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“Farewell to knees and maybe even calves if the anti-mini forces have their way,” LIFE declared in August 1970, as a new wave of more modest clothing styles paraded down runways. Department store buyers were swiftly replacing racks of mini skirts with new shipments of midi skirts, praying for the look to catch on with what the magazine called “a reluctant public.”
Now that midi skirts, suede and fringe have all risen from the ashes of 1970s fashion and cycled back into vogue, it’s easy to forget that today’s longer hemlines were once fraught with discord. As the 1960s gave way to the ’70s, the debate over skirt length was significant enough that LIFE published not one, but two cover stories detailing the antagonism between stalwarts of shorter ‘60s looks and adherents of the new mid-calf regime.
The trend was ordered by Women’s Wear Daily, which LIFE called a “sacred mouthpiece” of the New York fashion world. High-minded designers weighed in on the future of the mini as well as the midi’s chances of replacing it as the go-to style. Coco Chanel condemned miniskirts as “an exhibition of meat.” Valentino hailed the midi as “a return to elegance after so many years of bad taste.” Givenchy sought a compromise: “I have always lingered around the knee.”
But the real push behind the dubious trend came from the business side of the fashion world—department store buyers, advertising producers and Hollywood costumers who had invested too much in the midi to retreat. They promoted the long look through ubiquitous advertising and pushy saleswomen, many of whom were required to wear the look, if grudgingly, to work.
As for consumers, LIFE reported that the majority—including “all males over 12 (especially husbands)” and “the girls for whom it was really made”—found the style a dowdy, unflattering departure from the leggy looks of the 1960s. Indeed, the trend would wear out by mid-decade, as many women turned to a look that allowed them to abstain from weighing in on the hemline debate altogether: pants.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.