by Plum Sykes, Vogue
I've never been afraid to admit that I have the legs of a long-term-unemployed supermodel. Being blessed with a 34-inch inseam is something I am endlessly grateful to my ancestors for. In my dating days, my elongated pins were essential weapons that distracted potential boyfriends from another family inheritance-my wonky teeth.
In my 20s I believed there was nothing more of a man-magnet than a dress with a split. I have a photograph of myself about age 29 at a party in the Hamptons, wearing an acid-yellow chiffon Ungaro dress. The hem reaches mid-thigh on one side and is slashed almost to the hip on the other, showing more leg than a can-can dancer. I'm happily waving a martini and a cigarette (both habits long since abandoned). I look like a character from an early episode of Sex and the City, and to my great misfortune attracted boyfriends to match. I died for Versace cocktail dresses because they generally featured a strategically placed slit. I considered a pencil skirt with a back split practical Manhattan officewear. Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana made the best ones. Even now I have a collection of black satin split skirts in my closet. But here's the tragedy: I haven't worn them for years. Since my beloved daughters, Ursula and Tess, entered my life, in an effort to combine child-friendliness with chic (not always successful), I've clad my legs in skinny pants by designers like Vince or Earnest Sewn. By night I favor well-cut dresses with a slim silhouette and full coverage. My legs have seen about as much daylight as Victorian pit ponies.
But they may be due for a resurrection. Whether it's Angelina Jolie promenading her heavenly legs on the red carpet, or the Courtin-Clarins girls dressing in body-conscious Mugler slashed to their waists at the Met Costume Institute Gala, it's suddenly fashionable to show a glimpse of leg.
Peter Dundas at Pucci based his fall collection on photographs of Catherine Deneuve in the 1960s. Divinely chic cocktail dresses stalked his runway, with splits up the front or side of the skirts and long, skinny sleeves. Frocks with slashes at the hip or neck, backed in chiffon, were suggestive of skin but never exposed too much. "Each season a different part of the body seems to become a focal point for me," said Dundas. "This time it was very much the legs. Splits work best when everything else is covered." (Note to aspiring wearers: Dundas styled these dresses with genius pseudo-frumpy shoes, exactly like the Ferragamo ones that my grandmother used to wear to church: mid-heeled, round-toed pumps with a large buckle on the toe. There is no danger of looking cheap in a sexy dress if you've got your granny's shoes to finish the look.) Meanwhile, Joseph Altuzarra brought the Helmut Newton woman to life on his fall runway: clean-lined, knee-length, immaculately tailored black cocktail dresses with daring side splits. They gave his models goddess bodies and a powerful attitude. At Balmain, the girls wore Gothic-inspired floor-length velvet skirts slashed to the hip. Paired with purposely sloppy boots and skintight leather tops, they exuded an insouciant rock-'n'-roll look.
I am starting to feel that I could reveal the teensy bit of flesh required. But I am also embarrassed that a part of me wonders whether it's necessary for a 42-year-old wife, mother, and career woman to be looking quite that seductive. It might cause a stir-the kind I adored at 29 but may find mortifying now.
"Ten or 20 years ago, a woman in her 40s or 50s was not expected to be sexy. It was almost inappropriate. But it's not like that now," Altuzarra reassured me. "Some women feel uncomfortable about their arms or cleavage as they age. But if you had great legs at 20, they're gonna be great at 40." This was certainly true of the late Nan Kempner. It was always a treat to see her at a party in one of her signature floor-length Bill Blass skirts, split almost to the waist to reveal her legendary legs. Her age only added to her incredible glamour. Diane von Furstenberg considers her long, slim legs part of her wardrobe. "I have always been agile with my legs and have shown them," she told me.
I've come to a few conclusions here. Good 42-year-old legs are still good legs. But 42-year-old skin is still 42-year-old skin. I can't quite bear anyone to see it. I tell Altuzarra I am dying for one of his dresses, but maybe the split is just too high. He offers a tip: "Very sheer black stockings are the Helmut Newton way to wear the split," he says. "It hints at skin, but it's demure." Von Furstenberg adds, "The best trick is flesh-colored fishnets. They give the illusion of bare legs, but they hold in what has become a little looser, such as kneecaps."
I'm suddenly inspired. I set off for Fogal on Sloane Street, home of gossamer stockings and the illusion of 20-something skin. The split is It. I'm going to nail it and feel like 29 again.