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The Mini Takes Off

“Humans, hopes, hemlines: all were as high as kites.” Tom Robbins, "Miniskirt Feminism", New York Times (1995)

Twiggy (right), snapped in the 1960s
The miniskirt was a movement rather than the work of one designer in one collection. It was street fashion. Hemlines rose above the knee in 1961, and over the next couple of years designers such as John Bates, Yves Saint Laurent and Mary Quant played with the idea.

Ernestine Carter (then fashion editor of the Sunday Times) declared 1963 the Year of the Leg. André Courrèges, in his 1964 Paris collection, is credited by some as “inventing” the miniskirt, but what he did with his Space Age collection was bring it into couture fashion, which helped to publicise the idea and make it universal. 

Mary Quant’s version from the following year is the one that everyone remembers, and which became the icon of Swinging London. Click here to find out more about Mary Quant. John Bates, another contender for the title of “inventor” of the miniskirt, and best known for designing Emma Peel’s look in cult TV series The Avengers, points out that the reason Mary Quant’s miniskirt was the one that started the fever was because she had her own boutique, Bazaar, and could get it on to the streets herself. Bates had trouble convincing stores to stock his clothing for the Jean Varon label in the early 1960s, as the buyers thought it too revealing – even as lingerie!

It was the enormous enthusiasm for miniskirts that made them so shocking and exaggerated their effect. The reaction ranged from “lascivious delight” to “moral outrage”, according to the designer and writer Deirdre Clancy. In early 1965, when the hugely popular TV show That Was The Week That Was featured a model wearing a skirt with a belt that could be used to alter its length, the audience laughed and gasped. Within a few months, though, the rise of the miniskirt, both in length and popularity, was unstoppable.

Cathy McGowan
Celebrity Cathy McGowan's clothing range for girls, aged eight to 15, came out in 1965. It included her dress, which had a hem 5in above the knee
A growing trend

Celebrities were quick to pick up the trend and it was an image that the media loved, giving the miniskirt the nickname “the gymslip of the permissive society”. Cathy McGowan, a style guru for the nation since 1963, when she began presenting the pop show Ready Steady Go, wore them on television, while models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton sported them all over the broadsheets' fashion pages.

The miniskirt was a truly populist look that most people could have a go at. If they couldn’t find it in the shops, they turned up their old skirts or just took a pair of scissors to them! Pamela Church-Gibson of the London College of Fashion points out that “there wasn’t any freedom… Everybody had to wear a miniskirt, whatever your legs were like… it really was a diktat… Even the Queen felt compelled to shorten her skirts. It shows just how tyrannical it was.”

When Cathy McGowan threatened to wear a long skirt on Ready Steady Go, she prompted the formation of the British Society for the Preservation of the Miniskirt. In September 1966, the Society demonstrated outside Christian Dior’s fashion show, where the new collection featured a return to long coats and dresses. The small band of demonstrators carried banners proclaiming “Miniskirts Forever” and “Support the Mini”. Their president, Bill Scharf, was quoted as saying that the Society existed “for the good of mankind”.

Andre Courreges
Fashion designer Andre Courreges is flanked by two of the mini-length dresses from his 1968 spring and summer collections

The new assertiveness represented by the miniskirt meant that fashion had to offer much more choice. No one look could be imposed on trendsetters. The supremacy of Paris as the capital of fashion was overthrown, London was the inspiration for the decade. Although its fun-loving lifestyle undeniably had an influence on other major UK cities, such as Liverpool, the miniskirt revolution didn’t travel as fast or as far as one might think.

Mary Turner reports that “in Cumbria, I was warned against wearing ‘London’ fashions while in the north because the ‘men were hungry’.”  Australia's skirt lengths were by no means over the knee, even by the mid-sixties, and four inches above the knee was the safest length to wear all over Europe.

Author Tom Robbins declared that the miniskirt proves you can “stitch a zeitgeist into a few square inches of cloth”. As rebellions go, the miniskirt was not a dry, political statement, rather it was provocative, playful and, above all, sexy.