Tricky Hem Lengths: The Midi and Ballerina

In case you missed it, 70’s styles are back in fashion which means hems are longer for fall. Which can be good or bad, depending on how tall you are. If you’re a fan of the longer lengths, listen up: these can be tricky to pull off.

Let’s start with the good news: more coverage.

When temperatures dip, you want to stay warm. Longer lengths in cozy fabrics allow you to do that. Plus, if you prefer more modest clothes, skirts to your calf instead of your thigh keeps you from feeling exposed.

Valentino Fall 2015 Gucci Fall 2015 Marc Jacobs Fall 2015 Carolina Herrera Fall 2015
Valentino Gucci Marc Jacobs Carolina Herrera

Fall 2015 Runway Shows
Photos courtesy of Vogue.com

Now the bad news: getting the length right is crucial. So is the footwear. Because if you mess it up, it throws off the proportion and the aesthetic, leaving others pondering the proportional imbalance instead of marveling at your fashion savvy.

So let’s break it down:

Proportion and Hem Length

The 8 Head We’ve talked about proportion before and the ancient Greek ideal of the 8 head body. Everything boiled down to math for them, including how to dress. So they visually divided the body into eight head-size lengths:

1 Head to neck
2 Neck to bust
3 Bust to waist
4 Waist to hips
5 Hips to mid-thigh
6 Mid-thigh to knee
7 Knee to mid-shin
8 Mid-shin to bottom of foot

…to allow people to find clothes that suited them and create visual balance based on their particular proportions.

Is everyone 8 heads tall? No. Would your head length fit at these exact points on your body? Not necessarily. That’s why it was considered the “ideal.”

But if you use these points as a proportional frame of reference when dressing, it will help you identify where things should be hitting on your body. So when you look in the mirror, if a length isn’t hitting at the right spot, you know you either need to have it tailored, or go find another piece that hits where it’s supposed to.

So with these body points in mind, here are where dress and skirt hem lengths should hit:

Hemline Lengths

Micro – high thigh
Mini – mid-thigh
Above knee – 1 to 2” above the knee
Knee length – at the knee
Below knee – 1 to 2” below the knee
Midi (or tea length) – mid-shin
Ballerina – between mid-shin and ankle
Maxi – ankle
Floor Length – floor length to an inch above

The most universally flattering hem length for women is knee length because it allows for the classic one-third/two-third proportion, which offers 1/3rd bare leg to 2/3rds coverage from neck to foot. It visually breaks the body in thirds and shows the most flattering part of the leg. Knee lengths are appropriate for most daytime and some evening functions.

Ombre knee-high dress Casual Dress Cocktail Dress
Day Dress Casual Dress Cocktail Dress

Longer or shorter hem lengths change the proportion. Micro and mini lengths visually cut the body in half, while midi and ballerina lengths create a 3/4 (or 6/7ths) proportion from neck to foot. It’s a lot of material and can be tough to pull off, particularly if you’re petite.

Mini dress Midi Dress
Mini Dress Midi Dress

Which is why I don’t recommend this length if you’re shorter than 5’4” (1.63 meters). It’s just too much fabric for your height. The above the knee length is the most flattering for petites because it makes the legs look longer and the wearer look taller. But if you’re petite and want to wear a longer hem, stop at the below the knee height. It will echo the midi length without overwhelming you.

Above the knee Below the knee
Above the Knee  Below the Knee

For those of you over 5’4”, make sure the hem hits at the correct spot on your leg: either mid-shin for midi lengths, or between mid-shin and ankle for ballerina styles. Precision is required for the correct proportion here; just some random length between your knee and ankle won’t do. Remember Greek heads and body points when you’re looking in the mirror, and buy or tailor the hem to the correct length.

Midi Length Rochas Ballerina Length
Midi Length Ballerina Length

The Best Shoes for Midi Length

Now I said earlier that the longer hem lengths of the 1970s were back in fashion, but that’s not the first time midi and ballerina lengths have been popular. A look back at the last 100 years shows they go in and out of style roughly every 20 years.

The Delineator, October 1916The Delineator
October, 1916

——————————————————————————

Chic Parisien 1930sChic Parisien
c. 1935

——————————————————————————

Lutterloh Sewing Patterns, 1955Lutterloh Sewing Patterns
1955

——————————————————————————

Vogue Paris Patterns, 1978Vogue Paris Patterns
1978

——————————————————————————

Vogue Patterns, 1986Vogue Patterns
1986

——————————————————————————

McCall's Patterns 1995McCall’s Patterns
1995

So why the walk down memory lane?

Look at the shoes that have traditionally been worn with this length: flats, kitten heels, or boots.

But with statement shoes being “all the rage” this decade, stylists are trying to pair them with the midi length. It doesn’t work, in my opinion, because it throws off the proportion: 6/7ths clothes with 1/7th “look at me” shoes is just too much drama for one outfit. It pulls attention straight to the feet and keeps is there.

