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No hat, no gloves, no stockings—just a slim white minidress hitting a well, hello there five inches above the knee. It’s tricky to pinpoint the exact moment of any style sea change, but that mini—which Brit model Jean Shrimpton wore to the 1965 Melbourne Cup—came as close as a piece could to signalling the emergence of a fresh fashion spirit. How fresh? The derby’s winning horse was shunted off The Sun’s front page in favour of a trumpeting headline: “The Shrimp Shocked Them.” The accompanying snap showed Shrimpton, brazen, beautiful and 22, in front of a middle-aged crowd wearing bulky skirtsuits, pillbox hats and sour looks.
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By the time the Shrimp shocked Australia, the free-love era was in full swing: The Beatles topped the charts, and the pill heralded female emancipation and sexual freedom. London designer Mary Quant sold miniskirts out of her Chelsea boutique, but she was vocal about who deserved credit for the craze: “It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini,” she once told a reporter. “I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes in which you could move.... I wore them very short and the customers would say ‘Shorter, shorter.’” For the first time in history, young people—not designers—set the sartorial pace.
This season, the youthquake is a-rumble again as designers riff on the freewheeling mood of ’60s London. Gucci’s Frida Giannini showed mod shifts and knee-high patent-leather boots fit for stepping off a moped onto Carnaby Street. At Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane’s take on the trend was more Mick Jagger than Paul McCartney: You could picture those kohl-eyed nymphs emerging from a nightclub at dawn, blinking in the sudden daylight as they searched their schoolgirl skirts for a smoke. The thread that united them?
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The ubiquitous high hemline, which added sex appeal to embellished baby-dolls at Mary Katrantzou and tested gravity at DSquared2, where the designers’ micro-minis made Valentino’s high-necked thigh skimmers look as modest as a nun’s habit.
“We just love women who dress in a feminine way,” explain DSquared2’s Dan and Dean Caten. How do they think a woman feels in a mini? “Sexy!”
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The most straightforward of provocative pieces, the mini offers none of the enhancements afforded by the bustier or the high heel—instead of artificial lift, it’s all about showing leg (and more leg). Its focus on female flesh has earned the critique of some feminists, who argue that the mini is less about real freedom and more about satisfying the male gaze. The mini-gender dialogue took an ugly detour last year, when Uganda’s ethics-and-integrity minister suggested that women should be arrested for wearing “anything above the knee.” This July, the public-works-department minister in Goa, India, proposed a ban on short skirts, terming them “a threat to Goan culture.” Happily, Goa’s congress responded to this misogynistic claptrap by mailing the minister a miniskirt.
What seems sure is that the mini will go on, trailing both double takes and distrustful glances. Hemlines historically rise with the economy, and as we emerge from the 2008 recession, squinting in the sun like Saint Laurent’s party girls, society is experiencing an overall sense of hopefulness—a yearning to return to the days of bubble-gum innocence and Beatlemania. Designers get that. Their job this season is to provide the sartorial ingredients for a bright future. If we can’t dream away climate change, income inequality and rapacious global capitalism, at least we can dress like women did in sunnier times, when Mary Quant named a certain revolutionary skirt after her favourite small car. Reached via email at her London home, Quant, now 80, offered a succinct assessment of the mini’s enduring appeal: “Freedom, legs and it’s sexy.” Can’t argue with that.