The Not-So-Sexy Origins of the Miniskirt
The fashion designer Mary Quant, who died at 93, recognized the power—and danger—of the mini.
Mary Quant’s candy-colored fashions so successfully defined the “London Look” of the Swinging ’60s that it’s hard to believe the designer outlived her heyday by several decades, dying yesterday at the age of 93. Her passing—at a time when reproductive rights are being threatened across the U.S.—feels like not just a loss to the fashion world but also the final salvo of the sexual revolution, which she championed.
Quant is best remembered for the miniskirt, which she popularized, though she did not profess to be its inventor. The French couturier André Courrèges claimed that title after including miniskirts in a collection he showed in Paris in April 1964. But by that time, Quant was already wearing them and selling them in her boutique, Bazaar, which she’d opened in London’s bohemian Chelsea neighborhood in 1955. She always insisted that “it wasn’t me or Courrèges who invented the miniskirt anyway. It was the girls in the street who did it.” Quant likely coined the name, however; her favorite car was the Mini Cooper.
Although the miniskirt was certainly shocking, it was never intended to be sexy; the glamazon in high heels, a push-up bra, and a short, tight skirt is a relatively recent cliché. The miniskirt’s point was not to bare women’s legs but to liberate them from the long skirts, stockings, garters, girdles, and petticoats of the 1950s. As Quant put it, a woman should to be able to run to catch a bus. The mini was always paired with flats rather than heels, the wearer’s legs often covered by boots and colorful tights, which Quant sourced from theatrical costumers. With their simple A-line silhouettes and playful, almost juvenile styling—ruffles, bows, polka dots, Peter Pan collars—Quant’s minidresses looked like something you’d find in the children’s department.
The mini’s power—and danger—lay not in what it revealed but in what it represented: youth itself. The postwar Baby Boom had created a “youthquake”; by the mid-’60s, roughly 40 percent of Britons were under 25, and other countries experienced similarly seismic demographic shifts. After years of wartime austerity that dragged on long after the armistice, the British economy was finally booming too. With military service no longer compulsory, the younger generations had more time as well as more money than teenagers of the past. These social movements found expression in Quant’s far-out fashions. “There was a time when every girl under twenty yearned to look like an experienced, sophisticated thirty,” Quant wrote in her 1966 autobiography, Quant by Quant. Indeed, they had no choice. “Fashion in the late 1950s was definitely for thirty-year-olds and over,” Barbara Hulanicki—the owner of another seminal London boutique, Biba—complained in her own autobiography, From A to Biba. “To get yourself clad in something nice then seemed virtually impossible … There was little specially designed for the young.”
That was about to change. Quant’s clothes didn’t just look different; they challenged the very idea of fashion, making it more individual, upbeat, and democratic than French haute couture. In the anarchic spirit of the time, Quant broke all the rules, using formal fabrics for casual clothes, winter fabric for summer styles, menswear textiles for womenswear, and industrial elements such as vinyl, contrasting topstitching, and visible zipper pulls for streetwear. One red dress came with matching ruffled briefs; Quant’s iconic “skinny rib” sweater was inspired by an 8-year-old boy’s garment that she tried on for fun. The war had changed women’s priorities; although they enjoyed unprecedented opportunities and freedoms, they yearned for simpler times, even going back to childhood.
Among Quant’s many innovations, the mini cast the longest shadow. It was “the most self indulgent, optimistic ‘look at me, isn’t life wonderful’ fashion ever devised,” Quant wrote. “It expressed the sixties, the emancipation of women, the Pill and rock ‘n’ roll … It was the beginning of women’s lib.” The mini became the uniform of the sexual revolution. The actor Nichelle Nichols, who played the miniskirted chief communications officer Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, which premiered in 1966, remembered in her autobiography that “in later years, especially as the women’s movement took hold in the seventies, people began to ask me about my costume. Some thought it ‘demeaning’ for a woman in the command crew to be dressed so sexily.” Nichols found this surprising. “Contrary to what many may think today, no one really saw it as demeaning back then. In fact, the miniskirt was a symbol of sexual liberation.”
Like Coco Chanel, Quant designed for herself, and she was her own best advertisement. A young, opinionated working woman with an angular Vidal Sassoon five-point bob, she summed up her personal brand of feminism by declaring fashion to be “a tool to compete in life outside the home.” Quant studied art education, but instead of pursuing a teaching career as her parents had intended, she opened Bazaar, with the intent of selling other people’s clothing designs. But she became frustrated with the available options and began attending evening sewing classes so she could make her own merchandise. Whereas French couturiers such as Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent used boutique as a synonym for ready-to-wear, British boutique culture was closer to today’s fast fashion. Bazaar’s stock was constantly refreshed, simply because the clothes sold as fast as Quant could make them.
The miniskirt had some notable detractors. Chanel hated it; so did Cecil Beaton and Norman Hartnell, Queen Elizabeth II’s dressmaker. By 1970, even Quant had embraced the maxi skirt, which appealed to her love of Victorian and Edwardian styles; she was a regular visitor to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s historic fashion galleries. Her fans grew up, grew out their Sassoon bobs, and began wearing a new, more down-to-earth “London Look”: flowing skirts in romantic floral textiles by designers such as Bill Gibb, Ossie Clark, Jean Muir, and Laura Ashley. But the miniskirt never truly went away, and it continues to serve as a barometer of social and sexual mores. Like its fans, Quant’s trademark had legs.