Talent was the prerequisite to success in the 1960s. For the first time ever in any fashion era, the young became the leaders of fashion. They led with new and radically innovative fashion styles, with little girl woman androgynous looks for women that swept away the sophisticated sweater girls of the early sixties. The picture of Twiggy in the header defines her as the epitome of a sixties baby doll woman.
In the 21st century it’s easy to associate all 1960s fashion with short skirts, but the short skirt was not really worn by many until 1966 and not nationwide until 1967. Just as in the 1920s for half a decade clothes still showed signs of belonging to the late fifties. The fore runner of the mini dress the straight shift, which had developed from the 1957 sack dress, was still well below the knee.
In the early sixties, pleated skirts set on a hip yoke basque were worn with short sleeved over blouses which were cut not unlike the shell tops of today. Straight skirts had front and back inverted pleats called kick pleats and were ideal for doing the twist dance craze as they allowed the knee to move freely. Straight sweater dresses in lambswool or the synthetic acrylic variety called Orlon were worn belted with waists nipped in became fashionable.
Pencil skirts were still worn with sweaters or even back to front cardigans that had been pressed super flat. Before the days of tumble driers many women lay their washed rung out knitwear in paper tissue and then brown paper. They put it to dry under a carpet for two days. When it was removed from the tissue, the footsteps that had pounded over the knit gave it a flat dry cleaned as new appearance. Laundering of delicates could still be a problem, but everything changed when mass produced synthetic garments arrived.
By 1966 Mary Quant was producing short waist skimming mini dresses and skirts that were set 6 or 7 inches above the knee. It would not be right to suggest she invented the fashion mini skirt. In 1965 she took the idea from the 1964 designs by Courrèges and liking the shorter styles she made them even shorter for her boutique Bazaar. She is rightly credited with making popular a style that had not taken off when it made its earlier debut.
Quant found London girls seeking newness only too willing to try her new daring short mini skirt. The fashion trend took off because it was so different and to wear it well you had to be youthful to get away with an outfit that was so controversial, particularly among adults. The Quant style was soon known as the Chelsea Look.
John Bates was one of the most influential British designers of the 1960s. Ernestine Carter the fashion historian thought him the unsung inventor of the mini skirt. His mini dresses were the shortest, had the barest midriffs and the models wore the least undergarments – he preferred a bra-less silhouette. In 1959 he had set up the Jean Varon label and later a label under his own name. His influence in the sixties was such that he dressed Diana Rigg in The Avengers series. Other celebrities of the day such as Twiggy, Sandie Shaw, Jean Shrimpton and Dusty Springfield all wore his fashion designs. But so did the masses as he also designed for important key department stores in the UK.
John Bates has never been given enough credit for his role in the rise of the mini skirt. The facts are that John Bates was making shorter skirts long before others. But Mary Quant was the facilitator of this novel idea who was really noticed. She got the mini skirt out among trendy young girls about town and it soon became copied and popular everywhere.
Quant was copied everywhere and another famous name of the sixties was Barbara Hulanicki of Biba. Biba of course was a sixties hit with girls who loved fashionable and funky looks at a value price.
The London TV Saturday night programme ‘That Was The Week That Was’, watched by half the UK nation had some time earlier shown a model wearing a dress with a belt that enabled the model to lift the dress up showing the possible various shorter lengths that designers were forecasting hemlines would rise to in the next six months. The audience laughed and gasped and viewers across Britain tittered, but within less than a year the shorter length was firmly established with under twenties and soon after their mothers too began wearing a short mini skirt.
Typical of the era the opening lines of the show were ‘that was the week that was, it’s over let it go…’
It was typical of the 1960′s attitude of let’s get on with the future, making it a very fast moving decade in fashion, lifestyles, innovations and morals. The fashion mini skirt became one of the icons that symbolized this era.
What made the mini really acceptable was the introduction of pantyhose known mostly today as tights. It was hard to wear a mini dress with stockings and feel confident, but with tights there was protection from the elements and no unsightly glimpse of stocking tops. Stockings died in the mid 1960s and were only revived as leg wear in the 1990s or else kept for the bedroom.
When tights were first introduced in the 1960s it liberated women from girdles, roll-ons and suspender belts. It’s difficult to know which came first the skirt or the tights, but the introduction of seamless stockings had started the tights revolution. What is certain it is unlikely the one could have existed without the other as no groomed young lady ever went out bare legged then.
A pair of Wolsey tights cost about £1 in 1965 and with careful daily washing they could be made to last a month. Marks and Spencer was soon churning out lower cost versions. Obviously planned obsolescence has been introduced since then for all brands, as most of us now find it difficult to make them last for more than a day or two’s wear.
Tights in the late 60s were often patterned with arrangements of diamonds or other motifs and a favourite colour of the era was a golden brown called American Tan. Fishnet tights were also popular briefly. Lurex glitter tights in gold or silver were a hit for the Christmas period.