First of all, as a social phenomenon, the mini-skirt becomes popular in the Swinging Sixties, and drags along throughout the decade, the most important in the whole of the 20th century, as regards lifestyle. This is shown by the ongoing contrasting opinions on the period: for some it was the golden age paving the way for new freedoms, for others the dark decades that brought about the dissolution of morals, authority and discipline. In both cases, the garment became a true manifesto.
In a time as dandier as ever, a mixture of conservativeness, boldness and eccentricity, reaching emancipation from certain social behaviors and clothes: fed up with gloves, heels and corsets, rebelling against bourgeois society, hypocrite and suffocating, women challenge the boundaries and embrace comfort and short hairstyles flaunting colored stockings, flat shoes and mini-skirts, experimenting even with technological fabric inserts. From that moment on an inexorable reverse process would start: the street would affect fashion houses, and not just the other way around.
London is the epicenter, with Vidal Sassoon’s haircuts, the Beatles rivaling with the Rolling Stones, David Bailey portraying the fashion trends of the moment, Michelangelo Antonioni depicting his character, in his cult-movie Blow Up, in 1966. A film in which Vera Gottliebe Anna von Lehndorff-Steinort, aka Veruschka, plays herself, in a cameo role as a model.
It was Twiggy, however, 16 years old and weighing less than 100Lb, that would become the undisputed queen of models, so much that she was able to retire, rich and famous enough, at just 19. The skinny, doe-eyed teenager was the first to become a mainstream idol, starting a trend that would have turned super-models into an integral part of pop culture, on a par with musicians and actors. A photo depicts her, clad in total yellow, wearing matching mini-skirt, shoes and tights, sitting in a car that pushes its way through the Fifth avenue crowd, that has gathered to celebrate the arrival of a star, Twiggy, while visiting New York.
These are years full of dynamism and movement, aesthetics and ideas, perfectly summed up by Helmut Newton in March 1967: a TV set and a telephone on the floor, a cat that jumps skirting the ceiling, Twiggy suspended in the air sporting a mini-shirt dress by Mary Quant, whose stripes stood vertically.
Meanwhile, singer Sandie Shaw gets onstage barefoot wearing diminutive lengths, while Jane Birkin wears the shortest imaginable miniskirt – maybe she does even nowadays – dancing in a Parisian disco, locked in an embrace with Serge Gainsbourg, clad in a black biker jacket. The echoes of the beauty of model and actress Uschi Obermaier comes from Germany, the icon of the 1968 generation, in her role as a sex symbol, scantily dressed.
Going back, to the source, we find costume-makers John Bates (who designed some of Diana Rigg’s outfits in the TV series The Avengers) and Helen Rose, who created some very short skirts (partly inspired by Roman tunics) worn on set by actress Anne Francis in sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, a visionary film shot in 1956.
Although, even before that, at the end of the 19th century, French feminist Hubertine Auclert even created the League in defense of short skirts, and already in the 20s the clothes worn by young women in some cases were above the knee, so much that a “regulation” on “hemlines” was issued in the US.
Back to the 60s and to the mini-invasion, among the style sources we find, on one side, the space age wave started by French designers Courrèges and Cardin, on the other the more beat-like style of the London streets.
It was 1964, and Courrèges presented the ‘Space age’ collection: on the runway the models sported super-tight mini-dresses and body suits, white boots and lunar sheath dresses. Courrèges included a mini-skirt worn with booties, the Go-go boots, in the 1965 Mod collection, incorporating it in the so-called haute couture, while his fellow countryman Pierre Cardin sent mini-skirts down the catwalk. And then there was the Mondrian line with its dynamic wool jersey rectangles that paid homage to Piet’s art, designed by Yves Saint Laurent in 1965: a global success that cuts the decade in half, just like the chromatic background of those day dresses.
But before them, there was Mary Quant. The British designer chooses Chelsea to open Bazaar, and creates a style which fills up the streets with women looking like her: bobbed hair, pale lips and vibrant eyes, colored stockings and mid-thigh skirts.
On the opposite side, Barbara Hulanick, the celebrated Biba, from her Kensington boutique proposes boas, velvets, tunics and Pre-Raphaelite outfits, lace and black nail varnish, the kind of decadence portrayed by photographer Sarah Moon.
Yet the mini-skirt remains the chief garment, paired with over-the-knee boots created by Roger Vivier, a 1.5-inch heel accompanying the legs covered in suede, or left bare and adorned with raffia, wrapped in clear plastic or clad in striped stretch fabric: in 1967 and 1968.
A small-big revolution, at first a scandal and later a mania, celebrates its infinite birthdays, re-aligning the silhouette with its length: minimal. A radical short that places the legs, clad in boots or simply bold, under the spotlight.
A length that makes a comeback in the 80s with Thierry Mugler, a short version in black leather, paired with studs, echoing punk style, with transgression brought about this time by the rhinestones of the countless jewels, perversely in contrast.
Among 1984 and 1986 comes Vivienne Westwood’s mini-crini , combining a ballet tutu with a post-crinoline, a garment metabolized especially in the showbiz. Singers and actresses in some cases turn it into one of their signature features, like British pop duo Pepsi & Shirlie or singer Deborah Harry, better-known as Blondie. Sported even by Princess Diana, the mini translates its look into the 90s, with a ‘sexy-TV’drift: Friends, Caroline in the City, Sex and the City, Melrose Place or Ally McBeal bring back to the fore the erotic side of such garment. As seen in Basic Instinct, in the famous sequence in which Sharon Stone makes a short sheath dress unforgettable. Unforgettable like the shot featuring the vibrant-hued vinyl mini-dresses designed by Versace in 1995, a different color for each model who will go down in the history of modeling.
In the 2000s, Harvey Nichols carried out a survey among its clients to single out the most-loved garment: the mini-skirt placed first. From the East came the Gothic Lolita trend, based mainly on the mini-skirt, while over-the-knee boots will make a comeback in 2010 fashion shows: what goes around comes around.