Slut-Shaming and the Miniskirt

Summary

An exploration of the discourse surrounding women’s bodily autonomy and choice of dress in relation to the miniskirt and its invention in the 1960s.

The essay includes background on the historical context of the original design, as well as a critical discussion on society’s perception of women who choose to wear miniskirts.

The implications of slut-shaming and how this breeds rape culture are discussed amongst the context of Feminism and post-Feminism.


The sixties mini was the most self-indulgent, optimistic ‘look at me, isn’t life wonderful’ fashion ever devised. It expressed the sixties, the emancipation of women, the Pill and rock’n’roll. It was young, liberated and exuberant. It was called the youth quake. It was the beginning of women’s lib

(Quant, 2012).

Introduction

This essay explores the prevalence of slut-shaming in proximity to the length of a woman’s skirt, and how this has festered in society since the sexual revolution of the Swinging Sixties and controversial invention of the mini skirt.

It is evident from the undying denigration of women for our choice of dress that “the politics of women’s clothing have a long and complicated history, but an overarching trend is always the way they are used to control and vilify women for their choices” (Lee, 2019).

Malicious character assassinations in relation to the length of our skirts demean us to one of eight categories as seen in Figure 1, (left) a campaign image by Terre des Femmes.

Figure 1: Campaign for Seventeen magazine by Swiss organisation for gender equality, Terre de Femmes, 2015.

Modern, and often Western freedoms, to dress as we please may have us settle into a false sense of security that society has come a long way since the Victorian era shame of a lady’s ankle on show in public. However even today in our societies, “there are very deep anchored views about what women are allowed to do in public and what they are not allowed to do – and if they don’t stick to them, then they have to bear the consequences” (Müssig et al, 2016).

Google dictionary defines slut-shaming as “the action or fact of stigmatizing a woman for engaging in behaviour judged to be promiscuous or sexually provocative.” The reclaimed term ‘slut’ is commonly used to highlight injustices in treatment based on superficial and sexist judgements, as women seek to regain power and agency over their own sexualities and self-expression. As Figure 1 highlights, not only is this “about a woman’s body being on display for others to look at but what she puts on her body, her clothes, has to be in direct correlation with her sexuality” (Connors, 2015).

The invention of the miniskirt

Quant’s controversial miniskirt design, debuted at her King’s Road boutique, Bazaar, was welcomed by the emerging independent youth who were “intent on challenging the established order” (Jones, 2020). The design epitomised the 1960s and originated a popular culture in progressive societal change, and rebellion against the previous rigid expectations of women to present as meek and mild.

Designers such as André Courrèges and John Bates had produced short skirts in the early 1960s, however it is Mary Quant who is remembered as the pioneer of the miniskirt design, and popularisation which began in London. The mods neat tailoring and smart, Italian inspired designs influenced Quant. The miniskirt was truly for the women of the new age, and “worlds apart from the voluptuous New Look style that had entranced their mothers” (Worsley, 2011). As opposed to the modest, delicately feminine tea dresses and circle skirts of the previous decade, Swinging Sixties fashion brought into focus the symbols “of youth, vigour and freedom, the mini emerged amid society’s transformation from the dour conservatism of the post-war era to the uncompromising modernism of the 1960s” (Fogg and Steele, 2013). Other notable contributors to mod fashion and culture were Jean Muir and Caroline Charles. The stand out factor being that “the mini’s impact was incontrovertible, signifying nothing less than a sexual revolution” (ibid).

Figure 2: The archetypal sixties girl wore her skirts shorter (and shorter), the toes of her shoes rounded, and her hair in a ‘flip’. Sketch from The Mini Mod Sixties Book, 2002.

It is acknowledged that the mini had shock value when first released as Quant’s designs were “said to have made whole countries gasp with outrage” (Worsley, 2011). Hailed as “the single most culturally important fashion innovation of the decade” (Bleikorn, 2002); it was reported by Vanity Fair in 1971 that everybody knew “how dramatically Mary skittled the stail old fuddy-duddy fashion industry.”

