The Transgressive Power of the Schoolgirl Skirt
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Warner Bros., HBO, Columbia Pictures)

The usually plaid, usually pleated schoolgirl skirt has bled into women’s fashion for the better part of a century, serving as a template for playful, sly gestures for the wearer. On women, it might be seen as an ironic or even earnest nod to youth, while for actual school-aged girls, its formulaic nature provides a canvas for individual styling—hemming, cutting, adding pins, bending over, tucking in, pairing with socks, bows, crosses, chains, wool thigh-highs or combat boots, forgoing tights in the dead of winter, and fraying the edges of what’s been mandated.

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Since the schoolgirl skirt has become a symbol of the fetishization of youthful sexuality, it’s easy to imagine that those who wear it are pandering to the male gaze, catching the eyes of older men who are drawn to the allure of young women. But the schoolgirl skirt, and thus the schoolgirl as a figure, is transgressive. Wearing a schoolgirl skirt is a nod to the brilliance of the teen girl—or at least an idea of her. The schoolgirl is the proto-anarchist, the adolescent perfectly positioned to see through the utter arbitrariness of institutionally sanctioned authority. To put on the skirt is to adhere to this affect: it’s an implicit fuck-you to anyone who thinks they know better simply because they are in charge, a sartorial reminder that rules should be questioned and friendships matter most.

Decades of fashion icons, celebrities, and television characters have embodied this teen girl spirit, visually educating their adoring fans on its myriad possibilities. In 1956, a 21-year-old Brigitte Bardot starred in the French musical film Naughty Girl, playing a beautiful and mischievous finishing school student whose nightclub-owning father instructs a handsome singer to chaperone her home and keep her out of trouble, which, of course, doesn’t work. She carried on the naughty schoolgirl style a decade later, arriving at Heathrow airport in September 1966, wearing a pleated tartan skirt and tight cropped sweater, the picture of demure erotica.

That same year, the British model Twiggy shot to fame at the tender age of 16; her cropped hair and short stature were revelatory for the fashion industry, forever changing its standards. In an undated photo from this period, she wore a plaid mini with a dead-eyed expression and what appears to be a stuffed animal under her arm: the baby girl was born. In 1978, Punk queen Debbie Harry went full school uniform, tie and all, for a black-and-white photoshoot; Kate Moss walked rebel designer Vivienne Westwood’s 1993 Anglomania runway in a mini-kilt, pleats as sharp as her cheekbones; Cher Horowitz picked out a matching yellow plaid blazer and pleated mini from her computerized closet in the opening scenes of Clueless in 1995, before meeting up with best friend Dionne, dressed in a black-and-white version of the same set, the two plotting ways to game the administration. Two months later, Empire Records gave us Liv Tyler’s Corey—a girl determined to get what she wants—peeling off a fuzzy blue angora sweater, revealing a bright red bra to go with her Burberry-patterned schoolgirl skirt, in an effort to seduce an aging rockstar (“I’m not a baby now,” she says, all bruise-red pout). The 1996 poster for cult-favorite film The Craft showed four teen witches in full Catholic school uniform, lightning striking ominously behind them. In the movie, they harness dark magic to punish racist girls, predatory boys, and, unfortunately, one another.

Perhaps the schoolgirl skirt reached peak camp seduction in 1998, when Britney Spears crowned herself the bored student of the collective American (wet) Dream, rolling her eyes and waiting for class to let out in the “...Baby One More Time” music video, fuzzy pink hair clips in braided pigtails, shirt tied up and skirt sitting low, framing a smooth, tanned expanse of bare midriff. But by 2007, Britney’s barely legal performance was usurped by a more prim and proper queen bee: Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf, who paired her short skirts with neat headbands, manipulating loyal minions into doing her bidding. And in 2014, American Apparel’s back-to-school ad campaign was banned in the United Kingdom, deemed “irresponsible and likely to cause serious and widespread offence” for featuring the triangle of hair, heavy with suggestion, just below the model’s white underwear and just above her pressed together thighs as she bends over a car in a pleated mini—the power! Cut to 2017: rapper Tommy Genesis wore the equivalent of a bright red, pleated cafe curtain over her long legs, one perfectly cocked, grabbing her chest in a tour poster on Instagram. It became the fetish rapper’s signature style: On “100 Bad” she sings, “In the whip real low in the schoolgirl fit / We talkin’ schemin’, Bonnie and Clyde / Hundred bad bitches, one ride-or-die.” She’s Bonnie and Clyde, a gender-troubling provocateur in uniform.

Meanwhile, search “schoolgirl” on Pornhub and 10,000 results appear. Racking up millions of views, the clips mostly feature, with some variation, young-looking women with slender, petite bodies, pigtailed hair, and sometimes, braces, in comically exaggerated, teeny-tiny uniforms, getting rammed by all manner of phalluses. Yandy, the affordable online lingerie emporium that wants “to empower women to accept their sensuality in its physical, mental, emotional, and healthful facets” offers 39 schoolgirl-related items, including a disciplinary action couple’s costume: hers and hers schoolgirl and principal. Porn and porn-adjacent fashion’s embrace of the schoolgirl skirt are matched only by haute couture; almost every year, Fall runways feature a version of the classic. In 2019, Versace chose a purple and yellow plaid, not pleated but held together with a single button, and paired with black socks and heels; Emporio Armani showed an orange silk ballooned number, ruched at the top, nontraditional but plaid nonetheless; while Anna Sui’s was chunky tweed, brown and pink, matched with brightly-colored opaque tights.

