In early 1965, a revolution—one that was a little bit cultural and a little bit fashionable—was brewing. Thirty-one-year-old London-based designer Mary Quant watched the sassy young women in her Chelsea boutique roll up the waistbands of their skirts to force the hemlines even higher than the knee-baring styles of the era allowed, and decided to take things a step further. And so on September 1, 1965, at a happening new fashion event in New York City billed a “Youthquake,” Quant debuted that itty bitty scrap of clothing that would become the bane of conservative parents and even later—much later—a metaphor for women’s liberation: the miniskirt.
A to-the-letter fashion historian will pertly inform the doubtful that experts have long debated which designer technically “invented” the miniskirt. Some of those experts give the credit to Frenchman André Courrèges, whose skirts in collections a year prior had daringly featured a hint of thigh, while other designers had slyly snipped a centimeter or so off their own hemlines, too. It’s true that hemlines had been creeping toward and over the knee for years before Quant’s pixie-bobbed models kicked up their go-go boots that September day and exposed as much as seven inches of flesh above their gamine kneecaps. But Quant’s Youthquake styles were the ones that ultimately got the most attention, and she herself coined the name “miniskirt,” a homage to her favorite car, British Motor Corporation’s Mini. Further, Quant’s hemlines jumped higher and faster than anyone else’s, infuriating the French who had previously cornered the market on any and all fashion trends. Historians can debate the technicalities until hemlines fall and rise and fall again, but Quant justifiably deserves the most credit.
Along with Quant’s groundbreaking hemlines came her unusual marketing plan. The designer—a founder of Britain’s mod movement and an originator of Vidal Sassoon’s five-point inverted bob—understood that young people, rather than grown women, were setting the trends of the 1960s, and so she catered to them instead of their parents. Hence, the Youthquake. In contrast to the traditional presentation of a staid and serious fashion show, Quant launched an eight-city department-store tour, with raucous music played live by the Skunks and models convulsing under swirling lights in the dances of the day: the Jerk, the Frug, the Twist and the Monkey. Music and mods were inseparable, declared Quant, and her rock-show-meets-fashion-show spectacles drew up to 3,000 of the newly faithful.
Quant’s shows were the very definition of groovy, and were already smash hits in such cities as Kansas City, Akron and Nashville by the time the designer’s kicky crew reached New York for the show that really counted: the one the press reviewed. But by September, short hemlines—and the swinging lifestyle that accompanied them—had already seduced teens across the U.S. The ironically named Puritan Fashion Group produced that year’s collection of 60 Quant pieces right on American soil, a tactic that allowed retail prices to stay low. At just $20 to $30 per garment, soon every girl’s closet was filled with her Pop Art–inspired designs. By 1968, every other designer in the known world had followed the hemline’s upward trajectory, and Quant proclaimed the miniskirt “a fashion classic that will never be replaced.” And yet by the following decade, Quant was back to making knee-length and even longer skirts, explaining that “the mini has served its purpose of proving that woman is emancipated. …We can get back to normal.”
Not so fast, Mary. The miniskirt, as you yourself convinced us, can never, ever be replaced. —Rachel Chambers