Mary Quant and the Rising Hemline

The history of fashion is one that too often goes unnoticed. The constantly changing pace of “fast fashion” are so subtle that the importance of these changes is only visible in  retrospect. Whilst youth knows what is currently “in vogue”, the events driving our current perception of style are rich with cultural history. One of the most prominent and significant articles of clothing that emerged in the late 1960’s was the miniskirt.

Before recognizing the significance of the mini-skirt, it is important to note the distinction between haute couture (high fashion) and prêt-àporter (ready-to-wear). Couture dresses are custom tailored pieces predominately worn by aristocrats and socialites, while ready-to-wear clothing are a more accessible option that is targeted towards the general population. Before the 1920’s, the realm of fashion was reserved for upper-class elites through the practice of couture. These dresses were defined by large, flowing silhouettes with intricate design patters promoting a sense of regality. The draping hemline reached to the floor, concealing the ankles and dragging behind the body. This style of elegancy defined the reserved femininity prominent during the era.

Traditional Parisian dress pre-1920’s with a hemline reaching the floor.
Flapper with skirt hemmed to mid-calf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, during the 1920’s, the advent of the “flapper”, denoted a significant change in conventional femininity. These women are the pinnacle of the feminist reforms surrounding the 1920’s. This first wave of feminism brought many changes in the appearance in women. Pixie haircuts, the eradication of the corset, and most notably a hemline that rose up to the mid-calf defined the attire of these progressive women. The motivation for this rise in hemline is attributed to a freedom of movement in order to facilitate dancing (another very prominent trait of the flapper). However, this freedom was not limited to attire. The garb of these women also denoted the emancipation from the constricting and limited image of women before the 1920’s. The heightened hem line allowed women to expose themselves through sexual empowerment and refusal to fit the traditional image of a woman.

Another important shift in fashion at the time was the accessibility clothing. The shift in design was not purely in the hands of designers as it used to be.  Rather, it was those who stood for feminine independence that fueled the sartorial shift. Women began to tailor their own clothing, as smaller skirts were easier to sew than the complicated and intricate designs that defined the fashion of the previous generation.

Audrey Hepburn donning Coco Chanel’s “Little Black Dress”

This created a stronger connection between the culture of the youth and the clothes which they wore, effectively bridging the gap between ready-to-wear clothing and couture.  Prominent couturier Pierre Balmain stated that “good fashion is evolution, not revolution” [1]. The realm of fashion mirrors the changes in culture; designer clothing from this point on will respond to the evolution of  those who wear it. The infamous “Little Black Dress” designed by Coco Chanel proves that the rise in hemline was also recognized and reciprocated by prominent couturiers. However, the most important catalyst of this alteration was the first-wave feminism and those who contributed to it.

 

 

 

Mirroring the rise of feminism in the 1920’s, in the mid to late 1960’s the second-wave of feminism coincided with yet another rise in hemline. Now raised above the knee, the miniskirt serves the same purpose as the changes occurring in the 1920’s. A higher degree of sexual freedom and the opposition to the conventional image of a woman are defining motivations for the miniskirt. Valerie Steele, director and curator at the FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) museum, explains:  “it was very much an expression of that youth culture and also of the beginnings of the sexual liberation movement due to the invention of the birth control pill” [2]. This change exemplifies the freedom of “movement”, both physically and socially. The youth in the 1960’s shifted the relationship between the older and younger generation. Rebellion reigned throughout the nation in a variety of forms, the miniskirt was the most important statement of defiance expressed through clothing.

Miniskirt deigned by Mary Quant

While there is controversy over the true originator of the miniskirt, many attribute it to Welsh designer Mary Quant. Through her eponymous label, Quant captured the defiance and empowerment surrounding women during this wave of feminism. However, Quant does not claim her title as the founded of the miniskirt, rather stating: “The real creators of miniskirt are the girls, the same that you see in the streets”[3]. This quote exemplifies the dynamic nature of fashion and its ability to conform to the ethos of those who wear it. At last, the couture of the elites and the accessible ready-to-wear clothing united to project the social and political issues surrounding the 1960’s.

Raf Simons Spring 2014 Mensware Collection

The ramifications of the miniskirt forever resonates throughout the realm of fashion. Designer Raf Simons, known for his politically charged clothing lines, opposed the conventionalism of masculinity through his use of the miniskirt in his Spring 2014 menswear collection. The hiked up leather skirt mimics the noncompliance to social norms that defined clothing in the late 1960’s. Simons’ line and Quant’s skirt provides examples of the instrumentalization of fashion in order to question the dominant social memory. The skirt provides a lens into the perception of femininity throughout the past one hundred years, and specifically in the 1960’s amidst a wave of social reform.

WORKS CITED:

[1] Pierre Balmain Quote: https://quotefancy.com/quote/1776225/Pierre-Balmain-Good-fashion-is-evolution-not-revolution

[2] Culture – Short but Sweet: The Miniskirt Katya Foreman – http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140523-short-but-sweet-the-miniskirt

[3] Mary Quant Quote: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/mary_quant_704986

 

PICTURES

1, Victoria and Albert Museum Albert Museum- Digital Media http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/history-of-fashion-1900-1970/

2, The History Of the Flapper, Part 1: A Call For Freedom The Little Black Dress

Emily Spivack – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-of-the-flapper-part-1-a-call-for-freedom-11957978/

3, Mary Quant http://www.vogue.it/en/news/encyclo/designers/q/mary-quant

4, The Little Black Dress http://www.vogue.it/en/news/encyclo/fashion/b/-the-little-black-dress

5, Raf Simons Spring 2014 Menswear Fashion Show

Tim Blanks – https://www.vogue.com/fashion-shows/spring-2014-menswear/raf-simons

Author: Trent Avent

ITS - User Supp and Engagement