The Power of the Miniskirt

In the '60s, miniskirts were positive, powerful examples of female sexuality. Overexposed starlets like Paris and Britney have tarnished that image.
This article originally appeared on Sirens Magazine.

The miniskirt, "in" as it may be this season, has taken quite the media beating over the past few years.

It seems to have started in 2006, when the all of America shared -- or perhaps overshared -- a certain view of Ms. Britney Spears. Before the even more famous getting-out-of-the-car crotch shot incident, in the middle of an extremely high-profile interview with Matt Lauer, she shifted in her chair and gave the world a preview of what was to come: Because the skirt she had chosen to wear was very teeny and her moves weren't discrete enough, she flashed her unclad female bits to the cameras -- and, by extension, millions of watching viewers. Within hours, photos and video were everywhere, jokes and insults were flying, and Britney's dignity (what little she still had left) was pretty much history.

In the wake of Brit-Brit's first of many future incidents, similar gaffes have proliferated among high-profile starlets who cherish their teeny frocks. Lindsay and Paris spring to mind as repeat offenders, but so many women have been caught by now that Glamour magazine actually ran an end-of-2007 salute to the handful of celebrities they could find who hadn't been caught crotch first in their miniskirts (congrats, Evangeline Lily and Mandy Moore!). So predominant is the trend that articles have actually popped up offering step-by-step instructions for how to successfully exit a limo or car without showing the goods.

It's enough to make minis seem so slutty and overexposed at times that we want to pack up all of our formerly favorite flirty little numbers -- which, incidentally, have always made us feel sexily in charge, when worn at just the right moments -- and give them to Goodwill. But the embattled garment responsible for such incidents has fought such image problems since its creation nearly 50 years ago. So we ask: Is a high hemline a sign of empowerment, or overexposure? Is it feminist -- "I may be smart and capable but I can still be sexy" -- or just foolish?

Although it always walks a line of sorts, the miniskirt's initial incarnation was heavily weighted in the direction of empowerment; it exploded onto the 1960s scene as a symbol of liberation and rebellion for young women the world over. Although the design itself is credited to French designer André Courrèges in 1965, it is generally agreed that its popularization in the late 1960s can be largely attributed to British designer Mary Quant, who started selling miniskirts out of Bazaar, her hip Chelsea boutique, in 1966. Quant named the garment after her favorite car, the Mini, and created hers with an eye for practicality and liberation -- with their legs freed from the weight and cover of long skirts, women could literally move more easily through space; quite quickly this idea acquired symbolic social meaning as well.

The trend propelling the mini into superstardom was known as Mod fashion and the name says it all: "modern." Iconic figures of this era, like Twiggy and "The Avengers"' Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg), presented daring, edgy female images whose fashion choices represented strength and confidence rather than modesty and obedience. The futuristic designs of mod clothing were all about looking forward, rejecting past rules and roles, and generally asserting a new kind of aesthetic for young women in particular. It was about fashion, but it was also political -- in an era when young adults were beginning to question the authorities dictating their lives, the miniskirt's high hemlines became simply another way of challenging convention and looking forward toward a new era in which women were freer and could confidently show their bodies without being seen as slutty, ditzy or dismissible.

Simultaneous to all this, Tina Turner's use of the miniskirt around the same time was sending similar messages even without the strong mod fashion context. In her live performances especially, Tina's high hems, paired with her incredible stems (not to mention her voice and her moves) created for her an image as a sexual but powerful female figure who was unapologetically alluring but -- unlike Britney -- in a self-determined way. Turner's stage performance did trade on her sexy bod, but she used it to command attention and awe from her audience.

Despite all of this momentum, the miniskirt did begin to wane as the 1970s progressed. Fashion-wise, trends turned more toward small tops with bell bottoms, so short skirts were abandoned in favor of wide-leg pants, floor-length "maxi" skirts, Bohemian-style dresses and blouses, and full-length jump suits. Politically speaking, the rise of the feminist movement also spelled decline for the mini. As women began to fight hard for personal and professional rights, it suddenly seemed counterproductive to wear such blatantly alluring garments as the miniskirt; it was largely shunned in favor of more masculine styles like suits and trousers. At the time, it seemed the only way to be taken seriously in a man's world was to dress like a man oneself.

