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She's Got Legs: A History of Hemlines and Fashion

She's Got Legs: A History of Hemlines and Fashion

She’s Got Legs: A History of Hemlines and Fashion (Schiffer Publishing, 2016), co-authored by Jane Merrill and Keren Ben-Horin, examines fashion history with legs at center stage. The book’s thirteen chapters explore different themes of “legcentric” fashions such as undergarments, pants, swimwear, dance wear, sports clothes, and stockings.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Dressing to Dance,” which places the visionary and revolutionary dancer Isadora Duncan at a pivotal moment when the female body became “modern.” From that focal point, the authors travel back and forth in time to study the relationship between the dancing body and fashion. Looking back to as early as the seventeenth century, and forward to the 1920s, the book illustrates how clothes worn to dance, on and off the stage, propelled social and cultural changes. 

This excerpt has been condensed from the original text.

Throughout history, dance performers have pushed the boundaries of acceptable dress. At a time when it was considered inappropriate for a woman to expose an ankle or calf, on stage doing so was, conversely, required. For the sake of improving technical skills and freeing the body to move, ankles, calves, and knees started to emerge, until eventually the entire leg was visible.

Dancers have paved the way for fashionable women to explore new ways to display their bodies generally and their legs in particular. One of the most famous modern dancers was Isadora Duncan. In 1900, she took Paris by storm, questioning and breaking all boundaries of propriety and good taste.[1] Although she was born and raised in the United States, her breakthrough occurred on European ground, where her radical performances enchanted high society, artists, and taste-makers. She was known as the “bare foot dancer” although she claimed to be “shocked dreadfully” to hear herself so described.[2] Footwork aside, her great innovation as a dancer was to eliminate the corset, which in turn unified the upper body and legs to create smooth, sensuous, and extended movement.

Duncan was not a classic beauty, but when she danced her whole being was transformed. She seemed to cast a spell on her audience and her admirers were legion. Duncan’s performance was a far cry from the popular vaudeville stage productions.[3] It was certainly different from ballet of the time, when ballerinas still glided between five basic movements.[4] Critics often lacked the vocabulary to describe what they experienced watching Isadora Duncan dance.[5] However, the English novelist Sewell Stokes managed to capture her essence:

One forgot, watching her move very slowly, that she was there at all. She drove out of the mind, with one slight movement of her foot, or of her hand, the impression one had had a short time before of a large red-haired woman drinking lager beer. Her largeness, with everything else about her, disappeared. In its place was a spiritual vitality that defied the body it animated.[6]

When Isadora Duncan was born in 1878, the most fashionable type of dance was not performed on stage, but rather in the private ballrooms of America’s high society. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, wealthy industrialists spent lavishly on hosting dance and fancy dress balls. At these extravagant events, men and women were costumed in their finery, often in fancy-dress, portraying figures such as Marie Antoinette or Cleopatra, depending on the theme of the ball.[7] Historical as they were, costumes were often chosen by how easily they could be adapted to the fashion of the day.[8] How well they displayed the wearer’s wealth and social rank was another no less important consideration. Cleopatra might wear a tight corseted bodice and a full skirt reaching all the way to the floor or Marie Antoinette have a bustle under her shepherdess dress.[9] Although by the 1880s skirts were no longer supported by the enormous cage crinolines of mid-century, clothes were still tailored around confining undergarments that shaped and formed the body.

Dance balls were not only an opportunity for prosperous industrialists to establish themselves as a kind of American royalty, but also an arena for the practice and enforcement of moral codes. A chaperone accompanied each young lady and the two were separated only when the young socialite was invited to come up to the dance floor.[10] Even in the name of comfort, showing the legs would have been very indecorous; to manage a long train discreetly, women sometimes used a skirt lifter on a ring.[11]

One forgot, watching her move very slowly, that she was there at all.
— Sewell Stokes

