Midi strikes a happy medium

We know how skirt lengths can define us: Ultra-minis say hot mama, floor-grazing maxis signify a more modest dresser. Knee-length skirts are powerful.

But this fall, the pencil “midi” – a narrowly cut skirt that stops anywhere from just below the knee to the midcalf – is back and is sending mixed messages.

On one hand, it can convey frumpy schoolmarm. You know: the spinster, the librarian. On the other hand, its coquettishness is soft and just a bit revealing. Sexy in a sophisticated way.

“It screams WOMAN in capital letters,” said Leehe Fai Goldfarb, owner of Leehe Fai boutique in Center City Philadelphia. “It's the ultimate way to be a woman because there is such an emphasis on curves and hips.”

This fall, labels including Lanvin, 12th Street by Cynthia Vincent, and Rebecca Taylor give the length a modern twist by pairing the skirts with shiny ruffled blouses and tights.

The skirts have kissed the calves of a handful of runway models wearing spring 2009 collections, which have included Ralph Lauren and Narciso Rodriguez in New York and Paul Smith in London.

“It's very sophisticated, stylish and now,” said Sean General, women's buyer for Boyds Philadelphia, who attended the Rodriguez, Zac Posen and Behnaz Sarafpour presentations.

For many, the ambivalent length is a reminder of a look that just didn't fly in the 1970s. Back then, the midi was introduced as the grown-up answer to the mini: more fabric, same look. However, because of its length and hip-hugging nature, it provided style challenges. A smooth fit was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Curvy women threw it to the wayside, and it became the unofficial uniform of the shapeless and boring woman.

Today, women's lifestyles and attitudes might pave the way for a second try. Some may be a solid size 12, and thanks to their gym membership have tight abs. Others are shorter but aren't afraid of three-inch heels to elongate their look. Tall women don't feel the need to downplay their presence anymore. Suddenly the odd length can fit into more wardrobes, not just the lean.

This season, the midi is the key piece in a fashion story that started in early spring and introduced more dressed-up and classier looks. The length represents a certain self-confidence. And the skirt, especially if part of a suit, says its owner is OK with her femininity.

Michelle Obama wears it well. She's been criticized for being hippy, but isn't that just denigrating a woman's shape?

“It's perfect for someone like her,” General said. He recommends the midi with a slit in the back, a kick pleat or a ruffled hem. “I think it shows she's confident in herself.”

Keep in mind that there are ways to downplay the fashion pitfalls, said Gregg Andrews, a women's buyer at Nordstrom. Andrews cautions women to choose a shirt that blouses, rather than a tight pullover. And, Andrews said, go for dark colors like black, gray or chocolate brown. Khaki and caramels are good, too, but should be worn only by smaller-framed women and paired with darker tights. “If you are not tall, you are in danger of looking cut in half,” he said.