The criteria for a miniskirt at the point of invention was to fall two inches above the knee, but within a year this was increased to four inches above the knee. This garment truly was a courageous innovation, deployed at precisely the time society was ready for this movement away from hemlines several inches below the knee. Many were shocked and uncomfortable with what they saw as crude public indecency. Coco Chanel “denounced miniskirts as disgusting. And Cecil Beaton opined: ‘Never in the history of fashion has so little material been raised so high to reveal so much that needs to be covered up so badly’.” (Bleikorn, 2002).

As she did with the design of the miniskirt, “Quant opened Bazaar in the way she intended it to go on: with an irreverent disregard for past mores and tastes, and a visible love for all that was fun, cool and new” (Hutchings-Georgiou, 2019), despite judgement from old-fashioned types. Throughout history women’s bodies have been cruelly “evaluated, scrutinized, and dissected by women as well as men, and are always at risk of failing” (Gill, 2007). Our bodies and clothing are used to criticise, stereotype and treat us as inadequate.

Slut-shaming and the miniskirt

Society was not ready for the mod girls to show off their legs in public so this caught attention and enticed “gasps from more established sensibilities” (Bleikorn, 2002). The new design was scandalous at first, but within the year was embraced by a myriad of women.  Much of the judgement came from the older generation who sneered and frowned at the sight of a miniskirt clad girl. Establishment media validated and embedded outdated beliefs through commentary which scolded the youth, however they could not anticipate the unrivalled popularity of the new design.

People tire of the status quo; women born in the post war era were itching to adopt fresh fashions and step out of the rigid fashion dictates that had been in power. Trends and “the fashion for nudity and mini-skirts seems to coincide with times of huge energy renewal and financial success. But fashion anticipates social change as much as economic change” (Quant, 2012). In the West, during World War I, skirts crept above a woman’s ankle for the first time in history, though this was for practical reasons, following this the flappers of the 1920s ventured to revealing their knees.

With the debut of the contraceptive pill in Europe and America, by “the early 1960s, a new era of sexual permissiveness and liberation was born…Fashion reflected this in miniskirts reaching buttock-skimming heights, and these in turn gave way to the craze for hot pants in the 1970s” (Worsley, 2011). Mary Quant’s miniskirt design “was a revolution in both form and substance that changed style and fashion – and Western culture as well – forever” (Bleikorn, 2002).

A lot of the younger generation embraced the sexual revolution and celebrated the personal freedom that came with it, however many others rigidly stuck to the “basic assumptions instilled in them in the 1950s – respect, authority…sex is dirty” (Paoletti, 2015). Society’s judgmental gaze would make direct links between the length of a woman’s skirt and her sexual promiscuity, and so shame and criticism ensued. The miniskirt broke down barriers in its stark contrast to the New Look of the 1950s in which a “statement about a world in which gender identities and the hierarchies of class and race were part of a common understanding” (Dyhouse, 2011) and conveyed through dress within strict boundaries.

Jenson reports that American model and actress Amber Rose linked slut shaming to rape culture, in that slut-shaming objectifies women and insights blame based on dress if its perceived as provocative or ‘asking for it’. Slut shaming involves stigmatising a woman due to sexually liberated or proactive actions, “while rape culture is when societal attitudes end up normalising sexual assault and abuse” (2019).

The term ‘slut’ can be broken down into many factors that contribute to a woman receiving the label, including but not limited to being open and confident about their own sexualities. Sluts are not seen as deserving of respect but rather they are denounced as dirty and impure. Simply, sluts are girls who do not perform femininity in the expected ways – they are not sufficiently ladylike or proper. The term is used as a cruel and controlling tool of dehumanisation and subjugation.

Figure 3: Photographic series by Katherine Cambereri ‘Well, What Were You Wearing?

Slut-shaming can be overt or nuanced, the latter “can come in the form of telling girls that they have no self-respect if they wear short skirts or low shirts” (Nelson, 2013). Rape culture sympathises with rapists, and tells survivors that they did something to provoke an attack, this is often put down to what they were wearing.

In 2011, Slutwalks were created as a protest march “where people would wear and much and as little as they want to bring awareness to slut shaming and to prevent it. The #metoo movement led to people coming out in a bid to minimise rape culture with people carrying signs which read, “my little red dress doesn’t say yes” and “I was wearing much more than this when I was raped” which showed that rapists didn’t care what they wore so why do we” (Jenson, 2019). In the 1960s, feminists all over the world would front equality marches wearing a mini, while demanding workplace rights, birth control and a revolution in attitudes towards women.

