Of all the decades that can claim to be within ‘living memory’, none are quite so creative, dramatic and downright revolutionary as the 1960s. In terms of music, film, television, society, law and politics, the ’60s were a dectet of years that saw profound challenges to eons-old mores and attitudes (even to a planet that had relatively recently gone through two ‘world wars’). Yet added to that list ought to be fashion – and, especially, women’s fashion. In every conceivable way, how people dressed, how people chose to present themselves to each other and the public at large changed like it never had before in this decade. And here’s a quick rundown of just how it happened…
Nowadays, let’s be honest, 1960s women’s fashion almost feels inseparable from the famous faces of that decade that so historically – and, thus, so effectively – pioneered it. First up is one half of the couple who’s credited with transforming the United States’ ‘first home’, the White House, into ‘Camelot’, the one and only Jackie Kennedy. Maybe the world’s leading style icon of the early ’60s, she became utterly iconic thanks to her clean, simple but overall chic choices of well-fitted suits, dresses and perfectly matching accessories.
While she dabbled in jackets with big buttons (sometimes daringly with just one top button!), she always looked sophisticated in low heels and with – again, matching – pill box hats. In fact, much of Jackie O’s wardrobe could be said to be almost replicated, simultaneously, by the equally exquisite movie star Audrey Hepburn, whom was then the favoured muse of the recently passed Hubert Givenchy, among others.
Following the tragic assassination of her husband in late 1963, though, Jackie Kennedy faded from the public gaze, but the styles too were moving on… the Swinging Sixties, characterised by youthful, bold and experimental mod fashions, were on the horizon. Indeed, arguably the biggest fashion pioneer of this moment was not someone who was famous for wearing clothes, but someone who became famous for designing them.
The ‘youthquake’ hits fashion
Mary Quant’s styles were all about giving young women inexpensive, great-looking and great-fitting clothes that, via their wearing, they could express and distinguish themselves from the grey post-war around them. Quant’s designs then focused on ever-shortening hemlines, showcasing young women’s silhouettes and, for the first time in a long time, genuinely bringing something new and untried to female fashion – in a phrase, women’s mod clothing UK.
Like so many trailblazers in the 1960s, Quant made such a ‘killing’ because she was an opportunist; don’t forget the ’60s wasn’t just the era of hippiedom and free-love, it was also the birth of the consumerist culture as we know it. Quant saw a major gap in the market and went for it. She saw that young women wanted something youthful, fun and dynamic to wear, to go along with the exciting, beat-driven music they and their male paramours listened to, and she gave them exactly that – with bell(bottom)s on.
As the ’60s progressed, the evolution of fashion was driven by appealing to this youthful desire; as it largely has been ever since. For instance, in footwear alone, Mary Jane strap shoes, flat-heeled sneakers, kitten-heel pumps and go-go boots all owed their breakthrough and popularity among the masses to this ‘youth-quake’ on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dresses get shorter
To be fair, though, nothing better illustrates what women’s fashion went through in the ’60s than what happened to dresses and skirts – in simple terms, they got shorter; pronouncedly shorter. To begin with, the ’50s-style dress continued its reign into the early ’60s (and unsurprisingly so; to be seen by the designs so elegantly and irresistibly worn by the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Princess Margaret and more), but it didn’t last. As the years rolled on, the tight-fitting pencil dress/ skirt loosened and inevitably became the unshaped shift dress.
Shift dresses were for casual dress, for sure; this early in the decade no woman could get away with wearing something so ‘unsophisticated’ to the office in which she worked. But, begrudgingly in more conservative quarters, attitudes were challenged and as young women flocked to buy exactly what they wanted to wear (and they went on to wear only those items), designed as they were by Mary Quant and their ilk, the dresses and skirts that populated not just the homes, the record stores and the nightclubs of the era, but also the offices, got shorter and shorter and shorter… finally resulting in the ubiquitous mini skirt (and mini dress).
A sign of the times
Inevitably, of course, the shorter the hemline a woman wore, the more confident she was in her own skin. Wearing a mini dress wasn’t necessarily driven by the fact you had a great pair of pins; it wasn’t so much about showing off your legs as being able to show off your legs – having the confidence to say stuff it to (often) older, disapproving others and taking advantage of the growing ‘permissive society. So, really, it was about saying you agreed with what was going on around you and you were happy to be at the centre of it.
And mixed in with all this was something of an increasing liberation for young women; specifically, sexual liberation brought about by the invention and widespread use of ‘the pill’. The latter, of course, gave women more choice; more control over their lives and the roles they played in society. Just as the rising wage packets and booming employment of the era gave them more control in the same aspects of life. It was all linked together – and, essentially, nothing defined it better than the humble mini skirt!