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Statement Dressing: How The Mini Skirt Became A Feminist Icon

When Mary Quant made miniskirts mainstream in the Swinging Sixties, polite society was shocked. We pay tribute to the late designer’s iconic creation that changed fashion forever.

When Mary Quant made miniskirts mainstream in the Swinging Sixties, polite society was shocked. From model Jean Shrimpton’s racy look at the races to Princess Diana’s revenge dress, we pay tribute to the late designer’s iconic creation that changed fashion forever.

Mary Quant

Mary Quant. (Credit: Image: Getty)

In the early ’60s, London designer Mary Quant began experimenting with hemlines. While thigh-baring  garments had been seen before, such as Josephine Baker’s 1926 banana skirt, Quant is credited with bringing the look to the high street. She was said to have named the mini after her favourite car – and it was an instant hit. While young women embraced the daring style, others were appalled, among them Coco Chanel, who reportedly said in a New York Times interview, “Have they all gone mad?” The meteoric rise of hemlines coincided with a burgeoning second-wave feminist movement. As a result, the mini became an enduring symbol of women’s liberation. Quant died in April 2023, aged 93, but she has forever made her mark on fashion and feminism.

Jean Shrimpton

Jean Shrimpton
Jean Shrimpton (Credit: Getty.)

It was the hemline that stopped a nation. When the British model (above) turned up trackside baring her knees at Derby Day in 1965, Melbourne society clutched its pearls. Eschewing the usual hat, gloves and stockings, she was met with a shocked silence from the members stand, before being subjected to catcalls. Photographers reportedly shot from below to make the dress appear even shorter.

Sharon Tate

Sharon Tate
Sharon Tate. (Credit: Getty Images.)
When the Valley of the Dolls star wed Roman Polanski in 1968, she bucked tradition and wore an ivory silk moiré babydoll frock she had co-designed with Hollywood custom couturier Alba.

Gloria Steinem 

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem (Credit: Getty.)

Dubbed “the miniskirted pinup girl of the intelligentsia” by The Washington Post, journalist and pioneer of second-wave feminism Steinem was proof that style and substance are not mutually exclusive. The activist frequently wore short skirts or minidresses to speaking engagements and TV appearances, such as this one (right) in New York in 1970, cementing the garment’s status as a symbol of the movement.

The Right To Bare Legs

Rape came before mini skirts
A protester. (Credit: Getty.)

After Londoner Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered by a police officer in 2021, widespread demonstrations were held; at one in central London, this protester delivered a sobering message.

Princess Diana

Princess Diana
Princess Diana. (Credit: Getty.)

Wearing what was dubbed the “revenge dress”, the Princess of Wales headed out to a Vanity Fair event in London  in 1994. It was the same night that Prince Charles admitted his infidelity on national television. The short black Christina Stambolian dress had been in Diana’s wardrobe – unworn – for three years, as she had felt it was too daring to wear in public. Until then. Diana’s stylist, Anna Harvey, said that the princess “wanted to look a million dollars … and she did”.

Debbie Harry

Debbie Harry
Debbie Harry. (Credit: Getty Images.)
The style fell out of fashion in the 1970s, when A-line maxis and flares took over. Blondie’s lead singer remained faithful to the mini and wore it on stage throughout the decade.

Alley Mcbeal

Ally Mcbeal
Alley Mcbeal. (Credit: Getty.)

The popular ’90s TV series set in a Boston law firm courted much criticism for the bare-legged titular character played by Calista Flockhart. Her skirts were deemed too short, her legs too thin. In 1998, Time ran a cover with McBeal in a lineup with Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Beneath the image of McBeal was the question: “Is feminism dead?” Suffice to say it hasn’t dated well.

Paris Hilton

Paris Hilton
Paris Hilton. (Credit: Getty.)

In the noughties no-one wore minis quite like the heiress, who famously proclaimed “skirts should be the size of a belt”. She wore this much-replicated Julien Macdonald chainmail dress to celebrate her 21st birthday in 2002.

Geri Halliwell 

Geri Halliwell
Geri Halliwell. (Credit: Getty.)
Pronouncing the black Gucci mini she was meant to wear to the 1997 Brit Awards “boring”, the Spice Girl asked her sister to stitch a Union Jack tea towel to the dress. The provocative result was instantly iconic, and has become an everlasting symbol of “girl power.”

On The Runway 

Miu Miu
(Credit: Getty.)
Since Mary Quant debuted her groundbreaking designs in the early ’60s, others have continued to reinvent the mini. In 1994, Karl Lagerfeld put a thoroughly modern spin on the Chanel suit with hemlines that Coco likely would not have approved. In 2003, Gucci creative director Tom Ford declared it was the “decade of the micro mini” at his spring/summer show. Anna Sui’s 2012 skirt and matching pants set showed just how short skirts could go. And emerging from two years of lockdowns, Miuccia Prada’s low-slung raw edged version for Miu Miu in 2022 sent the fashion world into a frenzy.

Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X. (Credit: Getty.)

Proving the future is fluid, miniskirts have been worn by some of the hottest male and gender-fluid pop stars of today, including British singers Harry Styles and Sam Smith. US rapper Lil Nas X wore miniskirt sets on stage frequently throughout his Long Live Montero tour in 2022-’23. Of the first time he debuted the look, he said, “I was really nervous about going out on stage in front of my family and everybody in my cute little Coach skirt. But as soon as I walked out, I felt like I was setting my younger self free.”

This story originally appeared in the June issue of marie claire Australia.

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