How Mary Quant Married Fashion and Feminist Liberation Into a Single Outfit

The miniskirt designed to empower women besides being policed, opened discussions around female bodies & expression.

4 min read

Died a few days ago, at 93, Mary Quant, the British fashion designer who made history for inventing the miniskirt in the 1960s. Young Mary won planetary fame—and also drew an avalanche of violent criticism because every costume revolution includes an inevitable other side of the coin—thanks to the immediate wildfire spread of that mini skirt churned out two inches above the knee which later rose to four with which she decided to disrupt the reigning formalism of the late 1950s and become the champion of the rebellion her generation was hatching in the Swinging London of the 1960s.

According to the legend, the first hem was shortened by Mary after a run behind a bus, risking missing her stop due to the hindrance of a skirt that restricted movement and freedom. According to another theory, the mini skirt is the daughter of André Courrèges, the French designer of portholes and sartorial rationalism. The truth is somewhat different: "Neither I nor Courrèges had the idea for the miniskirt. It was the street that invented it."

Mary Quant used to repeat to everyone. And she was right. For the first time in fashion history, it was not the designers who dictated the style, but the new generation. That was how that piece of cloth became a phenomenon.

The Making & Mainstreaming of the Miniskirt

In London, it liberated women's legs. In Paris, it angered the government, which even wrote a vice law against the mini. In Italy, it ended up worn only indoors at dance halls and villa parties. Soon, however, it became the official uniform of divas and ordinary women.

Its standard bearer was Twiggy, a skinny, teenage model who was a symbol of the new coming of age, young avant-gardists who shredded the idea of the curvy, motherly woman hopelessly confined to children and stoves. On the contrary, Twiggy and the mini represented athletic legs ready to run, to snap, to escape from the plastered role of women, constrained in the 1950s respectability mould—desired and packaged in favor of men.

But Mary's revolution was harshly criticised also by another revolutionary, an older one who, starting from 1919, was herself a bulwark of women's emancipation: Coco Chanel. She revolutionised the concept of feminine, managing to best interpret the modernist spirit of her era, freeing women from corsets and crinolines, dressing them in structured jackets hitherto, the preserve of men, combining elegance and refinement with comfort ("true elegance cannot be separated from the full possibility of free movement," one among her countless famous phrases) and leading their battle to independence, including economic independence.

The great Coco hated mini skirts, and commented on the first appearance of Mary's skirts with: “It's awful to see those knees!" According to Coco, knees are, in fact, among the less attractive parts of a woman's body, something to be ideally hidden. One of her famous aphorisms, "Fashion passes, style remains" and mini skirts, according to her, were everything but stylish. "She had lost the pace of fashion," Karl Lagerfeld would later declare, "And she understood it. She, who had dressed the ladies as their maids, now refused to admit that style came from the street and that the world had changed forever."

Following Coco's school of thought, the miniskirt, which imposes long, skinny legs, despite being worn by all sizes today without too much trouble, is a symbol of homologation rather than emancipation. Its inches of bare skin does not allow more movement, as Mary Quant dreamed, but impose more dieting on women and girls.

And its model Twiggy, has not generated freer women but teenagers more swayed by dubious thinness: Of course, Mademoiselle Chanel herself had many times declared that “a woman is never too rich or too thin”, but that is passe.

How Miniskirt Shaped Narratives Around Fashion & Feminine Emancipation

Despite all the controversies, the mini skirt is now a classic exactly like Chanel's iconic tweed suit. And, since 2015, mini skirt has even had its own "world day" on 6 June when Ben Othman, a Tunisian and President of the League in Defense of Secularism and Freedoms, together with feminist activist Najet Bayoudh invited all fellow Tunisians to participate in a miniskirt rally as a sign of solidarity for oppressed women.

At the origin of the protest was an incident of discrimination meted out to an Algerian girl who was prevented from taking school exams because her skirt was deemed too short. In addition, Quant also created jersey minidresses, ribbed fitted sweaters (the famous skinny-rib sweaters, which she devised after playfully tucking into an eight-year-old's sweater), pvc raincoats, hotpants, plastic ankle boots and brightly colored tights: all those that would have horrified Coco and her vision: "Elegance is to reduce it to the most chic, expensive, refined poverty."

But, despite their controversies and differences, mademoiselle Coco and Dame Mary, both revolutionaries and pioneers in different times, would have agreed on one thing non-negotiable: That every woman should be able to show as many inches of legs as she wants. Without feeling like a prey or a hunter. And no man or woman must be entitled to say that she is too naked or that her skirt is too short. My body, my choice, and that is the best moral in the miniskirt tale and controversy.

(Francesca Marino is a journalist and a South Asia expert who has written ‘Apocalypse Pakistan’ with B Natale. Her latest book is ‘Balochistan — Bruised, Battered and Bloodied’. She tweets @francescam63. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for his reported views.)

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