In The Fold: Smashing Car Windows In Long Pleated Skirts
Kaitlin Phillips On Beyoncé, Sacai, Grunge, The Olsens, Barnard, Issey Miyake, and Orphans
The writer Elizabeth Hardwick—a Southerner in Manhattan—thought that the key to exploiting the greatness of winter was a plaid skirt with two dozen pleats. Diana Vreeland, likewise, imagined her readers wearing long, thickly pleated skirts, the cool of the cloisters lapping at chapped ankles. For the biddable sisters in The Virgin Suicides, Catholic uniforms brought up seasonal memories too. “We knew the pain of winter wind rushing up your skirt.” (Bonnie fingers a rosary in the pocket of her corduroy skirt.) A smart pleated skirt that starts below the belly button but might as well drag on the floor, is a far cry from the obstinately hemmed skirts of Catholic schoolgirls.`
When stylists dress Zadie Smith in long pleats it’s an acknowledgment that they are not working with a clean slate—and want a shorthand to accentuate her easy confidence. (She always looks “correct,” no overt stylishness can be superimposed on her.) When The Row sent out dresses at the Noguchi Museum with the soft bulk of irregularly looped cartridge pleating announcing the hips, it was a nod to “Fall proportions.” The Olsens get more mileage out of October than Ralph Lauren.
By Halloween, we get the first hints of winter light (bruised yellows, dim blues) and winds that call for heavier fabrics, folds, and a more indifferent wardrobe palette. Turtlenecks and bootlicking skirts and pants in charcoal, sand, heather, earl grey, midnight blue. A long pleated skirt can take on a dry workwear edge, perhaps it’s their connotation with librarians or archeologists. Women with master’s degrees who climb ladders. Nerds, I think, want their pleats to function like a bell bottom (a strong look with a clear case history), but prefer the “art department” feel of Proenza and Marni, not the hippy vibes of Chloé. I can’t think of anything nerdier than wearing a bustle; Yamamoto, for Y3, likes to let pleats pool in the back of his skirts, drawing heavier fabrics up to the knee in the front. Sacai too, likes to do little outcroppings of pleats that break out like pimples around the décolletage or near an invisible mole on the hip. Chitose Abe specializes in colors I associate with my grandmother’s century farm in South Dakota: hunter green, pumpkin orange.
Layers of pleated fabric, no matter how light, make sense on lupine nights in the off-season. Think of the Gloaming as a palette that ranges all the way to Egyptian violet. Think Kei Ninomiya’s “shadowy pleated tulle.” In 2000, Lagerfeld sent pleated tulle down the runway, the fabric fraying at the ends, set to unravel at midnight. Was the spirit of tulle and pleats—so often misunderstood as uptight—ever so thoroughly understood by their maker! (It was the year Zoe Saldana played the natural in Center Stage (2000), the ballerina who refused to quit smoking, or to start trying.)
“The Olsens get more mileage out of October than Ralph Lauren.”
A decade later, the more overtly subversive Balenciaga tangled its pleats with thorns. These are the kind of outfits that inspire American fashion critics to throw around words like dégagé and dishabille.
I often think how a long pleated skirt inspires photographers to ask models to pose like storks, leg tucked up. No photographer, of course, did more for pleats than Irving Penn, who considered his photographs of Issey Miyake an artistic collaboration with the designer famous, to me, for convincing women to wear dresses while traveling. It’s a sentiment that suits Penn’s archive. The women in his photos look like they’ve been around the block.
I’ve read that Miuccia Prada likes the swish that long pleated skirts make, which helps to explain why designers often pair this swish with a stomp, the girlish connotations of pleats undercut by a bondage boot. Sneakers have replaced the hard androgyny of Dr. Martens, which help explain the popularity of long pleated skirts in streetwear today. (The ancestor I’m thinking of: joshi daisei —“college girl” fashion—that broke out of Tokyo in the late 80s.) I like the idea of Slouchy girls in Salomon’s on crosstown buses. May I suggest pairing with a pixie cut, like Elizabeth Peyton’s—and a reading list she once supplied the New Yorker. Vincent Cronin’s biography of Napoleon and Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette.
Pleats, like polkadots, are too often wrongly reserved for cosplay, the very young or on dotty old women you find in the next pew on Sunday’s. Perhaps it’s because they’re hard to pin down, being so versatile a style. You can pleat anything as supple as leather or no frills as wool. I like to think it’s because pleats, said to conceal sin, seem to signal it. (I’m thinking of high school dropouts, like Kate Moss, smoking cigarettes in a kilt she safety pinned herself.) An adult woman wearing a long pleat has at her disposal the option to “explode” an otherwise conservative silhouette—and re-contextualize her garment as unpredictable as she herself might be. This is too often misinterpreted as an energy sexual in nature. But, if you think about it, Marilyn standing over a subway grate in a pleated white dress, pretending to be surprised, is in every way a woman too good at her job.
In her video, Ever is Over All, the artist Pipilotti Rist dons a sky blue crepe dress with soft pleats that show off her Dorothy red shoes as she skips down the block, smashing car windows. The soundtrack: the kind of humming you reserve for walking through a field of tall grass, knocking pollen off their stems. It’s an intelligent energy. Beyoncé borrowed the idea, but took the pleated costume further: in the video for Hold Up, she wears a luscious dress of tattered fabric that cascades in seemingly endless tiers, timed to flare with her temper. These stylistic choices seem sincere to me—not cheeky. Why not co-opt the symbolism of the pleat—a fabric that hides ideas, a demure avenue to expose flesh as your mood allows—when you want to smash your boyfriend’s car. It’s a more logical kind of Radical chic for feminists.
If pleats are full of secrets, which I hope yours are, it helps explain their popularity with orphans. Eliza Doolittle, prior to becoming bourgeois, wears a dirty long pleated skirt with combat-style boots. Recall the famous image of Isadora Duncan’s three (of six) adopted daughters posing in Fortuny’s patented silhouettes, pleated with all the assuredness of a Grecian statuary. They’re tangibly barefoot; and there’s some question to whether Duncan ever properly filled out their adoption paperwork. Or Eloise! Rampaging the Plaza Hotel with her pleated skirt held up by suspenders. The Puritan aesthetic of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, with her long sleeved dresses and doily-like frilled collars, has roots here too—orphans aspiring blindly to purity and primness, respectively, too young to understand the effect wear and tear can have on one’s clothes. (Or that, so often, a personality is an orphan’s only worthwhile inheritance.) There’s safety in pleats, which make great cocoon-like sack dresses.
An anecdote for you. When I first visited Barnard, in the winter of my junior year, I walked out of the subway, and my father insisted we follow a girl with long dark hair, scowling and carrying her books in her arms, no bag. In elementary school they’d have singled her out for being a poor mixer. (“Napoleon spent his leisure moments,” wrote one biographer, “Striding through the school, arms folded, head lowered.”) Her pleated tartan skirt dusted the ground. We hung back to confirm that she wasn’t going into the gate to Columbia…
When it came time—in fact it was the night before dozens of due dates, late in the fall—I walked to the mailbox, and only sent one letter, an early decision application to Barnard. I was wearing too short pleats a lot then, a fashion at my boarding school, where we were indignant that the feminists before us had dissolved the uniform. Perhaps if we’d been wise enough to lobby for long pleats, we might have gotten our way with the schoolboard.
Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan.
- Text: Kaitlin Phillips