I began buying schoolgirl skirts sometime in ninth grade. I found my first at a suburban tag sale with my mom, who insisted on its purchase because it was so well-made—true vintage, real wool. It hung in my closet for years, unworn, until I finally began wearing it like a costume. But I found myself returning to the costume over and over, and picking out new variations: the black plaid mini with the heart-shaped zipper; the khaki-colored and buckled barely-there skirt I don’t dare bend over in; the warm and woolly orange, purple, and green wrap-around plaid that I like to wear with sheer tights.

This new look pulled together everything I loved about fashion: seductive but nodding to childish dress-up, equal parts innocent and mischievous. Because its most common use is mandated, everyday wearing, it’s an outfit that points to a relationship with authority. And because the skirt signifies accordance with rules—as school, its true home, is the first place most of us learn what it is to be forced to conform by an institution—it allows the wearer to get away, more easily, with breaking them. Behind the uniform I can camouflage into different varieties of schoolgirl: studious and disciplined; irresponsible and in need of a chaperone; tramping around town on a mission; refusing to get out of bed for the pre-ordained start of my day. And on days when I would otherwise have an outfit crisis, a schoolgirl skirt will save me. It’s always right, in its perfect shape, its ironic symbolism, its daring everyone I might run into to misjudge me.

Wearing a schoolgirl skirt is a power move, as it’s the costume of a group society simultaneously extracts cultural production from but refuses to take seriously: the young girl. The youthful beauty of girls is weaponized against them by a culture that wants to simultaneously commodify their sex appeal and shame them for possessing it, but why should that preclude their enjoyment of it? To be young and hot is itself the fleeting reward for the grief girls suffer precisely because they are young and hot: getting catcalled, told to look and act modestly, constantly condescended to, blamed if their boundaries are crossed while wearing a short skirt. Regardless of the fact that their autonomy is frequently denied by figures society takes more seriously—men, cops, teachers, parents—it’s schoolgirls who outsmart authority, who know how to have all the fun.

Clueless is my favorite of all of the ‘90s high school movies, and in it, people often take Cher’s outward vanity as an invitation to assume she is stupid, mean, or looking for sex. A fellow popular kid gives her a ride home from a party and tries to force himself on her; when she refuses, he kicks her out of his car. Cher’s erudite step-brother and his collegiate girlfriend come to pick her up, carrying on a pretentious conversation about Shakespeare throughout the drive home. When the girlfriend claims Hamlet said, “To thine own self be true,” Cher corrects her, attributing the quote to Pelonius. The miserable girlfriend scoffs, “I think I remember Hamlet accurately,” to which Cher answers, “Well, I remember Mel Gibson accurately, and he didn’t say that.” She is my true schoolgirl icon, distilling the essence of the skirt’s earnestness, flippancy, and trickery into her personality. She plays matchmaker to teachers so that, lovestruck and happy, they’ll stop assigning homework; she improves self-esteem with makeovers; in debate class, she argues for open borders by comparing rigid immigration laws to a strict RSVP rule at a garden party. In short, she knows what she’s capable of, even if no one else does.

The newest canonical addition to schoolgirl representation in media, following in Cher’s blonde footsteps, is Euphoria’s Jules: her skirt is baby pink, billowing around her as she rides her bike. When Nate, the resident villain, drives by and suggests she “ride on this dick” instead, she flips him off and loses her balance, falling over, her rosy outfit a shock against the green of the grass she lands on. Later in that same episode, Nate harasses and humiliates Jules at a party; enraged by his ex-girlfriend and frighteningly wasted, he towers over her in the kitchen, promising imminent violence with his aggressive physicality. At first, Jules tries to defuse the situation, but when Nate threatens to fuck her up, she grabs a knife. She screams, “You wanna fucking hurt me? Back the fuck up, what the fuck is your problem . . . I’m fucking invincible!” and slashes her own forearm, proving her dominance with the cut. She’s wearing not quite a schoolgirl skirt, but something like a schoolgirl jumper, short and purple with buckles.

The scene I identify with most, though—schoolgirl to schoolgirl—comes later. Jules slept with Nate’s father before she even knew who Nate was. When they realize the connection—that Jules is his son’s classmate—Nate’s father confronts her. Usually smug and mean, he’s deflated, terrified. He begs her not to ruin his family, not to out him as a predator of underage trans girls, while she just looks confused. Angelic, and confused. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do,” he says, and she answers, honestly (and like it’s completely obvious), “I have no intention of, like, hurting you or anything.” Jules effortlessly holds the power, and she does so because the men around her—Nate’s dad when he fucks her, Nate when he fucks with her—perceive her as powerless at first, realizing too late how wrong their impressions were. It’s a magic trick: appear like a vain teen girl, and everyone will underestimate you.

My gender, my identity, my relationship to the world—it’s all wrapped up in the schoolgirl: anti-authority, sexy, silly, classically feminine, a joke. Setting up expectations of a lack of seriousness or sophistication only to subvert them. The schoolgirl makes a fool out of everyone around her (the voyeur, the lecher, the principal) except for those she earnestly regards as teachers (her friends). So I’ll continue to wear my pleated skirts, with rhinestone barrettes in my hair, baby tees, and plush cardigans like the icons who came before, and after, me. As I creep into my later twenties I wonder when, or if, I’ll age out—or if the skirt is ageless, and that is, in fact, its charm.

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