I’m anxiously awaiting Capcom’s, so far, highly praised Resident Evil 4 remake, but not because I’m preoccupied by updated fight mechanics, or graphical fidelity, or any monsters, really—I’ve been thinking about skirts.
Skirts caused one of the remake’s early controversies. Ashley Graham, the blonde damsel-in-distress who accompanies blond man-of-action Leon S. Kennedy throughout most of RE4, wears a green tartan mini-skirt. In the remake, Ashley seems to be wearing a similar-looking skort with gray tights instead, thereby eliminating the original’s upskirting opportunities for good.
Sexually frustrated fans of the series were disappointed, seeming to not understand that there are already plenty of websites that will show them exactly what they’re looking for. But I was relieved. I want the RE4 remake’s changes to signal better days for video game skirts and, more broadly, female character design, letting them both migrate more toward the expressive, gender-fluid fashion real world women’s wear has been making since 2020. To best assess the possibility, I traveled through video game skirts’ brief history.
In the beginning was the upskirt
Video games, compared to the rest of humanity’s already teardrop-small history, are very young. The physical skirt isn’t.
People have draped themselves in the swishy bottom wear since the dawn of prehistory; they were worn in Bronze Age rituals, and around the construction of the pyramids. Improvements to men’s tailoring in the late Middle Ages nudged the skirt into a more feminine fashion category, but its status as womenswear in the West didn’t solidify until the 19th century, when breeches became more popular and meaningful, and provided more coverage during Industrial Revolution workers’ grueling day jobs.
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In its many lives, the skirt has been cut and drawn in many ways. It’s been long enough so that it leaves a structured trail, like a snail. It’s been shortened, made asymmetrical, then made shorter. Its most recent social and design metamorphosis—tiny, liftable skirts for women—is usually what gets slipped into video games.
The first video game skirts appeared on the first-ever video game girls, all of whom were born in difficult circumstances; early ‘80s home consoles tried to compete with the booming arcade market by entreating girls to their mostly shitty games. These slapdash but female-focused games include the 1984 Sega game Girl’s Garden, in which the protagonist wears a triangle-shaped, creamy pink skirt; 1987 Sega role-playing game Phantasy Star, in which the protagonist wears an asymmetrical, rose pink skirt; and the 1994 dating sim aimed at a female audience (or otome game) Angelique, where Angelique wears a raspberry-rich—you guessed it—pink skirt.
These primordial video game skirts might not have been original, but they were overwhelmingly innocent. Thigh-length, usually, pacifier pink, a visual shorthand for their typically teenage protagonists’ blushing youth.
That changed when video games decided to market their games, overwhelmingly, to boys, like they did in the arcade days. ‘90s fighting games like Mortal Kombat helped acclimate an audience to seeing attractive but untouchable women in their underwear, and 1997’s Final Fantasy VII protagonist Tifa Lockhart got them used to seeing skirts as more of a teaser, a holdover from girlhood but no longer a marker of it. Tifa’s skirt is black, not pink. It ends at the very start of her thighs seemingly as a requirement, not wanting to cover more than it absolutely needs to.
Games like FFVII recontextualized the skirt as feminine clothing item not only for women to wear, but to be sexualized in.
Witness it over the subsequent decade: Ashley squeals and calls Leon a pervert in Resident Evil 4’s initial release, in 2005, when angling him correctly granted the player a quick glimpse of her white underwear. In 2008, GamesRadar compiled underwear shots from a few games, including Tekken 6, Devil May Cry 4, and No More Heroes. It told readers to “prepare the same ‘But it’s satire’ excuse that we’ve been using throughout the compilation of this feature” if they were spotted reading it, but also congratulated the horror game Obscure for “swiftly serving up a full platter of the finest free range upskirt.”
In 2009, Brian Ashcraft alerted Kotaku readers to an article in the official Monster Hunter Frontier magazine that taught players how to take screenshots of other players’ underwear. A few days later, Ashcraft pointed them to another upskirting opportunity—an erotic game that used webcam-tracking to let players kneel and stare up its characters’ plaid mini-skirts.
In 2011, a mobile game called Upskirt! was rejected from the App Store. In 2012, Lollipop Chainsaw handed out upskirt achievements. In the past ten years, players have figured out ways to upskirt Story of Seasons characters, Smash characters, Overwatch characters. And, in an act of misogynist innovation, they’ve learned how to sexually harass schoolgirls in virtual reality, too.
The future is (slightly) less perverted
You may be wondering, at this point, how I could be hopeful about video game skirts. Capcom’s decision to change Ashley’s outfit and let her wear something just as cute without the sexualized baggage is, I think, the correct choice, but it’s a small one to consider after we’ve trudged through decades of alienating women and girl characters, taking their skirts, and making them more contentious than they have been since the 19th century.
But fashion, like all art, erodes and reestablishes itself like sand dunes. The FIDM Museum in Los Angeles has a “skirt lifter”—a prong embellished with an unfurled metal butterfly—from 1876 in its collection, not used to titillate, but so that women could walk more easily with their heavy skirts.
Fashion can be defined and redefined again. Outside of video games, in 2023, skirts are again becoming appropriate for non-female identifying people to wear. Stylish women themselves are considering what it means to dress for the “female gaze,” or in stereotypically feminine clothing—like colorful glitter eyeliner, laced corsets, pink skirts—prioritizing art and romance over sexuality.
Though the Resident Evil 4 remake’s outfit change bows out of the discussion rather than embraces the skirt as a more fluid, expressive device than the past 20 years of games have allowed for, I can empathize that elbowing out of the boy’s club is difficult.
But I do think that video game fashion will change as long as the real world does, too. It’s been a long time since video games were marketed just to men. Now, we’re all looking. Respectfully.