The Koo Stark, the pencil-skirt, and plausible deniability — To hobble or not to hobble, that is the question

Koo Stark, the skirted-suit that is a staple of modern couture. Not to be confused with Kathleen Dee-Anne Stark, better known as Koo Stark; who is an American film actress and photographer. She is known for her appearance in the film Emily and subsequent relationship with Prince Andrew, son of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, before his marriage to Sarah, Duchess of York.

A pencil skirt is a slim-fitting skirt with a straight, narrow cut. Generally, the hem falls to mid-thigh length, a legitimate mini-skirt, or just above the knee, and is tailored for a close fit. It is named for its shape: long and slim like a pencil. It’s also known as a wiggle skirt, or simply a wiggle — an alias derived from the way you’re supposed to walk when you wear one; you’re supposed to wiggle — primarily, your ass is the part of your anatomy doing the requisite shake-n-bake.

The pencil skirt is usually worn either as a separate piece of clothing or as part of a suit — usually, a Koo Stark. The slim, narrow shape of a pencil skirt can restrict the movement of the wearer, therefore the longer length pencil skirts — that are not “active” — often have a slit at the back, or less commonly at the sides. Sometimes a pleat, which exposes less skin, is used instead of a slit. The classic shoes for wearing with a pencil skirt are high heels, with bare legs or sometimes sheer stockings or tights. Back-seamed hosiery matches well, recalling the classic pencil-skirt era of the 1950s.

Pencil skirts can also be worn with flats for a more casual, youthful vibe that echoes the 1960s. Pencil skirts and loafers are classic “Prep.”

Narrow-fitting skirts have a long history in western fashion. The predecessor to the pencil skirt is the hobble skirt, a pre-WWI fad inspired by the Ballets Russes. This full-length skirt with a narrow hem seriously impeded walking.

Technically, the pencil-skirt is a hobble skirt. But, in modern couture, if the hemline of the hobble skirt falls above the knee, it’s called a pencil-skirt. If it falls below the knee, it’s called a hobble skirt or hobbler.

The French designer Christian Dior introduced the classic modern pencil skirt in the late 1940s, using the term H-line to describe its shape. It is in stark contrast to Dior’s full-skirted New Look in his “A-line.”

The pencil skirt quickly became very popular, particularly for office wear. This success was due to women’s desire for new fashions in the wake of Second World War rationing, coupled with the austere economic climate, when fabrics were expensive.

The pencil skirt — active or passive — feels different from looser skirts, and can take some adjustment by the wearer in terms of movement and posture in order to manage it successfully. Walking needs to be done in short strides; entering and leaving a car gracefully takes practice; and when sitting the legs are held close together which some find restrictive — though others like the feeling of their legs being “hugged” by the skirt. Activities such as climbing ladders and riding bicycles can be very difficult in a pencil skirt. The pencil skirt is warmer due to the reduced ventilation, and is less likely to be blown up by gusts of wind.

A vent or kick pleat in the center back seam of the skirt makes it easier to walk with a normal stride, while preserving the slim line.

The full-length hobble skirt, or hobbler, is a skirt with a narrow enough hem to significantly impede the wearer’s stride. A knee-long corset is also used to achieve this effect. A dress consisting of such skirt is called a hobble dress. The name was given in reference to the device used to restrain, or hobble, horses.

Although restrictive skirts first appeared in Western fashion in 1880s, the term was first used in reference to a short-lived trend of narrow skirts in around 1910-1913. The Parisian fashion designer Paul Poiret is sometimes credited with the design, inspired by the widespread Oriental influence on Western culture, but in fact the extreme hobble skirt is an evolution of the narrowing skirt seen in fashion since the turn of the century. Poiret may also have been influenced by observing the behavior of Mrs. Hart O. Berg upon the first aeroplane flight she took in October 1908 with Wilbur Wright, whereon she tied a rope around the bottom of her skirt to keep it from blowing up during the flight. After Wilbur and Mrs. Berg landed she walked away from the plane undaunted, being seen to “hobble” around until removal of the rope from her skirt.

To prevent tearing of the skirt when women attempted to walk in them, a fetter made of braid was sometimes worn around the skirt under the knees. There was also an elasticized band available that had two connected loops, one to be worn on each leg just below the knee, underneath the skirt; this invention also kept women from taking too large of a stride and tearing the skirt fabric. A few women adopted a style of wearing little trousers with a “harem”-influenced design of full fabric that became snug at the ankles. These trousers were visible below the hem of the skirt, but they were considered too scandalous by most people, and few women persisted in wearing the style.

The archives of The New York Times between 1910 and the beginning of the First World War contain many detailed accounts of the hobble skirt wearers of the era. It seems that some New York fashion houses may have asked their dressmakers to interpret too literally the slim styles depicted in Paris fashion illustrations. Many women and their admirers subsequently discovered the way of walking which such narrow skirts create, and the hobble skirt, impractical though it was, achieved tremendous popularity.

Although the term is sometimes used in reference to narrow ankle-length skirts in the early 1910s, some skirts of this period, although called hobble skirts, had slits, hidden pleats, and draping that lessened the restriction on a woman’s ability to move freely, because in this period women were becoming more active in various activities which would have been impossible to do in a hobbled hemline. The most restricting extant styles from this period, which truly do hobble the wearer, are either evening wear or are found in wedding dresses when a woman was only required to take small measured steps down the aisle of a church.

Long tight skirts reappeared through the century in various forms, particularly in evening gowns, as well as daytime pencil skirts popular from the 1950s onwards. A more literal interpretation of hobble skirts became a mainstay in bondage-oriented fetish fashion, often made out of leather, PVC, or latex. For example, they were a regular topic in the 1950s John Willie fetish magazine, Bizarre.

Hobble skirts are still present today in Goth and BDSM communities, but are also sometimes used as evening gowns and wedding dresses and sometimes in other occasions although rarely due to restricting properties.

As for plausible deniability. That speaks for itself. It is a term coined by the CIA during the Kennedy administration to describe the withholding of information from senior officials in order to protect them from repercussions in the event that illegal or unpopular activities by the CIA became public knowledge.

The term most often refers to the denial of blame in — formal or informal — chains of command, where senior figures assign responsibility to the lower ranks, and records of instructions given do not exist or are inaccessible, meaning independent confirmation of responsibility for the action is nearly impossible. In the case that illegal or otherwise disreputable and unpopular activities become public, high-ranking officials may deny any awareness of such act or any connection to the agents used to carry out such acts. It typically implies forethought, such as intentionally setting up the conditions to plausibly avoid responsibility for one’s future actions or knowledge.

In politics and espionage, deniability refers to the ability of a “powerful player” or intelligence agency to avoid “blowback” by secretly arranging for an action to be taken on their behalf by a third party ostensibly unconnected with the major player. In political campaigns, plausible deniability enables candidates to stay “clean” and denounce third-party advertisements that use unethical approaches or potentially libelous innuendo.

More generally, “plausible deniability” can also apply to any act that leaves little or no evidence of wrongdoing or abuse. Examples of this are the use of electric shock, waterboarding or pain-compliance holds as a means of torture or punishment, leaving few or no tangible signs that the abuse ever took place.

Plausible deniability is also a legal concept. It refers to lack of evidence proving an allegation. Standards of proof vary in civil and criminal cases. In civil cases, the standard of proof is “preponderance of the evidence” whereas in a criminal matter, the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If your opponent lacks incontrovertible proof (evidence) of their allegation, you can “plausibly deny” the allegation even though it may be true.