Twiggy-esque muses, your Betty Draper ‘50s housewife, your Pat Benatar ‘80s rock star. Each look expressed where we had come from and, placed within the context of this show, where we are now.
If the show was girlish it was done in an almost mockingly feminine way, one that took full ownership of chick-centric elements – the bras, the glitter, the décolletage-revealing cutaways – and balanced it with the liberal appropriation of more masculine ones – sporty ribbing, cargo pockets, bright colors worthy of any NBA jersey. Simultaneously glamorous and utilitarian, the collection sent the message that women can have it all and be it all without compromise. You are not one thing, it proclaimed, but everything.
Decades since Dior’s “New Look” and its derivative conversation skirts, the only life women are doomed to live these days is largely a self-made construct – a life in which we volunteer to not follow our dreams, push harder, and — in the wise words of one Britney Spears — work, bitch.
And that’s where the conversation is today.