This trend continued in even greater force in the 1980s, as power suits, shoulder pads, and angular designs all came into vogue, particularly for women who wanted to look professional. It seemed for a while that women had to make a choice: They could either present themselves as qualified, intelligent people, or they could be alluring and sexy; but ne'er, it seemed, would the twain meet.

Accordingly, although the miniskirt did begin a comeback in the 1980s, it was as part of the dance/aerobics-inspired styles made famous by "Flashdance," Madonna and Jane Fonda. (If a girl was going to wear leg warmers, after all, what better to pair them with than a miniskirt?) Thus, although the mini still carried its original air of fun and femininity, its political edge had largely been lost -- it was no longer rebellious or symbolic so much as ... cute, and easy to dance in.

Although one might argue that Madonna's skirt-clad "sexy-but-tough" image helped to start a reunion of these two seemingly "opposite" female stereotypes in the 1980s, some key roles in 1990s television helped speed up the process. First, Heather Locklear's character Amanda Woodward on "Melrose Place" presented a female professional -- she ran an advertising company and owned an apartment building -- who happened to have an alluring wardrobe of tight suits and short skirts. Although Amanda might have gotten around, but she was nonetheless a force to be reckoned with, and her professional endeavors on the show were as central to her character's progression as her many love affairs -- in fact, perhaps more so.

Even more famously, Calista Flockhart's title character on "Ally McBeal" sparked widespread debate about the reality of merging these two feminine ideals, as Ally's habit of wearing miniskirts with her suits became a topic of conversation both on and off the show. On the one hand, Ally seemed to be a successful example of a woman who managed to achieve "both" -- she was an Ivy League graduate and a successful lawyer at a major firm, but still dressing "like a woman" ... and not in an aggressive "look at me!" way, but simply in the sense that her petite frame looked good in short skirts.

Despite winning a few Emmys, "Ally McBeal" was increasingly panned by feminists who deplored the fact that Ally presented a character who was little more than neurotic, narcissistic, boy-crazy, and weak. Time magazine famously ran a cover featuring Flockhart's face and asking, "Is Feminism Dead?"

And so we return to our Parises and Britneys of the current day and wonder: Is that all there is for the miniskirt? Is there nothing left for it except a role as a twat-baring catastrophe for the young, hot and too rich? It's tempting to think that short, sexy skirts are best left anyway to women whose primary occupations are keeping their legs toned and tanned, their hair perfectly dyed and their nails perfectly manicured ... but the reality is that there are plenty of smart, capable, force-to-be-reckoned-with women for whom these descriptors are true as well. In fact -- in a sense, anyway -- this is precisely what feminists continue to fight for so passionately: women's capacity to be both accomplished and sexy. So if we can be both, can we be both while wearing a miniskirt?

As always, it probably comes down to context -- to fight for women's rights to wear miniskirts to board meetings is probably a bit silly (show your femininity with pencil skirts and tea-lengths, ladies!). On the other hand, though, perhaps it will take a bit of determined, bold action on the part of non-Britney types to revive the mini out of its ignominy and back into respectable fashion culture.

The problem these days is overexposure -- remember that, back in the 1960s, for a woman to show so much of her legs was fraught with meaning, since the norm was for women to keep quiet, cover themselves, and try not to draw too much attention (unless it was as gracious hostesses or caring mothers; certainly not as bold, self-determined people who let their legs be seen).

These days, on the other hand, skin -- and legs and bodies and torsos and chests and thighs -- is constantly on display; for a woman to show her body is ... trite. So trite that these same young starlets literally cannot even be bothered to put on underwear or close their legs when moving about in their micro garments. "Why bother?" they may think. "It's all for sale out there anyway." If this is the base to which our attitudes have devolved, then perhaps to wear a mini with modesty and grace in today's fashion world practically is political once again -- it resituates the mini-wearer's power back to herself, rather than leaving it in the hands (and eyes) of watching viewers. Which, of course, might make the girls of "The Hills" into maverick beacons of feminism -- but it'll also make our summer wardrobe a whole lot more fun.
Molly Faulkner-Bond is a recent graduate of Harvard University. She's currently traveling abroad to find herself ... and maybe a sexy barista or two.
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