Liberating, Stultifying or Provocative: Mary Quant’s Miniskirt

Liberating, Stultifying or Provocative: Mary Quant’s Miniskirt

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│By Eloise Sinclair, Gale Ambassador at the University of Durham│

Mary Quant’s miniskirt of 1966 not only transformed the look of London’s youth but, according to Jonathan Aitken in a 1967 article in The Sunday Telegraph, inspired the “swinging revolution, the sexual revolution, the restaurant and night-club revolution”. The newspaper archives in Gale Primary Sources are particularly valuable for assessing the effect of Quant’s designs on the fashion industry and British culture, revealing the range of contemporary responses and reactions to this iconic item of clothing.

Miniskirts quickly became a symbol of women’s liberation and the changing times, empowering young women to express themselves and forge their own identity. For the first time ever “At 17 they no longer looked 40”. Miniskirts quickly became a symbol of women’s liberation and the changing times. Quant’s clothes ushered in a range of new words to British vocabulary, such as “trendy”. The Term Frequency tool in Gale Primary Sources reveals changes and continuities in language use, allowing users to track developments over time. This graph demonstrates that “trendy” was first popularised in the mid-sixties, demonstrating that Quant altered the whole of British culture and not just fashion. 

 The graph produced using the Term Frequency tool in Gale Primary Sources, showing the number of documents from 1800 to the present day containing the term ‘trendy’.
The graph produced using the Term Frequency tool in Gale Primary Sources, showing the number of documents from 1800 to the present day containing the term ‘trendy’.

The miniskirt incited strong reactions across the world. It was simultaneously embraced, denounced, celebrated and vilified.

Reaction in Paris

Quant’s miniskirt was not well received in Paris. In 1966, Helen Lazareff, the editor of Elle magazine did not believe that the miniskirt would become popular in France as it had in Britain because the French youth were not “so restrained that [they] had to break out” or “fight for freedom” like their British counterparts. Moreover, she argues that French men were far fonder of women than English men and did not “want them to go to such extremes” to attract their attention, revealing the contemporary assumption that young women embraced the miniskirt to attract a man, believing that the racier the garment, the more desirable a man they would get. This article demonstrates the extent to which women’s appearance was debated in private, and in the public press.

 Richard, Poppy. "Why chic Parisiennes are saying ‘non, non’ to the mini-skirt." Daily Telegraph, 4 May 1966, p. 15. The Telegraph Historical Archive
Richard, Poppy. “Why chic Parisiennes are saying ‘non, non’ to the mini-skirt.” Daily Telegraph, 4 May 1966, p. 15. The Telegraph Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/Bid3V3

Reaction in Russia

In Russia, the miniskirt was not deemed as a way to ensnare men but as a distraction that would prevent the youth from “[achieving] a social revolution”. Miss A. Belskaya linked the miniskirt with “the idea that young people should ‘dance every night until they are dizzy, play at free love, smoke marijuana’”. She viewed the miniskirt as a capitalist attack on socialism, stating that Quant has “been well rewarded by big business for her ideological attack”.

 Pryke, David. "Russians denounce the capitalist Miss Quant." Daily Mail, 27 Feb. 1974, p. 3. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004
Pryke, David. “Russians denounce the capitalist Miss Quant.” Daily Mail, 27 Feb. 1974, p. 3. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/BidFM2

Reaction in Britain

The reaction in Britain was far more varied than in France and Russia. The garment which excited and inspired the youth horrified the older generation. Teenage daughters would expect “a fine old Sunday morning row” if they appeared sporting Quant’s latest fashion line. This article emphasises how radical the garment was deemed, even recommending restrictions on the length of skirt women of different ages and sizes should wear. It was not considered appropriate dress for “a wearer too fat or too old” and only between the ages of sixteen and eighteen was it acceptable to wear a skirt “six inches above the knee”. This reveals a desire to slow down the pace of change.

Jackson, Winefride. "A fashion too frantic needs to cool down." Sunday Telegraph, 19 June 1966, p. 9. The Telegraph Historical Archive
Jackson, Winefride. “A fashion too frantic needs to cool down.” Sunday Telegraph, 19 June 1966, p. 9. The Telegraph Historical Archive, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/IO0709156889/GDCS?u=webdemo&sid=GDCS&xid=331dcccf

In 1966 Mary Quant was awarded an OBE at Buckingham Palace for her “contribution to British export trade”. However, contemporary newspaper reports show that her services to fashion – and Britain’s economy – were not appreciated by everyone. An article from the Daily Mail Historical Archive entitled “Odd gear at the Palace” describes how Quant arrived wearing a miniskirt and cut-away gloves – and without a handbag. Charles Greville finished the article with a speculation on where she kept her handkerchief: her admirable design and economic achievements were not the focus of the article.

 Greville, Charles. "Odd gear at the Palace." Daily Mail, 16 Nov. 1966, p. 4. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004
Greville, Charles. “Odd gear at the Palace.” Daily Mail, 16 Nov. 1966, p. 4. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/Bidp85

Mary Quant’s legacy

An article I found in Gale General OneFile emphasises how revolutionary Quant was. To this day the fashion industry is usually “created and controlled by men”. Even in 2017, the “industry blog Business of Fashion reported that only 40.2% of major design houses were headed by women”, yet back in the 1960s, Quant successfully initiated a “female controlled sexual revolution” with the release of her miniskirt.

Whilst I’m discussing this source in Gale General OneFile I wanted to mention that the highlight function is really useful for identifying and saving the parts of the article most relevant for your research. Simply highlight a phrase or sentence and select the ‘Highlight’ option, as seen below:

Screenshot of Highlight Text tool in Gale General One File

You can then view all information you have highlighted by clicking the ‘Highlights and Notes’ button in the top right-hand corner of the page:

Screenshot of Highlight Text tool in Gale General OneFile

Mary Quant changed the face of Britain in the post-war era, empowering and inspiring a whole generation of women. She ended the Parisian monopoly over fashion and dominated the American market. Contemporary newspaper articles reveal the extent to which women’s fashion and appearance was debated in the press, as well as how divisive Quant’s invention was. For some, the miniskirt was associated with women’s liberation and was proof of the changing times. As Quant said, “once you have the feeling of freedom in short skirts and low heels, you do not want to return to restriction”. Yet for others it represented the evils of capitalism, or had worrying sexual and moral implications.

Today, Mary Quant continues to inspire a new generation and over 200 garments and accessories were on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 6 April 2019 to 16 February 2020 thanks to the success of the #WeWantQuant campaign.

Want to read more about fashion and it’s impact on culture, using primary sources? Check out these posts:

Blog post cover image citation: “The Two Sides of Women.” Illustrated London News, 26 Apr. 1986, p. 63. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/HN3100004045/GDCS?u=duruni&sid=GDCS&xid=68dc892a

 About the Author


Eloise SinclairEloise Sinclair is one of the Gale Student Ambassadors at Durham University and this year’s Treasurer of the History Society. Eloise’s main interest is Gender History and has particularly enjoyed assessing the impact of Maoist healthcare policies on rural Chinese women and looking at the changing attitudes to women during the Reformation. Eloise loves to fill her time with as many historical activities as possible, regularly volunteering at the Open Treasure exhibition at Durham Cathedral and promoting the actions of too often forgotten women throughout history via her history Instagram account @_historyisherstorytoo_. When she’s not exploring castles and stately homes, she can be found watching musicals. Her favourites include Les Misérables, Hamilton and Legally Blonde. Eloise loves singing and performing and is a member of various choirs.