The miniskirt and me

02 February 2012

The rise and eventual fall of the hemline that shocked the world. 'Sixties chick' Carinthia West pays homage to the miniskirt.

For the purposes of writing this article, I am wearing a short, tight Biba miniskirt (fortunately elasticised!) that I dug out of the back of my cupboard, Mary Quant green and black striped tights, a slouchy cable-knit sweater and sheepskin boots. I last wore a miniskirt in 1968 and I just wanted to see what it felt like to wear a mini after all these years.

Although many designers, including André Courrèges, played a part in inventing the miniskirt, it was Quant who brought the tiny band of fabric (designed to fall 6-7in above the knee) to the masses in the mid-Sixties, along with a straight (ironed under brown paper) fringe, smoky kohl-rimmed eyes, white lipstick and PVC boots. Wearing a miniskirt marked you as a ‘dolly bird’, and if you had a Morris Mini Minor to go with it, you were seriously in with the in crowd. In fact, Quant is said to have named the skirt after her favourite make of car.

Rising hemlines 

The aim was to shock your mother, outrage your teachers and send your grandmother to an early grave. I would leave home each morning in my grey knee-length school skirt but, as soon as I’d turned the corner of our street, I’d tug it up at the waistband until it reached a respectable mid-thigh. At Sloane Square tube station, I joined a giggling battalion of schoolmates who had all done the same. When we reached South Kensington station we would (sadly) tug our hemlines down again in case we ran into a disapproving teacher. The big test was school assembly – we were desperate to avoid the fate of one classmate who had been caught pulling down her skirt (and so suffered the indignity of being made to kneel on the floor and measured). Your hemline had to be exactly one inch from the floor – no more. The punishment was writing out ‘I must never wear a miniskirt to school again’ 100 times under the watchful eye of the head prefect (at one time a certain Camilla Shand, now the Duchess of Cornwall).

Since then, miniskirts have never really gone away. Girls still wear them teamed with matt black tights, big sweaters and Ugg or sheepskin boots (if they are hip chicks), or push-up bra, low Lurex top, towering heels and too-bright lipstick (if they’re not). The first is a great look on the young: the second, a bad look on anyone. Though Quant might well disagree. ‘I love vulgarity,’ she once said. ‘Good taste is death, vulgarity is life.’ Whatever your view, the short, sassy skirt is today as popular as ever.

Sixties fashion 

Now turning 78, Mary Quant (whose autobiography is out this month) was the Queen of Cool in the Sixties. Think a brunette, ultra-creative and more innovative Mary Portas. Her shop, Bazaar, in the King’s Road in Chelsea was the ultimate destination on a Saturday afternoon, along with Quorum in Radnor Walk, Foale and Tuffin in Carnaby Street, and Biba in Kensington. It was elegant and light, her make-up packaged in white or black boxes with her trademark silver daisy on them. Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton could be seen there, browsing through rails of miniskirts.

‘We caused such a hoo-ha!’ Quant says. ‘City gents were so affronted by Bazaar. They would bang on the windows with their rolled-up umbrellas!'

I modelled at Bazaar myself once. We pirouetted up and down a strip of red carpet all day, to my own embarrassment, but to the envy of friends who came to watch. Quant herself was there to tweak the models’ hemlines to make sure they were the requisite shocking length, and her shop assistants were the epitome of British cool.

A very British thing 

Quant was altogether a very British thing. As was Pattie Boyd – the embodiment of a British ‘dolly bird’. Then living with George Harrison in Surrey, she remembers going into her local village. ‘I was verbally attacked by an irate woman, who asked, “Do you know what you look like?” Well, I knew I was wearing a fabulously short skirt by Mary Quant and an antique blouse, so I told her I thought my outfit was very cool. My knickers weren’t showing, so I didn’t see the problem! She snarled at me, then walked away!’

London was the home of the miniskirt, but woe betide you if you travelled. The Danish model and magazine cover girl Dot Jensen remembers wearing a miniskirt in Spain in 1964. ‘Barcelona was steeped in another century – girls still dressed as their mothers did. I was staying at the Ritz and as I stepped out of the revolving doors, men started screaming and grabbing me. I thought they were going to lynch me! I spent the rest of my time there covered from top to toe.’

A fashion trend 

They say that in boom times skirts rise and in recessions hemlines fall. The Sixties miniskirt was swiftly followed by the maxi, reflecting a new era of austerity. And although there’s currently an element of ‘any length goes’, the catwalk collections are featuring longer-length, demure day dresses and billowing, ankle-skimming gowns. Anyone who experienced the joyful freedom of wearing a miniskirt in 1965, the insouciance of sashaying down the street to wolf whistles and screeching tyres, will also remember the irritation of wrapping yards of Seventies tweed skirt round the handlebars of one’s bike before setting off. I know which I prefer. So, how did I feel wearing the mini in the privacy of my own home? Great, actually, but I won’t be wearing it again as the golden rule is that miniskirts look better on the young. It doesn’t matter whether the look is fun, girly and free, or a little bit tarty, the effect should be the same as it was in the Sixties: it should titillate and ensure a girl makes an entrance.

I leave the last word to the model Penelope Tree, whose huge eyes, straight fringe, heart-shaped face and long legs were photographed by David Bailey and Richard Avedon: ‘The miniskirt was a phenomenon – a genuinely original fashion trend. Nothing like it had been seen before. It was all about sex and freedom.’

Mary Quant: My Autobiography (Headline, £25)

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