When the miniskirt first burst onto the fashion scene in the early 1960s, its presence was divisive. Immediately, many women took to it, but others were not so sure, wondering whether it was just a passing fad.
But the miniskirt was to become a symbol of the 1960s, from embodying ‘Swinging London’ to representing the greater emancipation it afforded to women – sexual, social and moral. And so, in this special blog, using newspapers taken from The Archive, we will explore the evolution of the miniskirt, from its origins to its detractors, to how it was gradually adopted by women in Britain and beyond, causing one commentator to proclaim ‘Vive La Miniskirt!’ in 1968.
‘The Short Skirt is Solidly In’
In January 1966, the Birmingham Daily Post reported how designer of the moment Mary Quant was ‘confident that short skirts are solidly in,’ as Quant had ‘based her new collection entirely on this line.’
By 1965, Mary Quant was making massive waves in the fashion industry. The Sunday Mirror had dubbed her the ‘most successful young fashion designer in the world,’ as her retail business had turned over £2 million in 1964, over £35 million in today’s money. And the success of the pioneering young designer was signalled by the British establishment in 1966, when she was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours:
Mary Quant, 32 – OBE. Fashion designer, introduced in 1955 and popularised new style of English fashion; bulk of trade abroad, annual turnover now £2½ million.
This description is taken from the Illustrated London News, which rather coyly signals Quant’s contribution to fashion and its ‘new style.’ For although there is no actual consensus on who first designed the miniskirt, it was Mary Quant who gave it is name – honouring her short skirt designs after her favourite type of car, the Mini Cooper.
But still, despite this recognition and the award of an OBE, Quant and her designs still had their detractors. Priscilla Hodgson, writing for the Birmingham Daily Post, poses the ‘big question’ of ‘whether the back of the knee and the knee bone have got what it takes to make the expanse of limb,’ revealed by the miniskirt, ‘an attractive proposition.’
Jo Mattli, a London designer, assuages Hodgson’s fears by commenting:
The knee itself is not a pretty sight. But with plenty of leg on either side of it it presents a wonderful line.
The jury was out; was the miniskirt truly in? Would it be here to stay?
‘The Hemline Yo-Yo’
This is what the Birmingham Daily Post was asking in November 1965, in an article entitled ‘The hemline yo-yo,’ which took a look at the history of the length of women’s dresses. It posited the following questions:
Will the mini-skirt stand the test of a chilly winter and the chillier glances from an older generation? Will the Paris couturiers react against it when they show their new collections in January? Or are we in for an even more excessive wave of demonstrative female emancipation?
According to the Birmingham Daily Post, the success of the miniskirt and its survival were, therefore, dependent on a range of circumstances: the British weather, its widespread approval from the older generation, and its adoption by the French fashion houses, which were considered to be the world’s authority on what was in, and what wasn’t.
But none of this takes into account the women who were actually wearing the miniskirts, and would make of them such a success that Britain for the first time would become the world’s leader in the fashion stakes.
The same article from the Birmingham Daily Post goes onto relate how ‘during the last three weeks, one Birmingham chain store has sold hundreds of little skirts which stop between four and five inches above the knee.’ Miniskirts were being snapped up, a sure indicator of their success.
However, not all women were rushing out to buy these short skirts, as one buyer told the Birmingham Daily Post:
But it is very much the little dolly girl who is wearing them. Girls today are divided into two categories – those who keep hemlines at the knee and those who go the whole hog and lift them almost to mid-thigh. There are few girls who compromise between the two.
And why were some women avoiding the lure of the miniskirt? With shallowness typical of the day, the Birmingham Daily Post reflects that these women’s ‘reticence’ came from acknowledgement of ‘the shape of their knees and the curve of their legs.’ Indeed, it was seen that the miniskirt was only suitable for a certain type of woman, one with perfect legs, like the models and the actresses of the moment. Far from representing widespread female emancipation, it was something that celebrated the accepted beauty standards of the decade.
And so, would the trend be just that, a passing fad? The Birmingham Daily Post looked to history for answers:
The reign of the short skirt may, however, be as short as its reign in 1926 when it symbolized the new freedom after the upheaval of the First World War. It didn’t last long. The bright young things, having found their freedom and their emancipation, no longer needed this symbol of their success. And they quickly went back to below-the-knee styles.
So with the advent of the 1930s, hemlines got longer. But it was all change in the 1940s, when:
…there wasn’t enough fabric to go round everyone’s ankles. So skirts crept up the leg and stopped within a couple of inches of the knee to enable women to climb into ambulances, run to shelters, drive tractors and become soldiers.