Gucci, Fall 2015 Dsquared Fall 2015 Valentino Pre-Fall 2015
Gucci Dsquared2 Valentino

Fall, 2015
Photos courtesy of Vogue.com

Forget about your face and what you’re saying; people will be too busy mentally pondering the imbalance of your ensemble to pay attention. Remember: the mind seeks balance and symmetry. If it doesn’t get it, it immediately goes to work trying to figure out what’s wrong.

You don’t want that. So give others balance and symmetry by going old school with the shoes at this length: plain and simple. Flats, pumps, and boots in a color equal to or darker than your hem, or flesh-toned shoes that visually lengthen the leg and foot. Save the statement shoes for mini and knee-length hems instead.

Valentino, Fall 2015 Carolina Herrera, Fall 2015 Michael Kors Fall 2015 Ralph Lauren Fall 2015 Marchesa Fall 2015
Valentino Carolina Herrera  Michael Kors Ralph Lauren Marchesa

Fall, 2015
Photos courtesy of Vogue.com

So what’s the bottom line?

Remember that fashion is a visual art which means basic art principles apply. Use proportion, balance, and symmetry when assembling outfits. Think like an ancient Greek and do the math to make sure your ensembles add up – especially with tricky proportions like the midi and ballerina hem lengths.

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Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Signature Style Blueprint. Need some help streamlining your wardrobe and creating a signature style that turns heads and opens doors?  Signature Style Blueprint can help.

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12 Comments

  • Renée Suzanne

    Reply Reply October 11, 2015

    I love your posts Diana! I never knew about the rules of proportion until I started following you. I realized some things looked “off” but never really knew why. I’m not a fan of 70’s fashion and I’m also a curvy petite, so I’ll stick with the classics this fall.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply October 11, 2015

      Hi Renee, glad you enjoyed the article! Yes, once you understand proportion, the math of fashion makes sense. As for following trends, that’s the beauty of it all: you get to pick which ones to follow.

  • Della DeYoung

    Reply Reply October 11, 2015

    Wonderful article. I’m 5’6′, 200 straight up and down pounds, with skinny legs and flat feet. And I don’t always want to wear pants. Shoes have always been the challenge because I just can’t compete.

    Thank you for something I can (hopefully) figure out. This article gave us a lot of information with specific detail as to how to make the magic happen.

    This article and article you published last year about colour are the best! I also have several of your books.

    Again, thank you.

    Della DeYoung

    • Diana

      Reply Reply October 11, 2015

      Hi Della, you’re welcome! Glad you enjoyed it! I will be writing more about shoes in an upcoming article, so hopefully, that will help even more. Stay tuned… 😉

  • Sameara

    Reply Reply October 11, 2015

    I have a question about wee little women. I’m 5’2″ and from your article I can only wear short or knee length. I don’t find that attractive in the coulotte or split skirt style I see so much. I have also noticed for spring it’s all Capri pants. I see very few fun styles that are longer or attractive ones that are shorter. Is there any crop length a little woman can wear? What about heels or wedges with them? I’m ready to throw my hands up. I do love the article and thank you for keeping us Au courant. I follow the fashions shows, but there are so many I often miss some trends.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply October 12, 2015

      Hi Sameara, at 5’2″, I would suggest styles that hit 1-2 inches below the knee. Again, midi lengths can be overwhelming on petites so stick with the knee length range, even for Capri pants. Heels and wedges are fine to wear with them.

  • iamloved

    Reply Reply October 13, 2015

    How useful is this guide – particularly the illustrations and photos as reference points! One (of the many!) things Iove about your posts Diana is that they can often be kept as information to look at later.

    I’m someone who does have a natural instinct for what looks most flattering on me, but your tips help me to the next level – much appreciated.

    Congratulations on your 500th post – I’m looking forward to many more!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply October 13, 2015

      You’re welcome, IAmLoved! Thanks for your kind note. I’m glad you’re enjoying all the info! Please, refer to it as often as necessary. P.S. The illustrations are by my daughter, Peyton. I’ll be putting her talents to more use in the future… 🙂

  • Chelsia Berry

    Reply Reply December 7, 2015

    First time visitor to your blog. I’m a designer looking for customers that are real women. I design clothes for women in the workplace, aged 30-50+. I love designs that are easy to wear – one main piece and leggings for a lot of what I design and multi size looks that work for a variety of body types. I’m on etsy, but my customer is not. I really like how you’re reaching out to real women. I’ll be visiting again. Some of us designers do want to work with real body types. 🙂

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 9, 2015

      Hi Chelsia – glad to hear it! 🙂

  • Jean Marie

    Reply Reply January 20, 2016

    Diana,
    Thank you for all your helpful wardrobe information. You certainly have helped me see how important it is to dress one’s individual best and glorify your Creator.
    I currently am writing my doctoral dissertation on women’s clothing and health. Your thoughts on emotional health and clothing have been insightful.
    Please tell your daughter Peyton how very much I appreciated her lovely drawings!! 🙂
    Jean Marie

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 20, 2016

      Hi Jean Marie – I’m so glad you’re enjoying all the material! Thanks for your note! I’ll be sure to let Peyton know you what you said about her drawings. 🙂

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