The miniskirt myth

The sixties mini was the most self indulgent, optimistic 'look at me, isn't life wonderful' fashion ever devised. It expressed the sixties, the emancipation of women, the Pill and rock 'n' roll. ... It was the beginning of women's lib.

Mary Quant, 2012

Mary Quant has often been credited with 'inventing' the miniskirt – the most era-defining look of the 1960s. In reality, the introduction of 'above the knee' skirts was a gradual process. Contemporary photographs and surviving dresses show that it took until 1966 for skirts to become really short. Quant herself has acknowledged how the trend for rising hemlines was influenced by an emerging London street style, and a wider cultural shift towards informality and the break-down of social codes.

Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene in a New York dance hall, 1962. Photograph by John Cowan Mary Quant Archive

'Above the knee' skirts developed in tandem with rock and roll and other youth dance crazes from the late 1950s. Very early signs of the mini could also be detected in late-1950s couture. Balenciaga's 'sack dress', for example, introduced a simple, semi-fitted shape which took the emphasis away from the wearer's waist, while Yves Saint Laurent's 1959 Trapeze line for Dior promised to show more leg, or even some knee. The elite Paris couturier André Courrèges achieved international publicity for a couture collection featuring short skirts in April 1964. Away from the rarified world of Parisian couture houses however, it was young women like Quant, and schoolgirls on the streets, who were improvising short skirts.

Left to right: 'Sack' dress, Cristóbal Balenciaga, 1957 – 58, France. Museum no. T.90-1973. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Simone d'Aillemont in dress and jacket by André Courrèges, 1965. Photograph by John French

The same year that Courrèges showed shorter skirts on the catwalk, Quant's collections included girlish and pretty styles such as this lace dress, with a hemline that touched the knee, made for the cheaper 'Mary Quant's Ginger Group' label, launched in 1963. Our collection includes a version of this dress bought by Jenny Fenwick in Sheffield, who remembers, "Mary Quant epitomised a style which was different to the norm and meant that teenage girls like me, didn’t have to look like their mothers".

Lace dress labelled 'Mary Quant’s Ginger Group', 1964, UK. Museum no. T.58-2018. Given by Jenny Fenwick. Photographer Razvan Pestean, Creative Director: Musa. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dresses like this one were instrumental in bringing the miniskirt to the mass market. Jenny later shortened the hemline of her dress, reflecting the trend towards progressively shorter fashions (and the desire to prolong the life of the dress). It is now a challenge to find original surviving examples of dresses from 1964 and 1965 that don't have altered hemlines, as skirts rose to extreme heights towards the end of the 1960s. A contemporary photograph from 1964 shows Quant wearing a very similar version, with a hemline which touches the knee.

Left to right: Mary Quant wearing crochet dress, photograph by Shahrokh Hatami, 1964, Ernestine Carter Archive. Display board for Mary Quant's Ginger Group, about 1963, Mary Quant Archive

Quant was an early ambassador of the 'above the knee' look, sporting a knee-skimming skirt during a visit to New York as early as 1960. As a designer she enjoyed adapting minimal styles which subverted traditional social and gender roles – short hemlines suited her simple shift dresses, which were often modelled on schoolgirl pinafore dresses. With a growing presence in the media, Quant played a central role in the adoption of the miniskirt by contemporary women.

Op art stripes, Mary Quant, 1963, UK. Museum no. T.36-2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Returning to plain, practical fabrics and simple shapes for 1965, Quant's easy to mass-produce designs were in increasing demand in Britain, Europe and the USA. The term 'miniskirt' started to be used in newspaper reports that year ('mini', as an abbreviation of 'miniature' had been used to describe a 3-wheeled-car in the 1930s, followed by the Mini-Minor in 1959). In 1966, Quant's contribution to fashion was recognised by the Queen, with an OBE (Order of the British Empire) medal. Quant was photographed at Buckingham Palace wearing one of her own trademark jersey minidresses, helping to promote her distinctive look around the world.

Left to right: Dress worn by Mary Quant when receiving her OBE, Mary Quant, 1966, UK. Museum no. T.354-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photograph © Everett Collection Historical Alamy Stock Photo

The miniskirt proper arrived in 1966. Quant's most distinctive designs were made out of a type of wool jersey borrowed from sportswear – like stretched T-shirts or football tops – they were bright, comfortable and energising. Available in many plain colours and even a pink-and-silver lurex blend, some were modelled by the famous British fashion model Twiggy, who provided a new twist on the look and attitude. The look was further popularised by pop stars like Cilla Black.

Left to right: Jersey dress with pocket, Mary Quant, 1967, Mary Quant Archive. 'Footer' jersey dress, Mary Quant, 1967, Mary Quant Archive.

This example from 1966 was worn a good three inches above the knee by Deborah Cherry, who donated it to the museum. Designed to be worn with flat shoes, its comfortable, sporty silhouette enabled free movement and was a complete contrast to the waisted, high-heeled fashions of the 1950s. The super-short hemline, together with the romper suit effect, patch-pocket and 'Peter Pan' collar, demonstrates how Quant injected youth and fun into grown-up fashion.

Minidress with 'Peter Pan' collar, Mary Quant's Ginger Group, 1967, England. Museum no. T.61–2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Deborah Cherry

Despite provoking shock and outrage among the older generation, over the following few years, the mini became an accepted part of fashion for younger people, alongside the 'midi' and 'maxi' dress styles that came in during 1968. The mini remained an international symbol of London's youthful look, and of women's liberation, though some campaigners later associated it with an over-sexualised stereotype. Today, micro-minis are seen both on the street and the catwalk. Twenty-first century fashion owes a debt of freedom and creativity to the trailblazing Mary Quant.

'Eclair' dress, Mary Quant’s Ginger Group, 1969, UK. Museum no. T.90–2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Header image:

Photographer Razvan Pestean, Creative Director: Musa. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London