A miniskirt (sometimes hyphenated as "mini-skirt") is a skirt with a hemline well above the knees, generally at mid-thigh level, normally no longer than 10 cm (4 in) below the buttocks; and a dress with such a hemline is called a minidress or a miniskirt dress. A micro-miniskirt or microskirt is a miniskirt with its hemline at the upper thigh.
Short skirts have existed for a long time, though they were generally not called "mini" until the 1960s. Instances of clothing resembling miniskirts have been identified by archaeologists and historians as far back as c.1390–1370 BCE. In the early 20th century, the dancer Josephine Baker's banana skirt that she wore for her mid-1920s performances in the Folies Bergère was subsequently likened to a miniskirt. Extremely short skirts became a staple of 20th-century science fiction, particularly in 1940s pulp artwork such as that by Earle K. Bergey who depicted futuristic women in a "stereotyped combination" of metallic miniskirt, bra and boots. Hemlines were just above the knee in 1961, and gradually climbed upward over the next few years. By 1966, some designs had the hem at the upper thigh. Stockings with suspenders were not considered practical with miniskirts and were replaced with coloured tights. The popular acceptance of miniskirts peaked in the "Swinging London" of the 1960s, and has continued to be commonplace, particularly among younger women. Before that time, short skirts were only seen in sport and dance clothing, such as skirts worn by female tennis players, figure skaters, cheerleaders, and dancers.
While very short skirts have existed for a long time, they were generally not called "mini" until the 1960s. Figurines produced by the Vinča culture (c.5700-4500 BCE) have been interpreted by archaeologists as representing women in miniskirt-like garments. One of the oldest surviving garments resembling a miniskirt is the short woollen skirt with bronze ornaments worn by the Egtved Girl for her burial in the Nordic Bronze Age (c.1390–1370 BCE).
One of the earliest known cultures where women regularly wore clothing resembling miniskirts was a subgroup of the Miao people of China, the Duan Qun Miao (Chinese: 短裙苗; pinyin: duǎn qún miáo, literally "short skirt Miao"). In albums produced during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) from the early eighteenth century onwards to illustrate the various types of Miao, the Duan Qun Miao women were depicted wearing "mini skirts that barely cover the buttocks." At least one of the "One Hundred Miao Pictures" albums contains a poem that specifically describes how the women's short skirts and navel-baring styles were an identifier for this particular group.
Extremely short skirts became a staple of 20th-century science fiction, particularly in 1940s pulp artwork such as that by Earle K. Bergey who depicted futuristic women in a "stereotyped combination" of metallic miniskirt, bra and boots. The "sci-fi miniskirt" was seen in genre films and television programmes as well as on comic book covers. The very short skirts worn by regular female characters Carol and Tonga (played by Virginia Hewitt and Nina Bara) in the 1950–55 television series Space Patrol have been suggested as probably the first 'micro-minis' to have been seen on American television. It was later seen as remarkable that only one formal complaint relating to the skirts could be recalled, and that by an ad agency in relation to an upwards shot of Carol climbing a ladder. Hewitt pointed out that even though the complainant claimed they could see up her skirt, her matching tights rendered her effectively clothed from neck to ankle. Otherwise, Space Patrol was applauded for being wholesome and family-friendly, even though the women's short skirts would have been unacceptable in other contexts. Although the 30th-century women in Space Patrol were empowered, experts in their field, and largely treated as equals, "it was the skirts that fuelled indelible memories." The Space Patrol skirts were not the shortest to be broadcast at the time – the German-made American 1954 series Flash Gordon showed Dale Arden (played by Irene Champlin) in an even shorter skirt.
The manager of an unnamed shop in London's Oxford Street began experimenting in 1960 with skirt hemlines an inch above the knees of window mannequins, and noted how positively his customers responded. Hemlines were just above the knee in 1961, and gradually climbed upward over the next few years. By 1966, some designs had the hem at the upper thigh. Stockings with suspenders were not considered practical with miniskirts and were replaced with coloured tights. Towards the end of the 1960s, an even shorter version, called the microskirt or micro-mini, emerged.
Extremely short skirts, some as much as eight inches above the knee, were observed in Britain in the summer of 1962. The young women who wore these short skirts were called "Ya-Ya girls," a term derived from "yeah, yeah" which was a popular catcall at the time. One retailer noted that the fashion for layered net crinoline petticoats raised the hems of short skirts even higher. The designer Mary Quant was quoted as saying that "short short skirts" indicated youthfulness which was seen as desirable, fashion-wise.
