The evolution of the mini skirt

Jenessa Williams

For a style that uses so little fabric. Mini-skirts have sure had a long-lasting impact on the fashion world and their history tells an interesting tale of liberation.

The Ancient World

ancient egyptian Shendyt
This kind of short Ancient Egyptian skirt is called a "Shendyt". "King Senwosret III" is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Many people believe that mini skirts began their triumphant fashion reign in the 1960s, but their story actually traces way back to ancient times.

Evidence of skimpy hemlines can be found back as early as 5400 BC—archaeologists in 2007 made headlines when they discovered a series of prehistoric figurines clad in short skirts in a village site in Serbia, thought to be one of Europe’s oldest settlements.

The figures also showed cropped tops and armfuls of bracelets, showing that the basis of 90s supermodel fashion was already underway generations before.

Ancient Egyptian paintings also show some evidence of mini skirts as a type of costume, favoured by acrobats and those who would entertain pharaohs and kings.

 

1920s mini skirts

a group of women on the beach in the 1920s wearing short skirts and swimming caps
"Chapron and Way women at beach with Bunny Reily and Henry Page Dyer" by cecily dyer is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Fast-forward to the 1920s, and the world was in a very different place. Sexist ideologies of the 17th and 18th centuries had laid a precedent that women should be meek and passive, dressing modestly to appease the masters of the house. Tight corsets and floor-skimming dresses were a way to emphasise the feminine form while keeping legs and ankles strictly covered. 

By the roaring twenties, women were starting to stick their heads back above the parapet, testing the boundaries of socio-politics in spectacular form.

French dancer Josephine Baker’s performance in her rubber banana skirt became iconic for it’s seeming whimsy, but tells a much bolder story of racial subversion, clowning the "animalistic" stereotypes placed upon black women at that time. 

Baker’s leading way with fashion has since inspired countless high fashion shows, as well as stage outfits by the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna, bot of whom have paid explicit reference to the banana skirt.

 

1940s and 1950s mini skirts

1950s couples folk dancing, the women wear short black dresses
"Teachers' Training College, folk dancing, Brisbane, April 1951" by Queensland State Archives is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

The defiant decadence of the Twenties couldn’t last forever—the great depression of the 1930’s dampened carefree attitudes worldwide, bringing back clothing that was strictly function over form. However, post-war rationing in the 1940s also brought out fabric shortages, bringing the mini skirt back to centre stage.

As the Forties became the Fifties, mini-skirts worn by regular folk were usually for sports or dancing, but they could also be seen on our TV screens. The latter years of the decade ignited a whole genre of TV and film that would carry right into the Sixties—the sci-fi family epic.

Inspired by the fast-moving possibilities of the Space Race, movies such as Flight to Mars and Forbidden Planet depicted their female stars in tiny, tight space uniforms, a model of femininity that pitched these women as more adventurous than their demure, real-life housewife watchers.

 

1960s mini skirts

With Lost In Space and Star Trek fuelling the appetite for the futuristic boom, mini-skirts really came into their own in the 1960s. Here entered Mary Quant, a young fashion designer who was firmly focused on seeing fashion as fun, a mode of expression that should be afforded to young people.

Although it is still debated whether Quant strictly "invented" the mini-skirt (especially considering it’s above history), she certainly popularised it as a commercial garment, along with the era’s other distinctive look—the hotpant.

Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A, models stand dressed in mini dresses
"Mary Quant V&A Museum" by livvya is licensed under CC0 1.0

For the first time, teenagers of the swinging London scene had some disposable income, and high-street shopping as we know it now became a beloved Saturday pastime, a chance to break away from the watchful eye of mother.

 

1980s mini skirts

Woman wearing a pale blue rah-rah skirt
"File:Woman in rah-rah skirt.jpg" by Gareth Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Now a staple of youthful wardrobes, the mini-skirt underwent a subtle reinvention in the 1980s to become the item many of us remember with a certain embarrassment—the layered ra-ra skirt.

Often fashioned in fluffy tulle or bright colours, the ra-ra originated in cheerleading but quickly became an essential for any burgeoning popstar, a regular on Top Of The Pops or at the local roller rink.

Madonna arguably wore it best, but despite a small attempt at resurgence in the early noughties, it’s probably a look best resigned to the fancy dress cupboard.

 

1990s mini skirts

With fashion one of the largest economies in the world, the 1990s got rid of the ruffles and brought things all the way back to its sleek, simple origins.

The popularity of the supermodel championed a new silhouette—the boxy power jacket teamed with an impossibly short skirt, long legs stretching to stilettos. It was a divisive look, as readily praised for it’s empowerment as it was criticised for the over-sexualisation of the third-wave feminist movement.

Whichever side you were on, there was no denying that the mini-skirt was everywhere, from Liv Tyler’s tartan skirt and doc martens in Empire Records to Britney’s schoolgirl break-out in "Hit Me Baby One More Time", anything below the knee was strictly out of date.

 

2000s mini skirts

00s denim skirt
Image via pick pic

Having been a fashion staple for 40 years, Y2K revamped the mini-skirt in a variety of interesting ways. Sometimes it was worn over trousers, or in a camouflage style with inexplicable straps and toggles hanging from each side. The patent leather miniskirt was a go-to for nights out, dressed down with a t-shirt or camisole blouse.

But there could only be one supreme-reigning skirt, and in the 00s, it was definitely the denim mini. Worn low on the hips with an oversized, leather coin-link belt, this mini-skirt was to be teamed with floaty peasant blouses, tight slogan tops and cowboy boots, paying homage to the boho trend beloved by Californian celebrity culture.

 

2010s mini skirts

a 2010s pale pink mini skirt worn with grey suede thigh high boots
Image via Peak Px

As the athleisurewear trend took hold, a new decade caused a resurgence of popularity for traditionally sporting—the tennis and skater skirt—as a daily wardrobe staple. Available in all manner of fabrics, patterns and styles, mini-skirt choice has never been wider, no longer marketed as the exclusive domain of women under 30.

As society slowly becomes more accepting of non-binary genders and the resulting importance of boundary-free self-expression, the mini-skirt continues to bring a sense of liberation to many. 

Breezy and comfortable, it’s historical status as an inherently female piece of clothing is changing, championed by many gender-neutral designers and stylists such as Luar, Paloma Spain and Rick Owens. We’ve certainly come a long way from a leather-clad Freddie Mercury doing his household chores in 1984.

From sexual repression to extroversion all the way around back around to normalcy, it’s difficult to imagine another style carrying quite such iconic gender-political symbolism.

 

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