A skirt is an outerwear garment having the general shape of a cylinder, open at both ends and tapered (thus, like a tube or truncated cone). It is fastened about the waist of the wearer and hangs down covering and encircling both legs simultaneously. Within this description, the skirt can be made of a wide variety of fabrics, and can assume as wide a variety of silhouettes and lengths.
The word skirt is of Scandinavian origin, coming from skyrta, which originally meant shirt, and was in use in English by about 1300. The shift in meaning from shirt to skirt may have been related to the fact that the peasant shirts in use at that time were long garments with an extension which hung down below the waist and over the legs; it was this lower portion which came to be referred to by the word skirt.
In any case, for many centuries, the common meaning of the word referred to the lower portion of any coat, dress, or such like garment, whether worn by men or by women. The general restriction of the term to the garment of today is a relatively recent development, though the former usage still persists, gradually becoming more and more archaic, especially as regards men's garments.
Virtually all known societies, both present and past, have been characterized by distinctive gender based clothing styles. For the most part, these styles are a matter of social convention. In Western society at present, the skirt is considered female attire, worn almost exclusively by women and girls.
That this is a matter of social convention is seen in the fact that, at times in the past, or in other cultures, items of wearing apparel which are distinctly skirtlike have been considered appropriate styles for men. The most well-known present-day example is the kilt, the national costume of Scotland, and which is derived from the standard male attire of the Scottish Highlands of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Types of skirts
There are several possible ways of classifying skirts. They could be classified, for example, by color, fabric type, or length. However interesting or important such things may be from the perspective of fashion or taste, these features are, apart from that, not very significant. More meaningful is a classification according to social function. In this latter category are certain types of uniforms, formal wear, or business outfits. But based on considerations of the garment itself, the most important distinguishing feature is related to how the garment is constructed or tailored.
Most skirts are tailored garments designed to fit on the waist with a fuller amount of fabric around the hips reflecting the fact that, in most cases, the female human being is fuller at the hips than at the waist by several inches. Thus, there usually must be a tapering from hips to waist in the finished garment. There are several ways in which this tapering can be accomplished and the garment can be classified according to how this tapering is accomplished. In addition to their functional purpose of shaping the fabric to the body, such techniques are also used to affect the way the garment looks or moves. The principal methods are through the use of pleats, darts, gores, and gathering.
Pleating, which is incorporated into the design of the skirt as part of its "look", is the most visually striking method of adding fullness to a garment. Pleats are lengthwise folds (usually waist to hem) held by stitching the top or side. The pleats on a skirt are usually slightly flared.
There are several different kinds of pleats, including knife pleats, box pleats, accordian pleats, or sunburst pleats, each depending on the precise way they are made.
A dart is a pointed or tapered tuck in the garment which is made by folding the fabric against itself and then stitching the two outer edges together.
Gores are triangular shaped or tapering pieces of material used to create a gradually narrowing of the skirt from hem to waist. Normally, several such pieces would be stitched together to make the complete garment.
Gathers are formed by drawing up the fabric, bit by bit, around the waist and stitching them down so as to gradually narrow the garment to the waist.
Other terms describing types of skirts
There are some other terms which can be used to describe, or classify, skirts. These terms do not refer to the design or construction in the fitting of the garment, but rather to overall silhouette or some other feature.
Skirts can be described as A-line (or flared) if the garment is fuller at the hem than at the hipline. Otherwise, they are referred to as straight, meaning that the garment is either cut straight or tapers inwards slightly from hipline to hem.
A wrap-around skirt is one which is made from a single length of fabric open on a line from waist to hem. It is wrapped around the waist (hence the name) and secured by means of zippers, buttons, or buckles and straps. The wrap-around skirt could be pleated (as a kilt or kilt-skirt) or it could be straight or flared and the tapering from hipline to waist could be accomplished in a variety of ways as well.
- Webster's 1913 Dictionary advances as their main definition of a skirt "the lower and loose part of a coat, dress, or other like garment; the part below the waist; as, the skirt of a coat, a dress, or a mantle".
- There is a branch of geometry called topology which considers the basic forms of objects, reducing them to their simplest geometric figures. Considered from this point of view, the skirt and the kilt are topologically indistinguishable, both being forms of the cylinder. The only distinguishing characteristics of the two types of garments are either artificial (as, for example, the patterns of the kilt are approved by the Scottish Council of Clan Chiefs), or social, as the kilt is intended for wear by men, though that latter must itself be qualified today in view of the wide participation of girls in Highland dance competitions.