60 Years of miniskirts: the history of a culture war in fashion

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel caused her first political scandal at the age of 14. The diligent Angela Dorothea, maiden name Kasner, had won all of the GDR’s Russian language competitions and was allowed to travel to the Soviet Union on the friendship train in 1969. There Kasi, as her friends called her, stood smiling wanly in front of a memorial to fallen soldiers – in a miniskirt. The hosts were outraged.

And now? The USSR and the GDR are passe; the woman who predominantly wore the pants in Germany for 16 years is passe; women are now outraged topless – but the miniskirt is just being reissued. But haven’t we long since outgrown this peculiar fumbling and its statement-making function?

The short piece of material that slipped out of Great Britain at the end of the sixties, along with beat music, mushroom heads and other shamelessness, also slipped through the Iron Curtain, aroused tempers worldwide. Fashion always reflects the spirit of the times, rampant moods, incipient changes, it can become highly political. And the stiff British class and dress code has always lent itself to social and fashion revolutions.

In the Swinging Sixties, the mini became mainstream and a political issue

The miniskirt stood for female emancipation, for sexual and spiritual freedom. True, skirt length in art and culture had already slipped over the knee in the twenties, and many girls snipped the hem of their skirts themselves at home before any designer did so. But it wasn’t until the swinging sixties that the mini became mainstream and a political issue. The British fashion designer Mary Quant is most often named as its creator, ahead of various male aspirants. And let’s face it: a man who cuts women’s skirts to just below the butt crack certainly wouldn’t stand for feminism today.

Mary Quant with her husband Alexander Plunket Greene in their Chelsea apartment. (Image: Intertopics)

But Quant did not see herself as a freedom fighter either. She simply loved fashion, had creative talent and a keen sense of trends. "The mini was inevitable," she once said. Young women at that time began to make their own decisions, earn their own money and, thanks to the pill, plan their own careers and children. The bare legs sprang from a new female self-confidence and a defiant self-image.

The female customers would still have it "shorter, shorter!" wanted, said Quant, who then designed a pattern to this attitude to life. After all, how are you supposed to properly freestamp yourself in floor-length dresses? In their creations, women should be able to "run and catch the bus to work," "hop, skip," and dance the Hully Gully and Mashed Potato in dim jazz clubs at night. The Mini turned the female world upside down.

Mary Quant (center) with models during a photo shoot in London in the 1960s. (Image: Mirrorpix / Ullstein)

The miniskirt caused a stir

In the capitalist West the new legroom knew no stop. Even in the communist East, it still spread to the last peasant village. Even in Iran, a miniskirt was often concealed under the chador. And although Mary Quant wanted to "simply make a good mood" with her fashion, she upset many mightily with it. "Gentlemen in bowler hats knocked with their umbrellas on the shop windows" and scolded "shamelessly!", "disgusting!", she remembered. Around the world, authorities, moralists and conservatives tried to ban the revealing dress.

French actress and mini-apologist Brigitte Bardot in the late 1960s. (Image: Ullstein)

A minimum skirt length of 16.5 centimeters was set for English school uniforms, and when in 1966 the then 16-year-old Anna Wintour appeared for lessons at the North London Collegiate School for Girls in a shortened pleated skirt, a teacher tore her uniform and caused her to be expelled from school. Now, 55 years later, American Vogue, under Wintour’s strict dictation, writes: "It’s almost easier to say which designers didn’t show super-short skirts this year." He is back.

An interpretation of the miniskirt from Dior's current spring/summer collection. (Image: Imaxtree)

More symbolic than timeless

History repeats itself constantly – or rhymes, in any case we learn from it only with difficulty. Consequently, fashion now also knows almost only revivals, dejà vu and reheated fashion sins. The miniskirt never looked really good – nothing half, let alone whole. More simple than sophisticated, more symbolic than timeless. Its redemptive effect and the resonating political message were important. The story of the mini is unparalleled in the fashion world to date. "It would be difficult to do something today that would have such a strong impact," also knows Mary Quant.

Fashion show under the motto 'The London Look' at the Jelmoli department store in Zurich in 1967 (Image: RDB / Ullstein)

Even the monarchy and nobility buckled before their zeitgeisty design. "In the stores, princesses and secretaries fought over the same dresses," wanted to reinvent themselves in the collections "Lolita" and "Schoolgirl". From then on, the British royal family accepted a skirt length of exactly seven centimeters above the knee in its ranks, and in 1966 awarded the 36-year-old Mary Quant the Order of the British Empire for her courageous young creations – probably also for her increase in gross domestic product.

