The miniskirt’s move from empowerment to objectification
By Briana Kerensky
In 2008, the mini-skirt is an article of fashion that seems to be reserved for a few different types of people. These include but are not limited to: women just “trying to put themselves through college,” women working too hard for attention, models, drag queens, and Photoshopped pictures of Sarah Palin.
So, in short (yes, the pun was intended), the mini-skirt is something we often associate with people of a particularly skanky nature. But in the late 1960s, this flimsy piece of clothing for women was equal to long hair for men; it was a generational symbol of sticking it to The Man.
Described by the Web site Icons: a Portrait of England, the mini-skirt is “the first skirt to go above the knee since prehistoric man chose to slip into something more comfortable.” Before the arrival of the mini-skirt, it wasn’t appropriate for women to wear clothing any higher than the knee.
Of course, it wasn’t always the knee that marked the line between “tasteful” and “what a whore.”
Until the 1920s, showing an ankle was enough to raise eyebrows. Then the flappers came along during the Jazz Age, and charlestoned their way into fashion history with higher hemlines.
The fact that the mini-skirt, a product of England, came about in the late 1960s was no coincidence. The “Swinging 60s” was the first decade that schooling until age 15 was available to all women in England. More women than ever were attending universities and the workplace received an influx of females. The 1967 Abortion Act legalized abortion in England and in 1969 married women were allowed to file for divorce, no matter what the marital circumstances were. England was suddenly becoming a woman’s world.
The modern incarnation of the mini-skirt is the brainchild of London boutique Bazaar owner Mary Quant. The silhouettes were simple – geometric forms made out of cotton and PVC. Quant is credited with inventing colored and patterned tights, although this accessory is also attributed to Cristobal Balenciaga.
To the younger generation the mini-skirt was the official uniform of second wave feminism’s coming-out party. Women were going to college and working to reach their own goals and could get married when they damn well wanted to. The shortened hemline was seen as a celebration of the female form and addressed one of the most urgent concerns of the Women’s Liberation Movement by giving women a sense of control over their own sexuality. The mini-skirt was a ready-to-wear, affordable and daring outfit designed for women, by a woman, in a fashion industry dominated by men.
The style of the skirt tended to vary by nation. In the United States, in the late ‘60s the average mini-skirt length was four inches above the knee. In England, girls were wearing it as high as seven or eight inches. But no matter the length, women were wearing minis.
Pamela Church-Gibson of the London College of Fashion said, “there wasn’t any freedom… Everybody had to wear a mini-skirt, whatever your legs were like… it really was a diktat… Even the Queen felt compelled to shorten her skirts. It shows just how tyrannical it was.”
1968 was also when the mini-skirt began to receive some of its worst backlash. Of course, the older generation for the most part was uncomfortable with the mini from the start. Schools in the United States would suspend girls for wearing them. In England some stores wouldn’t carry mini-skirts, claiming they were too small, even for the lingerie department. But in 1968, when the women’s liberation movement was in full swing, the outfit began to receive negative reviews from the very people the mini-skirt was intended for.
The argument was that when a woman wears a mini-skirt, people only see the legs, not the brain. The outfit has a dehumanizing effect, and turns its wearers into sexual objects. If a woman was whistled at and pinched while wearing something so revealing, she was “asking for it.” Some men charged with cases of assault and sexual harassment used the same argument, saying that their victim’s mini-skirts made them think they would consent to their actions.
The mini-skirt evolved from something women could wear to show they controlled their sexuality, to an outfit inviting others to control it for them. And today, when search the term “mini-skirt” in Google Images, you get thousands of pictures of women truly being sexually objectified. But for just a little while, in the 1960s, showing a little leg equaled showing a little power.
Briana Kerensky is a junior journalism major. E-mail her at email@example.com.