The Legs Are Last to Go

You’ve got legs, and you know how to use them. Elizabeth Renzetti walks the walk of their social and cultural significance.

One afternoon a few months ago, I stood in a change room in Toronto, contorted like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, sweating like a Russian shot putter and more foul-tempered than a supermodel in a cake shop. It had seemed like such a simple task at the beginning of the day: find a dress for a gala dinner that would not cause me or the people at my table to run screaming into the night.

You’d think that would be a relatively simple task, wouldn’t you? Apparently not. Every dress I tried on seemed designed for some sylph with less body fat than a flamingo. Bits of my flesh kept trying to escape through zippers and armholes as I frantically stuffed them back in. It was like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice until finally I pulled on a simple, short, black lace Diane von Fürstenberg dress.

That was it. The dress showed off a lot of leg, and the legs still looked good. Perhaps not as sublime as they did when I was 25 but impressive nonetheless. Unlike the other parts of my body that have surrendered before the merciless enemy called time, my legs stood fast (literally). I have always liked my legs – I was married in a bright red mini-dress – but suddenly, standing in the change room, I heard an insidious inner voice whispering, “Hey, mutton! Are you trying to pass as lamb? Those days are gone, honey.”

After all, aren’t we supposed to abandon mini-dresses after the age of 35, as a poll of British women revealed a few years ago? A Wall Street Journal advice columnist was more kind: after 45, she wrote, a hemline should fall like an anvil.

Standing in that change room, admiring my legs, I felt a swelling sense of injustice. Those numbers were arbitrary, the product of another time and place, like the number of thicknesses of newspaper my mother was told by the nuns to place on a boy’s lap if she must perch there (seven, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation).

My mother, whose gams are legendary in our family, certainly never paid any attention to those rules. I saw her walk into a party at the age of 83 wearing a piece of clothing so short that I whispered to my sister, “Is that a dress or a shirt?” “I have no idea,” my sister whispered back. “And I’m not going to ask.” Whatever the outfit was, my mother rocked it.

Legs of all body parts never let us down. They are functional as well as beautiful and remain so with only the most minimal of care: if you run, cycle, walk or even just chase after toddlers for a year or two, your legs will stay shapely and firm long after the rest of you has hitchhiked south.

As I looked at myself in that dressing room mirror, I remembered a friend’s story about her Aunt Helen, who right up until her death at 96, would take annual stock of her body in front of a similar mirror. Shedding all her clothes, she’d sigh over the bits that were no longer in the right place until she came to her admirable pins, and then she’d smile and say out loud: “The legs are the last things to go.”

Another friend, who is my age – that is, somewhere between 35 and death – remains proudly enamoured of her legs and refuses to succumb to the tyranny of the knee-length skirt: “Sometimes when I look in the mirror,” she says, “my legs are the only thing I do like.”

She’s not going to the office in a crop top and stilettos: she might wear a little black dress, dark tights and boots, the 40-something’s office uniform of choice.

What a piece of work is a leg (I think this is what Shakespeare originally meant to write).

A miracle of engineering, a machine that can get you into trouble and out of it just as easily. “I don’t mind you showing me your legs,” said Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s hard-on-the-outside detective, in The Big Sleep. “They’re very swell legs, and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance.”

Why would any woman hide such treasures, no matter what her age? If you begin to feel that they aren’t quite as glorious as they once were, there are beautiful stockings and shoes to show them to their best advantage – and even makeup (did you know there was leg makeup? I didn’t. I’m wondering what other secrets the universe is withholding.).

The female leg holds a particularly powerful place in the popular imagination: think of Ally McBeal, sent to jail on a contempt of court charge by a judge who thought her skirts were too short. Or Claudette Colbert, bringing traffic to a screeching halt with one shapely leg in 1934’s It Happened One Night. Cyd Charisse, the dancer whose endless legs provide an erotic backdrop for Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain and Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon, used to say she wanted a particular phrase on her gravestone: “People sometimes had trouble placing her face, but they never forgot her pins.”

There is a reason that Mike Nichols framed the most famous shot in The Graduate the way he did. As Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft slowly twirls on a bar stool, her skirt sliding up her magnificent legs, as Dustin Hoffman stares at her and stutters, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you?” Bancroft was 36, playing a decade older, a wily woman using the most powerful weapon in her artillery: the legs are the last things to go.

A woman’s leg is a singular piece of anatomy, both functional and erotic, powerful on many levels. Women’s legs have always been frightening to those who fear our bodies and what we might do with them when we no longer needed to obey arbitrary rules.

“The legs speak loudly because they are powerful secondary sexual signifiers,” writes Colin McDowell in his book The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do. “… The legs are also physically close to the sexual organs and the bottom, and therefore are capable of leading the imagination into lewdness. For that reason, legs – bared female legs, at least – have been subject to religious injunction to keep them covered.”

It’s not just frowny-faced religion that wants to keep women’s sexuality undercover. The world of fashion, which is at heart quite conservative, is also horrified by the idea of an older woman as a sexual being. Hence, the ridiculous edicts about when you should stop wearing short skirts.

So there: if you needed another reason to keep showing off your legs until you pop your clogs, imagine that it’s your duty to female emancipation.

Consider the flappers who risked moral opprobrium with their short skirts and the tennis players who outraged by flaunting their knees and the mini-skirted masses who turned heads on the King’s Road in the mid-1960s. They were all saying, in essence, “These are my legs, not yours, and I’ll cover them up or show them off as I please.”

Reader, I bought it. The dress, I mean. I put it on just before we went to the fancy dinner, and my husband said, “Hello, legs!”

Which is, let’s face it, the kind of response you want. That dress is never going back in the closet, and neither are my pins.