Quant appeared at the award ceremony at Buckingham Palace in a miniskirt (the Queen, of course, did not). The Mini was finally absolved and no longer suitable for scandals. In early October 2021, 39-year-old Duchess Kate showed up for an appointment in London wearing a short tennis skirt – trash sheets had to artificially blow her outfit up into a scandal.

Why is the Mini back?

"People often perceive the new as vulgar," Quant said back in 1967. What is considered vulgar, however, has changed a lot. Vulgar today is ordering chicken wings in an SUV at the drive-in. If the employee was standing naked at the output, hardly anyone would itch. Today, the miniskirt is only of limited use as an exciter. Most recently in 2018, when Serena Williams sported a tutu for the US Open after being reprimanded for her catsuit at the French Open. So the question is: why is the mini back, even more so in the fall/winter season?

The latest mini minimal version of the miniskirt from Miu Miu's latest spring/summer collection. (Image: Getty Images)

American economist George Taylor’s 1926 skirt hem theory states that as the economy picks up, skirts get shorter and vice versa. An empirical study almost confirmed this theory, after all, and by the mid-1950s Britain’s economy was just recovering from post-war hardship. Consumption boomed, and Quant’s timing was spot on: in 1962, she exhibited her minis for the first time, British "Vogue" printed them directly, and soon Quant was exporting them to 25 countries – quite cheaply, because the miniskirt was initially taxed as a child’s garment.

Maxi length as a contrast

With the global youth rebellion of the sixty-eight, the miniskirt reached the height of its popularity and brevity. "Extended belts" is what a German newspaper called the "micro skirts" titled by the Herald Tribune. The dizzying length of the skirt was also the point at which, according to the laws of fashion sociology, a radical turnaround became necessary. The contrasting program was called Maxi.

No sooner had the outrage over the mini died down, no sooner had the establishment made its peace with it and cashed in, than young people fished ankle-length dresses out of grandma’s mothballs, and flower children swayed in flowing skirts against ready-to-wear culture. Mary Quant followed her sense of trends and went with the times, literally. While the British Association for the Preservation of the Miniskirt demonstrated in London, she closed her two boutiques, made in vitamin and tanning pills, and launched a smudge-proof, kiss-proof, sex-proof, storm-proof makeup line. In 2000, at the age of 70, she sold her company to two Japanese men.

Exhausted as a political issue

That the miniskirt briefly appeared on Christina Aguilera, Paris Hilton, and other pop (culture) figures at the turn of the century was perhaps a patriotic act in the spirit of George Taylor: young American women showed the whole world that their country was recovering economically after the crash of the stock market and Twin Towers. According to Taylor’s approach, all 2700 billionaire pandemic profiteers worldwide should be wearing miniskirts – if they weren’t 99.7 percent heterosexual men.

Hotel heiress Paris Hilton shows off maximum leg during a movie premiere in Los Angeles. (Image: Getty Images)

The united comeback of the miniskirt can now also mean a kind of solidarity: "Look at my pale legs, I didn’t take a vacation either!" Or a revolt after all? Or simply self-deception: "Freedom!" It’s likely that, once again, completely bland economic calculations are behind it: supply backlogs plus sales slumps equal cost and fabric cuts.

That the miniskirt has exhausted itself as a political issue may be a good sign: it no longer needs it. Hopefully for the last time, the return of the mini is stirring up the spirit of freedom of the sixties. Because even though Mary Quant, the daughter of two Welsh miners’ children, broke the fashion dictates of haute couture and spread the mini on the sidewalks among the ground people-"clothes for ordinary women," as she said-she didn’t really design them.

Models Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss during London Fashion Week in 1993. (Image: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

"A woman is as young as her knees"

The mini icons were XS models Lesley Hornby aka Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton aka The Shrimp. Quant himself had been "on a diet since 1962," had given up "butter, cream and sugar". And when she showed her fashion in the U.S. in 1965, she was shocked at the sight of all "the fat people" she encountered there.

Model Twiggy (real name Lesley Hornby) boards a plane in 1960 in the EthnoMini. (Image: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

To the award with the Dame Commander 2015 in the Buckingham Palace Mary Quant came then no longer in the miniskirt. "A woman is as young as her knees," she thought, and one wonders what young women would say to her in response today. Gradually overcome superficiality and put bodyshaming and catcalls on mute.

Not only the delicate Kate, but also the 31-year-old Princess Eugenie just appeared in public in a miniskirt – eight months after the birth of her son, beyond size zero. Each as she likes. Everyone as he likes. Mary Quant now wears "pants, T-shirts and a jacket", lives – instinctively en vogue – in the country, like one of the allotment gleaners she used to bitch about when she was 20, digging in the patch and talking to her chickens.

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