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Mini Revolution? The Evolution of the Miniskirt

Star Trek's Uhura helped popularize the mini

There has always been magic in the mini. The swath of fabric not only signals vitality and confidence, but also independence from constrictive fashions that have come before. As far as bloodless revolutions are concerned, despite its flirtatious cut and silhouette, the miniskirt is emblematic of a controversial revolution that can be read in a variety of ways. For some, it is a symbol of optimism and youth; for others, it is a sign of regressiveness that undermines professionalism and hard-won respect.

The term ‘mini-skirt’ calls to mind everything from denim minis a la 1980s, to Paco Rabanne’s 1966 linked chain-and-plastic minidress, a minidress that intermixed Dada principles of working with found materials with the idea of statement pieces.

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The Victoria & Albert museum reminds us that, while Mary Quant was typically credited with ‘inventing’ the miniskirt as a symbol of the buoyancy and carefree sentiments of the swinging sixties, the idea of skirts creeping above the knee was actually a gradual process, rather than a sudden, knee-jerk response against the suffocation of the 1950s.

It can be argued that the first miniskirt predated most people’s expectations, with Josephine Baker “reclaiming a supposedly primitive aesthetic”, when she wore miniskirts made of bananas for the Folies Bergère production of “Un Vent de Folie”, paired with nothing but beaded necklaces, bangles and oversized necklaces. When Baker stepped on the stage, her costume was an artistic manipulation that toyed with white imagination.

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She was at once seductive and lithesome, subverting expectations of sexuality and femininity in a manner that was self-owned. In 2006, Beyonce honored Baker’s iconic costume and its cheeky, sly messaging when she wore a banana skirt in her 2006 Fashion Rocks Performance.

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Post-World War II, when women were hustled out of the factories and workplaces and back into the homes, the miniskirt would be regulated to the cinematic, sci-fi pastiche. Miniskirts became costume staples on television series such as ABC’s Space Patrol and Flight to Mars, a 1951 release from Monogram Pictures where the female cast wore electric blue dresses that were as spectacularly short as they were shiny.

In 1955, Mary Quant decided to open Bazaar on London’s King Road, wanting to fill a void in the fashion scene. She stated, “I had always wanted the young to have fashion of their own…absolutely twentieth-century fashion…but I knew nothing about the fashion business. I didn’t think of myself as a designer. I jut knew that I wanted to concentrate on finding the right clothes for the young to war and the right accessories to go with them” (Arnold, Fashion: A Very Short Introduction, 80). The miniskirt and later the minidress became a staple of her shop. What this mentality did was spotlight youthful desires and wants, allowing for fashion to be a focal point of artistic and self-expression that would not be subsumed by adult particularities or censorship.

From a business angle, the shop heralded the debut of designer-retailers, shops with themes and focuses.

That being said, there are some who insist that John Bates was the true designer of the miniskirt, setting up the Jean Aaron label in 1959, which would go on to be worn by Dusty Springfield and Twiggy. His influence is also felt and seen in The Avenger series, with Diane Rigg sporting the short but empowering look. Off-screen, real-life heroines such as Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem were also seen wearing the mini skirt.

The connection between the miniskirt and female liberation became so entwined that, in 1966 when Dior’s fashion show had models sans miniskirt, there was a protest known as the “British Society for the Protection of Mini Skirts”. The ‘unfair’ treatment of miniskirts was seen as being on par with treating women unfairly.

In the 1980s, however, “miniskirts had returned to the dismay of many older women. “We were trying to be taken seriously and professional women find it’s a bad enough day-to-day battle without the mini,” protested Nancy Clark Reynolds, the president of a Washington lobbying firm, when the hemlines rose in 1987 to heights they hadn’t reached since the 1960s” (Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present.)

Regardless of who designed the first miniskirt or where it truly debuted, the evolution of the itsy-bitsy skirt is nevertheless parallel with women and societal liberation; every inch that is shortened is arguably representative of freedoms gained and sustained.

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