The politics of the miniskirt- ”50 years of a Fashion/Gender/Political Revolution”

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Early Twentieth-Century Skirts and Sowing the Seeds of Change

While the miniskirt may have existed as long as civilization has, it is probably only recently that it has evoked powerful political and cultural implications. In the mid 1800s, women in Europe and America were generally believed to be the weaker and more vulnerable sex. Politics, business, and physical activity could be dangerous for women, and tight corsets with long, restrictive skirts generally reflected these beliefs (Weaver 2003).

After WWI, however, advances in women’s emancipation and post-war escapism led to the “flapper” style, an androgynous style with hemlines up to a woman’s knee. After dropping to a more sober calf length during the early 1930s, hemlines rose to just below the knee during WWII, partly due to mandatory fabric rationing during the war (Lehnert 2000)

After the end of wartime restrictions on cloth, women were ready for elegance and femininity, and the fashion industry promoted the “New Look” epitomized by Christian Dior. The New Look was mature and sophisticated, with an exaggerated hourglass figure and long, lavish hemlines (Steele 1997). While the New Look reflected the “best years of our life” consumerism that followed WWII, the “teddy boys” and beatniks of the Beat generation were already sowing the seeds of discontent in 1950s materialism—a discontent that would find its full voice in the 1960s and dramatically change hemlines forever (Reilly 2003).

The 1960s and the Politics of the Miniskirt

Before the 1960s, young women had been expected to dress in the style of their mothers, which was usually loosely based on Parisian couture. For example, as late as 1962, a Sears catalog portrayed mothers and daughters as “patchwork pals” who were overjoyed that they are wearing identical dresses. Looking back on the late 1950s, the English designer Sally Tuffin remarked, “There weren’t any clothes for young people at all. One just looked like their mother” (Steele 1997).

However, by the 1960s, youth protests and demands for individual expression revealed that young adults were gaining a self-conscious awareness of themselves as a distinct and unified group that was able to respond to political events in ways that were different from their parents (Cawthorne 1999). Youngsters felt they no longer needed to follow the rules of bourgeois morality and manners, which they saw as hypocritical and based on double standards. As this young political entity gained a voice, they created a space for a new and distinctive fashion that embodied their own political views—not their parents’.

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The Miniskirt as an Expression and Tool of 1960s Feminism

Growing awareness of feminism also paved the way for a different fashion for women. For example, in 1963, American Betty Friedman published The Feminine Mystique which deconstructed the myth of the happy housewife and expressed the desire of women to explore other roles. In addition, the 1960s saw a dramatic increase in women attending universities and entering the workforce, especially with the advent of the “temp agency” which allowed greater flexibility in when and where a woman wanted to work.

This decade also saw laws passed that helped protect and empower both married and divorced women (Diamond and Diamond 2006). Perhaps most important was the advent of the birth control pill, which removed fears of pregnancy and helped usher in the sexual revolution (Cawthorne 1999). The image of a woman was beginning to dramatically shift from being a wife and mother to a young, single, carefree girl proud of her sexuality and confident with her power. The miniskirt would express—and serve as a tool for—this growing woman’s movement.

A New Class of Young Consumerism

The young generation was indeed growing up rebellious and articulate—and with more money than they’ve ever had before. Young people suddenly became a powerful class of consumers who demanded a fashion that matched the spirit of youth. Consequently, the whole structure of the fashion system was challenged from the youth in the streets as the prestige of “couture” came under attack or, worse, seemed irrelevant (Cawthorne 1999). Upstart designers and boutiques began to cater to a new youth market that could now buy what they wanted—and to older women who began to scramble to look like their daughters.

The mother of the miniskirt-Mary Quant:
When a young upstart British designer named Mary Quant opened her boutique Bazaar in 1955 on King’s Road (a mod and rocker hangout), she was poised to spearhead a fashion revolution. Without any real training in fashion, but with a finger on the pulse of everyday fashion of the street, she represented a distinctive breakaway in fashion. She began to sell clothes that reflected the ideas of the day’s youth and that had nothing to do with established Paris fashion houses (Lehnert 2000).When she raised the hemline of her skirts in 1965 to several inches above the knee, the iconic miniskirt was born. Named after her favorite car, the Mini, the miniskirt was an instant success and epitomized the spirit of London in the mid-60s: free, energetic, youthful, revolutionary, and unconventional (Diamond and Diamond 2006).

 

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Mary Quant in one of her own designs

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“The Lord of the Miniskirt” :  Bazaar

Quant probably deserves primary but not exclusive credit for the miniskirt. One French designer also caught the spirit of the era and did for France what Quant did for England (and America)—André Courrèges. Though he began to experiment with hemlines as early as 1961, Courrèges showcased his futuristic, space-age minimalistic dresses which scandalously fell above the knee in late 1964. Like Quant, Courrèges shocked the fashion world. Unlike Quant, he tended to design his skirts with more sophistication and maturity, which, in turn, helped make the miniskirt acceptable to French haute couture (Cawthorne 1999).

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While Courrèges would later claim that he invented the miniskirt, Quant dismissed his claim, saying “It wasn’t me or Courrèges who invented the miniskirt anyway—it was the girls in the street who did it.” Though the debates between Quant and Courrèges can be amusing and many scholars tend to “skirt” the issue, both Quant and Courrèges appropriated the trends of earlier fashion houses and both took advantage of the greater social changes that were occurring around them. Regardless of who really “invented” the miniskirt, both Quant and Courrèges deserve credit for revolutionizing and enriching the fashion world with their daring hemlines (Diamond and Diamond 2006).

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Celebrities of the time served as a powerful means to popularize miniskirts-and it did work!

Actress Brigitte Bardot in a miniskirt, 1965
Actress Brigitte Bardot in a miniskirt, 1965
Model Jean Shrimpton wearing a miniskirt at the annual Melbourne Derby Day, 1965
Model Jean Shrimpton wearing a miniskirt at the annual Melbourne Derby Day, 1965
ves Saint Laurent, Rive Gauche boutique, Paris, September 1966
Yves Saint Laurent, Rive Gauche boutique, Paris, September 1966

 

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