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What is a Pencil Skirt?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 21, 2024
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A pencil skirt is a woman's skirt with a straight and narrow cut. It often hugs the curves of a woman's body, making it figure revealing. Typically, the skirt ends just at or slightly below the knee.

A popular style in the 1950s, the pencil skirt was frequently seen in women's office wear. Earlier versions have existed since 1915, and could have been floor or ankle length, but the 1950s brought the style great popularity. Since the skirt is somewhat restrictive, it may feature a back slit or kick pleat, to give women a little more room to walk.

The pencil skirt remains a popular style, though each year's fashions may assert its preeminence or declare it "out." It is often sold as part of a woman's suit and may be paired with jackets of any length. Length of the actual skirt can vary from year to year, but generally, any length that is much above the knee is not considered this style, but is instead a mini-skirt.

Often, women think that the pencil skirt is only for the very slim, but this is not the case. Women with curves may feel that the skirt will showcase them in an unflattering way; this can certainly occur when the skirt is too tight, but a good fitting one may emphasize the feminine curves without pointing out what women feel are their figure flaws. Women with a little extra weight or curve may turn toward loose clothing to hide supposed figure defects, but this often makes the body look bulkier. A fitted skirt is usually more flattering than a bulkier or looser fitting one.

When the skirt falls below the knees, it can be somewhat hard to walk in it. Carol Burnett made a lot of fun of the too tight pencil skirt with her recurring character Mrs. Wiggins, an inept secretary. Mrs. Wiggins normally stuck out her posterior in an unflattering fashion and took tiny mincing steps in keeping with wearing a skirt that was far too tight.

Since the pencil skirt can inhibit movement, women may want to look for those with either a kick pleat or a back slit. Occasionally, it even features two side slits, which promote easier walking and greater comfort when seated. When the skirt doesn't have these features, not only walking but also sitting can be uncomfortable, especially if the skirt is too tight.

Prior to the 1950s, a pencil skirt type might have been called a hobble skirt. Any type of skirt that rendered walking difficult and running impossible was said to hobble a woman. Many women are well used to this type of skirt, however, and know how to walk in one. It remains a flattering style that comes in a wide variety of fabrics, like wool, cotton, cotton jersey, rayon, linen and cashmere. They are often warmer than other skirts since the pencil shape holds the legs closely together, which can make them a good choice for winter wear.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon277115 — On Jun 28, 2012

I do not have the figure of a model but I love wearing a black tight pencil skirt. My secret is I wear long legged high waisted boned and zippered panty girdle under my pencil skirt. I never wore a girdle until about three years ago, when I went in for a fitting by a professional corsetier. I was amazed at what wearing a girdle daily did to my figure and I love the fact that I can wear a fairly slim skirt.

Now I wear a girdle every day and I love it - so will you.

By fiftiesfan — On Jan 03, 2011

Its very important that a straight skirt fits correctly or it will look and feel awful, and if it doesn't feel comfortable you won't like it.

Women often make the common mistake of wearing them too tight or too short. The skirt should fit snugly on the waist, but it should be loose on the hips. When you are stood with your legs together the skirt should be hanging from the waistband and not gripping your hips.

If the skirt is tight on the hips, several things are likely to happen. The skirt is liable to rotate when you walk, or the lining will ride up and bunch up underneath the skirt. Remember a straight skirt will ride up when you sit in it and if it's too tight on your hips and thighs, it will stay ridden up when you stand up.

A skirt that fits correctly falls back down again under its own weight. You won't want to keep having to pull your skirt down every time you get up.

Make sure the skirt is the correct length for you and that you are not wearing it too short just because everyone else in the office is wearing them that length. I like to wear my skirts almost calf-length in the winter.

Most ready-to-wear skirts come with an open back vent which goes halfway up the back of the skirt, but this is totally unnecessary, especially if the skirt is knee-length. I convert all the back vents in my RTW skirts into a knife pleat, and if the skirt has plenty of ease I just close up the back seam altogether. It makes the skirt much warmer in the winter. If you wear a straight skirt often you soon get used to wearing them without a back vent.

If you wear a straight skirt with high heels it will be easier to walk in than if you wear it with flats. This is because high heels encourage you to walk from your hips and not your knees. It's difficult to walk from your knees if you have a tight skirt around them.

Finally, if you are new to pencil skirts, take your time to get used to wearing them; they are a bit of a shock if you've been wearing trousers all the time.

By galen84basc — On Sep 20, 2010

You will definitely understand what they mean by hobble skirt if you get a ladies pencil skirt without a pleat.

Those things can be killer, especially if you wear them with heels. They look fantastic, but you better hope you don't need to get anywhere fast -- your stride will definitely be shortened when wearing one of these things.

By closerfan12 — On Sep 20, 2010

I'm glad that you mentioned how a pencil skirt can look good on women of all shapes and sizes. I think we often only see the ultra-slim super-sleek pencil skirts advertised, so it looks like unless you have a model figure, you're out of luck as far as pencil skirts go.

However, there are a lot of very flattering plus size womens pencil skirts out there. The two things to remember when buying a plus size pencil skirt are easy: color and size. Although not all lighter colored pencil skirts are unflattering for plus size women, a white pencil skirt may not be your best choice. Of course, if you find one that fits and looks good, then you should of course go for it, just don't walk into the store expecting to find a great one right off.

Secondly, the material of the skirt is key. Slinky satin pencil skirts are probably not going to look as good on larger women as cotton pencil skirts -- it's just a matter of material. That doesn't mean that you automatically have to reach for the maxi-stretch spandex pencil skirts if you're not a model -- just bear in mind that a tight material may not be as flattering for your body shape as a natural one.

Best of luck in your skirt hunting!

By TunaLine — On Sep 20, 2010

I have to say that a black pencil skirt can be the LBD of the office world. This little beauty can match with literally almost anything, whether it's a long stretch pencil skirt or a short stiff one. When matched appropriately, a pencil skirt makes a subtle statement of professionalism and elegance without standing out.

I would make one caveat: I recently saw a black denim pencil skirt. I honestly cannot think of an appropriate situation for anyone to wear this, and especially not in the office. Pencil skirts are supposed to be elegant and flattering, and denim is rarely both of those things.

So ladies, get a pencil skirt for work -- but not a denim one.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia...
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