And two years after the end of the Second World War, Christian Dior debuted his ‘New Look,’ a ‘throw-back‘ which reclaimed the perceived femininity of the pre-war era, giving women longer hemlines, and modelling for them the perfect housewife image which defined the 1950s.
And so, in 1967 Paris fashion houses were still of the opinion that the miniskirt was nothing more than ‘a quick trendy fashion,’ as Gordon Casely reported for the Aberdeen Evening Express. In their opinion, the miniskirt was ‘c’est le moment‘ – just something for the present, which would not endure.
And Casely’s fellow journalist John Laud, writing for the Reading Evening Post, set out to discover the truth of the miniskirt trend in 1966, going into the town of Reading on a ‘mini-skirt mission.’ Fuelled by articles stating that the ‘Switched On Young With It Things of the Swinging Sixties’ were all ‘frantically snipping at their hemlines to catch up with the fashion,’ he decided to see whether the ordinary young woman on the street was following fashion in such a dedicated way.
Laud met with mixed results, although he described his mission as ‘an almost total failure.’ He did meet with two miniskirt wearing women, however, June Dalzell-Piper and Sally-Anne Scholefield. Dalzell-Piper explained that she ‘always’ wore a miniskirt, and had been doing so since last September, whilst Scholefield noted how her ‘parents don’t mind at all’ over her choice of skirt.
But other women Laud met with were more reticent. 18-year-old Sue Lunnon explained to the journalist:
I would wear them if everybody did, but it’s too embarrassing when nobody does.
Meanwhile Anne Hall, 19, was more forthright, simply declaring that she ‘didn’t like’ the fashion trend.
So was it all media spin? A miniskirt frenzy dreamed up by editors to sell newspapers? Would the average woman on the street embrace short skirts? Or would they, as the Birmingham Daily Post writes, prefer ‘to cover their knee-caps?’
Miniskirt? More Like ‘Mini-Mind’
And it was true that the miniskirt, whether it was being worn on a widespread scale, was causing something of a frenzy, in Britain’s schools and beyond. It had provoked a moral outrage, an affront on the centuries’ old tradition of women being confined to long hemlines. Now that women could step out of the ashes of their long dresses, they were now somehow more potent, more powerful, than they had ever been before.
But it wasn’t just morality that was at the heart of fears surrounding the miniskirt. In May 1966 the Daily Mirror reports how Liverpool’s road safety officer Benjamin Kinlay had deemed miniskirts as a ‘menace,’ classing them as a ‘road hazard.’ Kinlay explained:
A girl with shapely legs wearing her skirt four inches above the knee can cause a lot of drivers to sneak a look. That moment of inattention can lead to an accident.
This may seem ridiculous, having everything to do with the uncontrollable male gaze rather than the woman who wears the miniskirt, but the miniskirt did actually lead to an accident in 1969. Farm worker Andrew Gordon Meldrum of Shenval, Ballindalloch, was twenty when he ‘collided almost head-on with another car at Aberlour when his attention was momentarily attracted by the sight of two pretty girls in mini-skirts.’
And it was the impact on men which detractors of the miniskirt appeared to fear the most. In 1966 Kevin Hunt for the Daily Mirror reported how ‘Mini-Skirt Schoolgirls Upset the Head,’ with girls at Saffron Walden County High School being instructed by headmaster Mr. Heyes to wear their skirts ‘knee-length in the future.’
Mr. Heyes was worried about the impact on the boys in the schools, and it being a ‘matter of common decency.’ Hunt, however, interviewed ‘one of the boy pupils,’ who proclaimed:
We boys are much too busy working to notice the girls’ legs, anyway.
Meanwhile in Johannesburg one minister was waging his ‘own private war’ against miniskirts. The Daily Mirror in 1969 reports how Anglican priest the Rev. Arthur Sexby had told his congregation to ‘Choose between me and the mini-skirt,’ denouncing from the pulpit miniskirts as being ‘of the world, of the flesh, and of the devil.’
He had refused to start a service ‘until five women in short skirts left the church,’ whilst earlier half of the teenage girls in his congregation had quit. Again, Sexby’s fear of the miniskirt lay in how men perceived it; but his fears were not born out by his superiors, the Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg the Right Rev. Leslie Strading explaining how he had ‘no objection to mini-skirts in church.’
