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Clothing and Morality

Bill Scharf, head of the Society for the Preservation of the Miniskirt, an entirely serious pressure group set up in the 1960s, when it looked as though its future was under threat, was quoted as saying that the Society existed “for the good of mankind”. The wording is significant. One of the chief arguments against the miniskirt is that it turned women into objects for men to ogle at. Moral conservatives from all backgrounds could not contain their outrage at this new taboo-breaking look.

Two punks sit on a bench with a bottle of cider
The issue of modesty of dress is a hot topic, even today. “There is no question but that the revealing clothing worn by women today, contributes to the depravity of our time," according to an editorial in the Brethren Revival Fellowship Newsletter of 1971, recycled in 2005.

Madagascar and Malawi have both outlawed miniskirts, and in the Kenyan city of Mombasa in 2004, extremists distributed leaflets warning women that if they wore short skirts they ran the risk of being stripped in public. Vigilantes had indeed stripped two women the previous week for wearing hipster trousers. The wearing of hot pants or mini-shorts has even been held to constitute a judicial incitement to rape.

It was just such oppression that the miniskirt was designed to fight, and its rapid acceptance into mainstream culture opened the floodgates for a number of changes. There was a trend in the 1960s towards accepting increased nudity on stage and screen, and in sunbathing. See-through dresses, the space-age designs of Paco Rabanne, the PVC minidress with eight changeable panels by Stephan Willats – anything went!

Whether clothing is seen as having moral significance tends more often than not to depend on how sexually suggestive it is. In some eras, though, the point is about other forms of shock. During the British punk era of 1976-77, great offence was taken by mainstream society at the torn, safety-pinned and paint-splattered clothes the punks wore. The DIY approach extended to wearing black plastic bin-liners and ripped sheets, while girls might choose something like a kettle as an accessory in place of the traditional bag. Make-up was daubed on anyhow, or else carefully designed to have a horror-film appearance.

As always, most of the moral indignation was focused on how the girls looked, as though it was only natural and understandable for boys to make an adolescent exhibition of themselves. What references there were to sexuality were derived from the fetishist clothing that Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren sold in their London store, SEX, on the King's Road. Even these garments were worn more in the spirit of parody than of actual carnal enticement.

In more recent times, the look favoured by hip-hop and gangsta rap artists and their devotees has also been about confrontation. Hooded tops, beanie hats, baseball caps worn back to front, layers of clanking gold jewellery, and the strange American practice of wearing one trouser leg pulled up, all symbolise an aggressive rejection of the mainstream casual ethos.

Ironically, although both punk and hip-hop style were generated from the streets, it wasn't long before each look was being aped by commercial clothing chains.