Spring 1998 Fashion: All You Can Pleat

There are a lot of things i don’t understand about fashion (like why, for example, Stella McCartney’s slip dresses are considered attractive, and what, exactly, a grown woman is supposed to do with a crinoline), but I think I understand the return of the pleated skirt, which is all about being pretty and feminine in an obvious way.

This spring, women are thrilled with the notion that they can look like girls again, delighted to see clothes they recognize in colors that are “easy” and sort of edible: pinks and lavenders and such. Which may explain the fever that has attended one particular example of the pleated skirt, a flirty number designed by Marc Jacobs in pale silk poplin.

You must have seen it. In the windows of Bergdorf’s. On Kate Moss in Harper’s Bazaar. In the pages of New York or on Shalom Harlow in The New York Times Magazine (which slyly called the skirt “the item most likely to launch a thousand shipments”). Mr. Jacobs’s pleats rank No. 5 in In Style magazine’s Hot 100 (“flirty and purty” was the ecstatic description). Through custom orders, the skirt, about $640, has already sold out at the Marc Jacobs boutique in SoHo. (Madonna snagged one; so did Nicole Kidman.)

But – oh, Lord – this skirt does not look too nice on me. I am trying to be a sport and do the thing properly, by which I mean I am following Jacobs’s menu of suggestions. He offers a silky see-through fuchsia-pink tank that is poked through with tiny holes like a football jersey (sounds awful, but it looks lovely) and shiny gray slingback Barbie shoes with heel angles so acute that if they were any more so, they would cease to be heel and become sole. I’m trying to look pretty, trying to inhale some whiff of the chic I know haunts this skirt but is, maddeningly, eluding me.

“It’s the length,” says my friend Lynn. “The below-the-knee thing is impossible. I think in a weird way, pleats need to be short. Everything in life is proportion, and long pleats make a shape that the average bear just cannot wear.” Lynn is nonetheless drawn to the whole Jacobs ethos, calling the package “gentle and sweet.”

I think this is because pleated skirts resonate the way hats do. They are nostalgic in a nonspecific way, like some Nat King Cole songs can be, and they engender the same rush of emotion that a particularly hatlike hat does.

“I adore pleated skirts,” enthuses Carrie Donovan, former fashion editor of The New York Times Magazine, now muse-spokeswoman for Old Navy. “They’re flirty in the most proper kind of way, but the length now – I don’t know. I was there in the fifties for that length, and I just think it’s very aging. They only work to the knee, and then you want a tight top so you get that dégagé wrinkle over the tum, don’t you think?”

My mother concurs. “Oh, I would never wear that length. It would be too draggy. Pleats are for short skirts. And a slight figure. You’re too big,” she concludes rather harshly.

My friend Karen is smart in her dress and fierce in her opinions. “The length? Maybe it’s okay,” she says. “My mother always said that pleats conceal a multitude of sins. The length? Who cares? If you have the right shoes, the trash-bucket shoes, then you are doing right by this skirt, this length. I think you have to ask yourself, what is the pleat?” She is barking at me now. “I’ll tell you, it’s a direct contradiction to all that sheer stuff last year, and all that leather, all that hugging. This isn’t about hugging. There’s modesty attached to pleats; what goes on underneath – that’s private. And that’s interesting.”

I’m still interested. Jacobs’s skirt is perfectly built. The pleats – sharp knife pleats – are stitched down to the hip, and then they descend accordion-like to the top of the calf. The signal is soft-sharp, girly and precise.

“Look,” Kate Betts, the fashion-news director for Vogue, says rather ominously. “I think the average person is not only going to look odd in that skirt; she’s going to look stupid.” Betts goes on to explain that the only way to wear this pleat in this bizarre length is with “extremely trashy” shoes – “with Manolos” – and a sexy top. “Then you get that tension,” she explains, “the dowdy, which is to say the length, and the sexy in one outfit.”

I check the mirror. I’m wearing seriously trashy shoes and a completely see-through shirt with a black bra, but somehow the trash isn’t playing so well. The heels crank my calves up, but the skirt cuts off the top bit of calf, which means that my leg has gone all triangular. Just terrible. The chest bit looks messy. Overall, I look like someone on the verge. I toss the shoes and rustle around in my closet: Platforms? (Why are these still here?) No. Flat muley things? Gack, no! Oxfords look okay. So does a button-down cashmere sweater – a dumpy, thrift-shop style, like freshman year at Sarah Lawrence. I’m starting to feel better.

Betts allows that below the knee isn’t so weird a length if you’re into vintage, but she stresses that to go the vintage route – clunky shoes and a twin set – would defuse the “fashion” element. I drag my little cashmere sweater off, breathlessly.

Why, I ask Betts, is she so fond of this particular pleated skirt?

“What can I tell you? I’m a twisted, weird girl. I like dowdy. I like clumsy couture. It’s like this: I have this obsession with the actress Romy Schneider,” she explains. “Anyway, there’s a scene in one of her movies when she’s all done up in this perfect Chanel suit and just crawling across the floor. So do you see?”

I see.

Spring 1998 Fashion: All You Can Pleat