Duncan fiercely objected to the idea that fashion, rather than evolution should change the form of the body, and so she liberated herself from the confinements of undergarments and tailored clothing.[12] Compared to the elaborate dresses worn by most fashionable and financially capable women at the turn of the twentieth century, Duncan’s costumes, on and off the stage, were radical. She rejected tailored clothes and undergarments by appearing in filmy white tunics—anchored with elastic at the shoulders and the waist—that sometimes reached all the way to the floor, and sometimes only to the knees. Reminiscing about a scandal she caused when she arrived in Germany to perform, Duncan remarked, transparent tunic, showing every part of my dancing body, had created some stir amidst the pink-covered legs of the ballet, and at the last moment even poor Frau Cosima lost her courage. She sent one of her daughters to my loge with a long white chemise which she begged me to wear under the flimsy scarf which served me for a costume. But I was adamant. I would dress and dance exactly my way, or not at all.[13]

However, because Duncan’s tunics resembled those of the figures on ancient Greek and Roman vases, her cultured audience did not consider her costume vulgar, but rather artistic.[14] For Duncan, the Hellenic garb was a way to distinguish herself from the “leg business” of the ballet dancers she despised. In reality, her idea of “cultured” dress was not that new. Indeed, the draped costumes of the ancient Greek and Romans were considered the most dignified, as far back at the ballets of Louis XIV.[15] If not for suggesting cultivation, for the freedom of movement they afforded.

Duncan was one of the mothers of “natural dancing” or “aesthetic dancing.” By the 1910s, many dance schools had integrated this popular style into the repertoire.[16] Dancers all over the world danced outdoors with only flimsy tunics on their body and their feet bare. A characteristic posture of aesthetic dance was to have one leg slightly raised up on the toe and the other smoothly bent forward, with the torso arched back, the arms tossed up in the air, and the head slightly thrust backwards. This posture, which became so associated with Duncan, was born from the Greek imagery she studied carefully in her frequent visits to the Louvre.[17]

Loïe Fuller, Duncan’s contemporary, also took a new approach to the dancing body, at the time when most dancers wore corsets and tights. To emphasize the natural, flowing movement of her dance, Fuller wore a costume made of yards of delicate silk and rods to extend her sleeves, which flew around her like wings.[18] She also used lighting to accentuate the transparency of her costume.

It is probably not a coincidence that Duncan’s and Fuller’s rise to prominence among the upper echelons of society as well as among artists transpired while couturiers like Paul Poiret, Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon), and Madeleine Vionnet advanced and experimented with uncorseted silhouettes. Poiret specifically revolutionized fashion by drawing inspiration from draped shapes like the Greek chiton, the Japanese kimono, and the North African and Middle Eastern caftan.[19] His loose-fitting shapes that hung down from the shoulders gave the body a modern look. It was not only the shape but also the overall attitude that ushered in the twentieth century. Poiret wrote, “I like a plain gown, cut from a light and supple fabric, which falls from the shoulders to the feet in long, straight folds, like thick liquid, just touching the outline of the figure and throwing shadow and light over the moving form.”[20] Duncan and Poiret formed a personal friendship; she even agreed to discard her white tunic in favor of his luxurious couture creations:

And now, for the first time, I visited a fashionable dressmaker, and fell to the fatal lure of stuffs, colours, form...even hats, I, who had always worn a little white tunic, woolen in winter, linen in summer, succumbed to the enticement of ordinary beautiful gowns, and wearing them. Only I had one excuse. The dressmaker was no ordinary one, but a genius- Paul Poiret, who could dress a woman in such a way as also to create a work of art.[21]

Duncan also wore the designs of the Spanish-born designer and artist Mariano Fortuny. His pleated silk gowns took direct inspiration from ancient Greek costume, the famous Delphos gown for example, was meant to drape about the body like the chiton of marble statues. The Delphos was designed as a tea gown, a luxurious garment for the home.[22] Duncan, however, was among Fortuny’s progressive costumers who actually wore the dress without undergarments. It is not surprising that other dancers too, like Duncan’s contemporary, Ruth St. Denis, were among the first to buy Fortuny’s designs.[23] Using the full width of the fabric, Fortuny created pleated silk dresses that hugged the body, yet afforded freedom of movement unlike any other fashionable style at the time. While Poiret was called the king of fashion,[24] Fortuny remained outside of fashion. He continued to experiment with loose fitting shapes throughout his long career of forty four years, never really obeying the force of changing fashions.[25] transparent tunic, showing every part of my dancing body, had created some stir amidst the pink-covered legs of the ballet,
— Isadora Duncan