The earliest known reference to the miniskirt is in a humorous 1962 article datelined Mexico City and describing the "mini-skirt" or "Ya-Ya" as a controversial item of clothing that was the latest thing on the production line there. The article characterized the miniskirt as stopping eight inches above the knee. It referred to a writing by a psychiatrist, whose name it did not provide, who had argued that the miniskirt was a youthful protest of international threats to peace. Much of the article described the reactions of men, who were said to favor the fashion on young women to whom they were unrelated, but to oppose it on their own wives and fiancés.
Several designers have been credited with the invention of the 1960s miniskirt, most significantly the London-based designer Mary Quant and the Parisian André Courrèges. Although Quant reportedly named the skirt after her favourite make of car, the Mini, there is no consensus as to who designed it first. Valerie Steele has noted that the claim that Quant was first is more convincingly supported by evidence than the equivalent Courrèges claim. However, the contemporary fashion journalist Marit Allen, who edited the influential "Young Ideas" pages for UK Vogue, firmly stated that the British designer John Bates was the first to offer fashionable miniskirts. Other designers, including Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent, had also been raising hemlines at the same time.
The miniskirt is one of the garments most widely associated with Mary Quant. Quant herself is ambivalent about the claim that she invented the miniskirt, stating that her customers should take credit, as she herself wore very short skirts, and they requested even shorter hemlines for themselves. Regardless of whether or not Quant invented the miniskirt, it is widely agreed that she was one of its highest-profile champions. Quant loved Mini Cooper cars and named the garment after them, saying that car and skirt were both "optimistic, exuberant, young, flirty," and complemented each other.
Quant had started experimenting with shorter skirts in the late 1950s, when she started making her own designs up to stock her boutique on the King's Road. Among her inspirations was the memory of seeing a young tap-dancer wearing a "tiny skirt over thick black tights," influencing her designs for young, active women who did not wish to resemble their mothers. In addition to the miniskirt, Quant is often credited with inventing the coloured and patterned tights that tended to accompany the garment, although their creation is also attributed to the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga who offered harlequin-patterned tights in 1962 or to Bates.
Courrèges has explicitly claimed that he invented the mini, and accused Quant of only "commercialising" it. He presented short skirts measuring four inches above the knee in January 1965 for that year's Spring/Summer collection, although some sources claim that Courrèges had been designing miniskirts as early as 1961, the year he launched his couture house. The collection, which also included trouser suits and cut-out backs and midriffs, was designed for a new type of athletic, active young woman. Courrèges had presented "above-the-knee" skirts in the previous year, with his August 1964 haute couture presentation proclaimed the "best show seen so far" for that season by The New York Times. The Courrèges look, featuring a knit bodystocking with a gabardine miniskirt slung around the hips, was widely copied and plagiarised, much to the designer's chagrin, and it would be 1967 before he again held a press showing for his work. Steele has described Courrèges's work as a "brilliant couture version of youth fashion" whose sophistication far outshone Quant's work, although she champions the Quant claim. Others, such as Jess Cartner-Morley of The Guardian explicitly credit him, rather than Quant, as the miniskirt's creator.
The idea that John Bates, rather than Quant or Courrèges, innovated the miniskirt had an influential champion in Marit Allen, who as editor of the influential "Young Ideas" pages for UK Vogue, kept track of up-and-coming young designers. In 1966 she chose Bates to design her mini-length wedding outfit in white gabardine and silver PVC. In January 1965 Bates's "skimp dress" with its "short-short skirt" was featured in Vogue, and would later be chosen as the Dress of the Year. Bates was also famous for having designed mini-coats and dresses and other outfits for Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg) in the TV series The Avengers, although the manufacturers blocked his request for patterned tights to enable Emma Peel to fight in skirts if necessary.
An alternative origin story for the miniskirt came from Barbara Hulanicki of the London boutique Biba, who recalled that in 1966 she received a delivery of stretchy jersey skirts that had shrunk drastically in transit. Much to her surprise, the ten-inch long garments rapidly sold out.
In 1967 Rudi Gernreich was among the first American designers to offer miniskirts, in the face of strongly worded censure and criticism from American couturiers James Galanos and Norman Norell. Criticism of the miniskirt also came from the Paris couturier Coco Chanel,who declared the style "disgusting" despite being herself famed for supporting shorter skirts in the 1920s.