But one Coventry headmistress had plenty of objections to the miniskirt, as the Coventry Evening Telegraph reports in October 1966. Using speech day at Stoke Park School as her platform, Miss E.M. Nixon proclaimed how the ‘mini-skirt [was] often a sign of [a] mini-mind:’
…most of these are beginning to realise that a mini-skirt may well be an outward sign of a mini-mind, a mini-outlook, and later on, a certain passport to a mini-job.
But with miniskirts being decried in churches and schools across Britain and beyond, it meant that one question at least had been answered. The miniskirt was here to stay, with more and more women adopting it by the end of the 1960s.
Vive La Miniskirt!
And when it came to the miniskirt, women were defiant. Miniskirt-wearing Carol Wheatley told the Leicester Chronicle in June 1966, with the impending visit of evangelist Billy Graham to the city, that she didn’t think her ‘mini-skirt [was] sinful.’
Indeed, women of the 1960s would not be shamed into wearing longer skirts. A small group of women in September 1966 staged a ‘mini-protest‘ on behalf of the miniskirt, which featured such slogans as ‘Dior unfair to mini-skirts’ and ‘Mini-skirts forever,’ causing the Daily Mirror to observe:
But this society need not fear for the future of the mini-skirt. As long as girls go on buying them, shops will go on selling them.
And by 1967, miniskirts had ‘come into their own,’ as reports the Coventry Evening Telegraph, painting this picture of a sunny June day in Coventry:
Girls abandoned their offices for fresh air and sunshine to show off their new summer outfits. Brightly coloured cotton dresses mingled with mini-skirted sheath dresses, as their wearers happily strolled in the sun.
More and more women were wearing the miniskirt, perhaps emboldened by a trend which had evolved alongside a new beauty item – makeup for the knees. The Reading Evening Post in October 1966 reports on these remarkable new beauty products:
Revlon are making a new ‘complexion cream’ for legs in shades of beige and tan, price 43s a pot, and it doesn’t rub off. They are also making liquid frosted rouge in three shades for painting a pretty blush on to the knees.
And the acceptance of the miniskirt was spreading, even beyond British shores. In March 1967 a ‘mini-skirt parade’ was put on for the Spanish police in the Costa Brava, as reports the Daily Mirror:
It was a new bid to save the blushes of half a million British girls who will be holidaying on the Costa Brava this summer. Last year the Spanish police fined mini-skirted girls up to £5 – for ‘offences against public morality.’
Happily, Spanish officials were impressed, causing tourism official Jose Sobral to proclaim: ‘English girls may now wear mini-skirts on the streets without being bothered.’
Miniskirts were now a fashion staple, and by 1967 they were permeating the bridal fashion realm. In October 1967 the East Kent Times and Mail reports on a ‘Mini skirt bride’ Penelope Francis Jeffrey, of Finsbury, who had married Malcolm Campbell Pollock in a ‘mini-dress of white georgette.’ Miniskirts were entering parliament too; with the election of Bernadette Devlin to the House of Commons in April 1969. The Reading Evening Post dubbed her as the ‘mini-skirt MP,’ when she became the youngest MP, at the age of 21, since Pitt the Younger.
By the end of the 1960s, the miniskirt was nothing but mainstream. From pavements to parliament, they were everywhere, and had changed the face of fashion across the globe. One convert was Margita Starickova, who in 1966 had ‘condemned the mini-skirts worn by Stafford girls,’ as reports the Staffordshire Newsletter. Margita, from Bratislava, had returned to Stafford in 1968, ‘with all her skirts at least six inches above the knee.’ The reason for her conversion? Miniskirts had become just as popular in Bratislava as they were in Britain.
And so, journalist Gordon Casely for the Aberdeen Evening Express dubbed 1968 as ‘THE year’ of the miniskirt, ‘when countless pairs of knees that had never publicly seen the light of day before made their first, sometimes shy, appearance.’ And the women of Aberdeen had the answer for one commentator who doubted that the miniskirt could survive a British winter, as they ‘cheerfully [endured] every icy blast the North-east elements could throw’ at them.
Casely was under no illusions, joyfully celebrating the fashion trend that had endured the 1960s despite its detractors, proclaiming ‘Vive la mini-skirt, and good riddance to the maxi!’
And what of the future? One designer, Joe Kagan, as reports the Daily Mirror in 1966, saw this on the cards for the miniskirt:
Men will be wearing mini-skirts in twenty years’ time, a clothing manufacturer predicted yesterday. The skirts – like those worn by Roman soldiers – would be ‘simple, masculine and efficient.’
Whilst this didn’t quite come to pass, the legacy of the miniskirt has endured and endured, from the fashions of the 1990s to 2020s, to make it one of the most revolutionary and influential garments ever designed.