By the first decade of the twentieth century, social and cultural changes brought some loosening of past conventions. Sports, for example, became an acceptable pastime that allowed women to experience the wearing of pants for bicycling and horse riding.[26] On the fashion scene, the lingerie dress, daintily detailed with lace, ribbons and embroidery, modeled after the eighteenth century chemise gown dominated the decade. The chic woman wore it in summer months for afternoon garden parties, promenading, and the seaside. Although the name suggests an underwear kind of dress, it was always worn with a slip, corset, chemise or combination underwear, and stockings. It was a far cry from Duncan’s simple linen tunic.[27]

The lingerie dresses underscore just how radical Duncan’s performance was. By 1900, some women in America and England had already experimented with dress reform, asserting that corseting and tight fitting clothes were not healthful.[28] However, these ideas had no notable penetration into mainstream fashion.[29] Despite sports becoming more acceptable for women, the height of fashion was a corset that forced the body to curve unnaturally, like the letter S. Duncan’s appearance without undergarments or corset, and bare-legged was a shocking departure from fashion.

To find out more about the fascinating history of dance fashions, the editors of FSJ invite you to check out She’s Got Legs: A History of Hemlines and Fashion. Thank you to the authors for letting us share snippets of your book!




[1] Ann Daly, Done Into Dance: Isadora Duncan in America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press), 59.

[2] Isadora Duncan, My Life (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), 64.

[3] Barbara S. Glass, African American Dance: An Illustrated History (Jefferson, North Carolina, London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007), 202.

[4] Wallace et. al, “The Iconography of Dance,” in Dance: A Very Social History, 122.

[5] Daly, Done Into Dance, 62.

[6] Quoted in Daly, Done Into Dance, 37.

[7] Anthea Jarvis, "Fancy Dress," The Berg Fashion Library, 2005, accessed December 16, 2013,

[8] Carol McD. Wallace et. al, “The Fabric of Dance: Whalebone and Swirling Silk,” in Dance: A Very Social History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rizzoli, 1987), 103-4.

[9] Carol McD. Wallace et. al, “Dreams of Flight,” in Dance: A Very Social History, 34.

[10] Wallace et. al, “Dreams of Flight,” 26.

[11] Wallace et. al, “The Fabric of Dance: Whalebone and Swirling Silk,” 90.

[12] Ibid, 30.

[13] Duncan, My Life, 115.

[14] Daly, Done Into Dance, 109.

[15] Claude François Pére Menestrier, 1681, quoted in Cyril W. Beaumont, Five Centuries of Ballets Designs (The Studio, ltd., 1939), 12.

[16] Daly, Done Into Dance, 109.

[17] Duncan, My Life, 53.

[18] Graham F. Barlow, et al., "Theatre," Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 27, 2014,

[19] Dora Pérez-Tibi and Kristen E. Stewart, "Poiret, Paul," Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 14, 2013,

[20] “Fashion: Poiret on the Philosophy of Dress,” Vogue, October 15, 1913, 41.

[21] Duncan, My Life, 170.

[22] Enrique Arias Anglés, et al., "Fortuny," Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, Oxford University Press, accessed August 15, 2014,

[23] Guillermo de Osma, Fortuny: The Life and Work of Mariano Fortuny (Michigan: The University of Michigan; New York: Rizzoli, 1994), 132.

[24] Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton, Poiret (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007).

[25] Guillermo de Osma, Fortuny: The Life and Work of Mariano Fortuny.

[26] See: Patricia Campbell Warner, When the Girls Came Out To Play: The Birth of American Sportswear (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006); Valerie Steele, Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era Through the Jazz Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[27] Keren Ben-Horin, “The Reign of the Lingerie Dress, 1900-1910” (presented at Kingston University, London, United Kingdom, 2012).

[28] Patricia Cunningham, “Annie Jenness Miller and Mabel Janness: Promoters of Physical Culture and Correct Dress,” Dress 16 (1990).

[29] Judy Grossbard and Robert S. Merkel, “’Modern’ Wheels Liberated “The Ladies” 100 Years Ago,” Dress 16 (1990). See also: Valerie Steele, Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era Through the Jazz Age (Oxford University Press, 1985).