When Jean Shrimpton wore the first miniskirt in 1965, the world’s media united in outrage. Fifty years on, no one bats an eye at this iconic garment. Why was there all the fuss then, asks Bertie Bowen.
Fifty years ago Jean Shrimpton arrived at The Derby Day Races in Melbourne wearing a simple white shift dress and the world lost its shit. Why? The dress was above her knees. Yes, just 50 years ago you were able to shock the world with the length of a dress. That dress became internationally infamous overnight and sparked a new trend so that just one year later, at the same event, miniskirts were the norm.
How times have changed. These days you have to wear an outfit made of raw meat to make an impact – and you probably still won’t start a worldwide fashion phenomenon. Well, I haven’t seen many people on the street wearing bacon shoes yet.
I have watched the footage of Shrimpton arriving that day in 1965 and I was also shocked. Shocked because her dress could barely be called a ‘mini’ by today’s standards; it is only a few inches above her knees (10cm to be exact) and she looks lovely.
In 1965 Shrimpton was the highest paid model in the world and was simply doing her job; turn up to the event, wear the clothes provided and smile for the camera. This particular dress hadn’t had enough fabric to be made the length the design dictated but she wore it anyway, and why not? It was a hot day, which meant she also didn’t bother with tights, gloves or hat – another faux pas for the era.
Shrimpton was not being contentious; she was merely being pragmatic. She didn’t plan on causing controversy; she was just being young. The Australian press went wild: photographers lay on the floor to get an upward shot to make the skirt appear even shorter; she was catcalled and jeered at by the crowd. Vicious behaviour much more shocking than a pair of exposed knees.
Stylist Gemma Shanley wrote an essay on Shrimpton while studying fashion at college in 1997. Shanley was fascinated by Shrimpton, who was notoriously private and hadn’t given a press interview in years but agreed to let Shanley into her home because she was a student. Asked what she thought of contemporary fashion, Shrimpton replied, “Boring as hell.”
Shrimpton came from a generation that truly pissed off their parents with their music, their clothes and their long hair. They had a fresh attitude and outlook on life and the energy was dangerously contagious. They threatened the status quo, which is why the older generation was so appalled – they realised the power of this. The mini threatened traditional hemlines and fast became iconic.
I asked Janet Street-Porter if she remembered reading about Shrimpton at the time. She was in her first year at college in 1965 and was making most of her clothes herself, but she does remember one particular dress she bought: “It was a black, ribbed, skin-tight, high-necked, long-sleeved minidress by Mary Quant…”
“Shrimpton was used as someone to lash out at, as if she was being made an example of, like a naughty schoolgirl.”
Everyone I spoke to about the mini mentioned Quant. Quant was just 20 years old when she opened her first boutique on the King’s Road in 1955. By the early 60s she had opened a second store and started exporting to the USA. She was different to other designers because she was young, she sold her clothes ridiculously cheap and she listened to her teenage customers. When they asked for the skirts to be shorter, she made them shorter and claims it was the teens themselves that invented the mini, not her at all.
For the first time ever, teenagers were having a direct impact on the fashion industry and were finally able to wear what they wanted to wear. The changes in fashion were just part of the counterculture growing with undeniable speed and popularity in the 60s – all fuelled by youth. The mini represented a new liberal and fun attitude towards fashion and a step away from the current, outdated, conservative style.
The Shrimpton saga seems an overreaction; she was used as someone to lash out at, as if she was being made an example of, like a naughty schoolgirl. It was all too easy to be critical of her, a young woman in the public eye, wearing something deemed disrespectful and the press were more than happy to use her to enrage a generation losing control. Sadly, it sounds familiar, even nowadays, as the media place more importance on what women wear than what they say or do and their appearance is often cruelly judged. When is this going to change?
Fifty years on does the mini still hold such intrigue? Maybe not, but we’re definitely still wearing it. A-line, button-through, zip-up, patchwork, suede – the mini is back this winter in many forms and although the years have drained it of its power, it remains undeniably iconic.
I hope Shrimpton is wrong: I hope modern fashion is not “boring as hell’” and I hope to be shocked (and secretly proud) of what my teenage kids wear in the future. I want them to feel they have the freedom to be creative and experiment with image and identity. One day, I truly want to get a chance to say to them, “You’re going out wearing that? Good for you.”4087 Views
Stylist, writer and mother living in East London. A clompy shoed, curly haired, Radio 4 enthusiast. www.mothershoppers.com