The origin of the miniskirt lies in the heart of the so called Swinging London of the 1960s. Mary Quant, a dressmaker who sold her own fashionable, and desired, designs from a store in the London district of Chelsea can be regarded as the creator of the (twentieth- century) miniskirt. Because of her privileged spot within the London fashion district and her grasp of how to connect to a mass audience (instead of relying on the ‘old’ trickle-down effect), her creation – that started out as simple street fashion – turned out to be an international fasion style. It was picked up by famous people like super model/singer Twiggy, who made the miniskirt legendary: Twiggy was young, natural, down-to-earth and accessible, but certainly not glamorous in the old-fashioned sense of the word (Gundle). Moreover, Quant named the skirt after the Mini, the iconic BMC car, that first came on the market in 1959. These details actually illustrate how all aspects of popular culture in the 1960s were intertwined with each other and how this was indeed a new era in which culture was no longer spread through imitation of the higher classes.
While the 1950s were a decade in which people still longed for a return to how it used to be, to put the Second World War and the foregoing economic crisis behind them, the 1960s were all about change. Women, who had been working in factories (out of their homes) during the war, realized that they did not want to resume their chores of cooking and cleaning. Farmers were migrating to towns and cities, and within cities, there was a shift to the suburbs. The western world experienced a growth and rejuvenation of the population. As a result, compliance with the establishment no longer was a given. Men, women and (especially) young people wanted to express their diverging opinions and dress was one of their tools. This is what Quant had anticipated. When introducing the miniskirt, she did not focus on the establishment and she did not care about traditional haute cuture. Rather, she was alert to market demand, she looked at what young girls on the street were wearing and she used this as her starting point. Of course, an older generation of women was appalled by the revealing attire. This is largely due to the fact that dress originated in the need to cover up our bodies and that, consequently, our naked bodies are always implicitly present. As Wilson puts it: “A part of this strangeness of dress is that it links the biological body to the social being, and public to private. it forces us to recognize that the human body is more than a biological entity. It is an organism in culture, a cultural artefact even, and its own boundaries are unclear” (2).
This became ever more true in the twentieth century. In the past, the morality of dress had to be regarded as normative and indicative of rigid behavioral codes. The twentieth century, however, provided a stage for people to dress politically, to use clothes as a means of expression for “dissidence, rebellion and social reform” (Wilson 8). Dress became fashion. As described by Elizabeth Wilson, it is actually quite difficult to analyze the relationship between fashion and feminism, since different ideologies about dress were transmitted, and this usually happened indirectly (230).
Fashion, in that way, “both followed and precipitated political action” (Rielly 75-81). While the triumph of the miniskirt should definitely be ascribed to the prevalence of a liberal line of thinking throughout the western world – and, thus, followed political action that allowed for women to wear this type of skirt -, it was also used as a (provoking and) powerful tool in exactly this strife for women’s liberation. In the 1960s, the miniskirt was a symbol of emancipation and it was worn as such by activists of the women’s movement. In the 1970s however, the hemline was lengthened again. Miniskirts and the accompanying dress code of pantyhose, plastics and high heels were regarded as demeaning to women and (part of) the women’s movement no longer supported the emancipation of women through a showing of their bodies.
This clearly reveals the contradiction that existed within the women’s movement and which makes it hard to analyze the relationship between fashion and feminism. As Wilson points out: “Fashionable dressing is commonly assured to have been restrictive for women and to have confined them to the status of the ornamental or the sexual clatter. Yet, it has also been one of the ways in which women have been able to achieve self-expression, and feminism has been as simplistic – and as moralistic – as most other theories in its denigration of fashion” (13). This contradiction can, for a large part, be brought back to the existence of two different discourses that prevail within popular culture. The first one does not accept any aspect of culture that propagates, in any way whatsoever, sexist ideas and images of women and femininity (Wilson 230). The second one can be called populist liberalism. It condemned any criticism of popular amusement as elitist and should be seen in the light of a growing interest in popular culture amongst intelligentsia (Wilson 230). The existence of both discourses demonstrates two divergent, conflicting even, world views and, consequently, political approaches that evolve – as far as fashion is concerned – around these questions: “Is fashionable dress part of the oppression of women, or is it a form of adult play? Is it part of the empty consumerism, or is it a site of struggle symbolized in dress codes? Does it muffle the self, or create it?” (Wilson 231). Should we all strive to be more authentic, to ‘free’ our true selves and become more bound to nature? Or should we engage in the socially constructed world with a sense of humor and rationality? For example, the feminists’ answer to the miniskirt was long greyish dresses. However, they all wore the same type of dresses and part of their counter culture dress code even became mainstream after a while, which makes you wonder about the underlying idea of doing your own thing. Indeed, in this unresolved feminist debate, no synthesis about fashion actually is possible: fashion is repressive (thesis), but it is pleasurable as well (antithesis). As Wilson points out: “Either the products of popular culture are the supports of a monolithic male ideology, or they are there to be enjoyed and justified” (232).
Although it is not justified to think of the ‘natural’ as superior to the ‘artificial’ – nothing about human beings living in a socially constructed environment is ‘natural’ – one should not neglect the often dreadful circumstances in which clothing is produced throughout the world. And as human beings, feminists should take a stand against it. It is also true that certain female dress styles are uncomfortable and can even make women vulnerable. The miniskirt can be defined as one of them. However, these arguments should not be used as a rationalization not to wear this type of clothing, because wearing comfortable fair trade clothes does not necessarily mean not adhering to some sort of (implied) social status (Wilson 243). For example, all co-workers going to work in blue jeans is not an indication of freedom. It merely suggests that a casual dress code is no longer frowned upon in a professional environment.
The succes of the miniskirt was indeed due to the accessibility of mass production and a mass audience that – thanks to the media - could be reached almost in the blink of an eye. However, it should not be regarded as mere consumerism and the women who wore these skirts were not fashion slaves. The miniskirt was a means to explore aspirations, to feel confident and important. In that way, it was indeed liberating. The hemline lengthened again in the 1970s, because that is what happens in fashion: it changes to follow or precipitate political action.
Gundle, Stephen. Glamour: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Google e-book.
Rielly, Edward J. The 1960s. American popular culture through history. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003. Print.
Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams. Fashion and Modernity. London & New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 2003. Print.