Owing to Quant's position in the heart of fashionable "Swinging London", the miniskirt was able to spread beyond a simple street fashion into a major international trend. The style came into prominence when Jean Shrimpton wore a short white shift dress, made by Colin Rolfe, on 30 October 1965 at Derby Day, first day of the annual Melbourne Cup Carnival in Australia, where it caused a sensation. According to Shrimpton, who claimed that the brevity of the skirt was due mainly to Rolfe's having insufficient material, the ensuing controversy was as much as anything to do with her having dispensed with a hat and gloves, seen as essential accessories in such a conservative society.
Upper garments, such as rugby shirts, were sometimes adapted as mini-dresses. With the rise in hemlines, the wearing of tights or pantyhose, in place of stockings, became more common. Some European countries banned mini-skirts from being worn in public, claiming they were an invitation to rapists. In response, Quant retorted that there was clearly no understanding of the tights worn underneath.
The response to the miniskirt was particularly harsh in Africa, where many state governments saw them as an un-African garment and part of the corrupting influence of the West. Young city-dwelling African women who wore Western clothing such as the miniskirt were particularly at risk of attack based on their clothing, although Robert Ross notes that gender roles and politics were also a key factor. The urban woman earning her own living and independence was seen as a threat to masculine authority, particularly if she wore clothing seen as un-African. Short skirts were seen as indicating that their wearer was a prostitute, and by conflation, a witch who drained male-dominated society of its vitality and energy. In addition to prostitute and witch, miniskirts also became associated with secretaries, schoolgirls and undergraduates, and young women with "sugar daddies" as lovers or boyfriends. Andrew M. Ivaska has noted that these various tropes boiled down to a basic fear of female power, fear that a woman would use her education or sexual power to control men and/or achieve her own independence, and that the miniskirt therefore became a tangible object of these fears.
In 1968 the Youth League of Tanzania's ruling TANU party launched Operation Vijana. Organised and run by young men, Vijana was a morality campaign targeting indecent clothing, which led to attacks on women with at least one stoning reportedly triggered by the victim's miniskirt. Gangs of youths patrolled bus stations and streets looking for women dressed "inappropriately," and dealing out physical attacks and beatings. In Ethiopia, an attack on women wearing miniskirts triggered a riot in which a hundred cars were set on fire and fifty people injured.
Kamuzu Banda, president of Malawi, described miniskirts as a "diabolic fashion which must disappear from the country once and for all." It is also reported that Kenneth Kaunda, president of Zambia, cited apartheid and the miniskirt as his two primary hates. By the mid-1970s the Zanzibar revolutionary party had forbidden both women and men from wearing a long list of garments, hairstyles and cosmetics, including miniskirts.
From 1969 onwards, the fashion industry largely returned to longer skirts such as the midi and the maxi. Journalist Christopher Booker gave two reasons for this reaction: firstly, that "there was almost nowhere else to go ... the mini-skirts could go no higher"; and secondly, in his view, "dressed up in mini-skirts and shiny PVC macs, given such impersonal names as 'dolly birds', girls had been transformed into throwaway plastic objects". Certainly this lengthening of hemlines coincided with the growth of the feminist movement. However, in the 1960s the mini had been regarded as a symbol of liberation, and it was worn by some, such as Germaine Greer and, in the following decade, Gloria Steinem,. Greer herself wrote in 1969 that:
The women kept on dancing while their long skirts crept up, and their girdles dissolved, and their nipples burst through like hyacinth tips and their clothes withered away to the mere wisps and ghosts of draperies to adorn and glorify ...
Indeed, miniskirts never entirely went away and, for example, were often worn by Deborah Harry, of the group Blondie, during the "new wave" of the late 70s. The song "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" (1978), by new wave artist Elvis Costello, contained the line: "There's no place here for the mini-skirt waddle".
In spring of 1982, (see June Time Magazine) short skirts began to re-emerge, notably in the form of "rah-rahs", which were modeled on those worn by female cheerleaders at sporting and other events. In 1985, the British designer Vivienne Westwood offered her first "mini-crini," an abbreviated version of the Victorian crinoline. Its mini-length, bouffant silhouette inspired the puffball skirts widely presented by more established designers such as Christian Lacroix. In 1989, Westwood's mini-crini was described as having combined two conflicting ideals – the crinoline, representing a "mythology of restriction and encumbrance in woman's dress," and the "equally dubious mythology of liberation" associated with the miniskirt.
