Fashion: Stopping the Escalation

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Caught in a jet-set liftoff, skirts have been rising from a ladylike "just shadows the knee" to the mid-thigh of the London mini. Followers of the high-rise trend have found themselves caught in a profusion of embarrassment just in the simple act of sitting down. "Thighs?" sighed one London designer. "Every girl I know is dieting to get into short skirts." Where was the frantic escalation to be stopped? As the grands couturiers last week paraded next fall's fashion, they provided the answer: in Paris.

The sensation was Dior's Marc Bohan. AGENT PROVOCATEUR, headlined Women's Wear Daily, which had a full day's scoop on the Dior collection. Stalking down Dior's ramps, models swaggered in mid-calf-length capes and military greatcoats that could have stepped right out of Doctor Zhivago. True, underneath, Bohan had his models in guillotine-hemmed up-and-down dresses or knee-length double-breasted suits, but the challenge to the high-rise hem was obvious. "Something had to be done about the length," said Bohan. "They couldn't get any shorter—and besides it's fun."

Everyone began scrambling to see who had lowered the hemline first. American Designer Victor Joris last year or Jacques Tiffeau last spring, claimed some. Alberto Fabiani in Rome the week before, recalled others. Even Patou's designer, Michel Goma, who brought waistlines up nearly under the arms, let the length vary from two inches above the knee to midcalf. The miniskirt? "Dégoütant," snapped Coco Chanel. "Now I know why men don't like women any more." And so Chanel stayed Chanel, with neatly fitted suits just covering the kneecap. Pierre Cardin dropped an inch, but was still airborne, two or three inches above the knee; Castillo showed dresses that fell just above the knee.

Might the big result be a "New Look" similar to the one Christian Dior inaugurated back in 1947, when dresses plunged to midcalf? There was resistance. "The uneven hemline—sexy and stunning—will influence fashion, and so will the long coats—but not yet," said the Ohrbach buyer. "His timing is off." Said Bonwit's buyer, gazing at the long coats: "We're not ready for that sort of thing." For the British, the hemline dropped like a bomb. "It would be fatal!" cried one British designer. "I've just made my spring collection—all short. Shops have just ordered their autumn stock—all short." Protested a Bond Street fashion buyer: "The leggy feeling is still strong, and nobody is going to accept a drastic change."

Ah, yes. But change—more than enough to cast doubt on the life expectancy of last year's lengths—was plain and fancy to see.