From the 1980s, many women began to incorporate the miniskirt into their business attire, a trend which grew during the remainder of the century. The titular character of the 1990s television program Ally McBeal, a lawyer portrayed by Calista Flockhart, has been credited with popularising micro-skirts.
The very short skirt is an element of Japanese school uniform which since the 1990s has been exploited by young women who are part of the kogal (or gyaru) subculture as part of their look. Gyaru deliberately wear their skirts short enough to reveal panties (actually a second pair worn over actual knickers) as a form of exhibitionism known as panchira.
In the early 21st century micro-minis were once again revived. In 2003 Tom Ford, at that time described as one of the few designers able to effortlessly dictate changes in fashion, stated that micro-skirts would be the height of fashion for Spring/Summer 2003. For fashionable wear, early 21st century microskirts were often worn with leggings or tights in order to avoid revealing too much. At this time, an even briefer version of the micro-mini emerged, creating a garment sometimes described as a "belt-skirt."
A BBC article in 2014 wrote that miniskirts remained as contemporary a garment as ever, retaining their associations with youth. In an early 2010s study the department store Debenhams found that women continued buying miniskirts up to the age of 40, whilst 1983 studies showed that 33 years old was when the average woman had stopped buying them. Debenham's report concluded that by the 2020s, miniskirts would be seen as a wardrobe staple for British women in their 40s and early 50s.
Despite this, in the early 21st century, miniskirts are still seen as controversial, and remain subject to bans and regulation. Valerie Steele told the BBC in 2014 that even though miniskirts no longer had the power to shock in most Western cultures, she would hesitate to wear one in most parts of the world. She described the garment as symbolic of looking forward to future freedom and backwards to a "much more restricted past." and noted that international rises in extreme conservatism and religious fundamentalism had led to an anti-women backlash, some of which was shown through censure and criticism of women wearing "immodest" clothing. In 2010 the mayor of Castellammare di Stabia ordered that police fine women for wearing "very short" miniskirts. In the 2000s, a ban on miniskirts at a teacher's college in Kemerovo was claimed by lawyers to be against the terms of equality and human rights as laid out by the Russian constitution, whilst in Chile, the women's minister, Carolina Schmidt, described a regional governor's ban on public employees wearing minis and strapless tops as "absolute nonsense" and challenged their right to regulate other people's clothing. In July 2010, Southampton city council also tried to regulate their female employees's wardrobes, telling them to avoid miniskirts and dress "appropriately."
Miniskirts regularly crop up in Africa as part of controversies, something that has continued since the 1960s. In the early 21st century alone, instances have included a proposed ban on miniskirts in Uganda justified by claiming that they were a dangerous distraction to drivers and would cause road accidents, and in 2004, a leaflet campaign in Mombasa instructed women to dress modestly and "shun miniskirts", leading to the Kenyan government denying that they wanted a ban. Since the 1990s, women perceived to be "indecently dressed" might be stripped in public often by gangs of men, but sometimes by other women. These acts took place in Kenya, Zambia and elsewhere, including incidents in Johannesburg in 2008 and 2011 which led to similar attacks in various states including Sudan, Malawi, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. The President of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, was forced to make a statement in 2012 after male gangs forcibly stripped women in Lilongwe and Mzuzu. By this point, "miniskirt protests" regularly followed these acts of violence, with the protesters defiantly wearing miniskirts. In late February 2010, a group of about 200 Ugandan women demonstrated against a so-called "miniskirt law," an anti-pornography legislation which specifically forbade women to dress "in a manner designed to sexually excite," or from wearing clothing that revealed their thighs and/or other body parts. Uganda revisited their proposed ban in 2013, with Simon Lokodo, Minister of Ethics and Integrity, proposing another anti-pornography bill which would outlaw revealing "intimate parts," defined as "anything above the knee," and vowing that women who wore miniskirts would be arrested. While most of these proposed bans come from male politicians, in 2009 Joice Mujuru, Zimbabwe's Vice President, had to deal with rumours that she intended to ban miniskirts and trousers for women. In Africa, one of the main issues with the miniskirt since the 1960s is that it is seen as representative of protest against predominantly male authority, an accusation also applied to trousers for women which are perceived as blurring the gender divide.
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