We know that women “have been raped and abused who have never even tried on a mini-skirt, let alone worn one on a night out” (Dening, 2017), and a “semantics point here – no one is ever ‘asking’ to be raped. By its very definition rape and sexual abuse are non-consensual” (ibid), which rebukes the tired trope that any skirt length could mean someone is ‘asking for it’. Ultimately, women are deserving of safety and respect no matter what they wear and a miniskirt is no more likely to incite a rapist than a bin bag is to discourage one.

This is perfectly illustrated in Katherine Cambareri’s photographic series ‘Well, What Were You Wearing?’ (Fig 3), in which she captured imagery of the clothes sexual assault survivors were wearing when they were attacked. This confronts viewers with the sobering reality that victimisation can happen to anyone and is not a result of clothing choice. The dangerous part of victim blaming and asking the question ‘well, what were you wearing’ is the idea that clothing directly correlates to the respect a woman is treated with.

In 2017 many women in Bangalore were victims of a ‘mass molestation’ in which “Dr, G Parameshwara, the then Karnataka State Home Minister, suggested the incident was inevitable because of the women’s behaviour and clothing on the night” (Lee, 2019). In 2008 a woman in Johannesburg was the fourth woman to be publicly assaulted and “in each of these cases the fact that the women were wearing miniskirts was cited as the reason for the attack” (Vincent, 2008). In 2011, a personal safety talk at a university by local Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti prompted the inception of SlutWalk” (Lee, 2019) as he proclaimed that he had been told he was not supposed to express these views, however he believes that women “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised” (ibid).

The role of feminism and liberation in women’s dress

The relationship between gender and power is complex and nuanced; the discourse surrounding dress is strategised to gain power over the female body. This acts as a method of maintaining inequalities and asserting control over women, particularly through shame tactics.

The miniskirt celebrates femininity and the power that can be accessed through this. The miniskirt is a powerful symbol of personal freedom, bodily autonomy and sexual liberation. Similarly to feminism, the miniskirt started out as a symbol of rebellion. It was a rejection of tradition, that put women in the driving seat where their sexuality is concerned.

Tasneem Dairywala argues that women should meet a sexist gaze with a glare in return, in order to regain agency and establish a more equal power dynamic. Through expression of the feminist gaze, damaging social constructs associated with the weakness of femininity begin to be broken down from the outside. In theory, by “breaking through stereotypes, they can redefine what it means to be female according to their preferences, and merge the gap between miniskirts and feminism” (2014), so that with the “strength of feminism and femininity behind it, [the miniskirt] will become a symbol of boldness and confidence” (ibid).

Though it must be at the forefront of our minds that as an inanimate object, a symbol is all the miniskirt shall remain; it is just an extension of its wearer – a multifaceted and complex human being. Dairywala notions that a woman wearing a miniskirt symbolises two paradoxical ideas, in that she is proud of her feminine sexuality and rejects the expectation of utmost modesty. Simultaneously, the male gaze has withered the power of the miniskirt as a feminine symbol of emancipation. It is argued that in order for the miniskirt to gain traction in its power, femininity must work alongside feminism. Our role is to reinstate its ability to grant the wearer agency, autonomy and power, so rather than “defining femininity from a patriarchal lens, define it through a feminist one” (ibid) so that it is “active and strong, capable of gazing back at their gazers” (ibid).

Conversely, it is argued that “the intense focus on women’s bodies as the site of femininity is closely related to the pervasive sexualisation of contemporary culture” (Gill, 2007). This can be explored through the postfeminist sensibility which “emphasizes the contradictory nature of postfeminist discourse through a double entanglement of both feminist and anti-feminist ideals” (Connors, 2015). Post-feminism deals with the “notion that femininity is a bodily property; the shift from objectification to subjectification; an emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring and self-discipline; a focus on individualism, choice and empowerment” (Gill, 2007).

The miniskirt was all about freedom, not just sexual liberation, but also Quant resisted the physically restrictive, stiff and cinched styles of the previous decade. The miniskirt was comfortable, loose and made for movement. The miniskirt was as much about politics as fashion. Quant broke all the rules of fashion and made the mini for everyday life; it appealed to women of all classes. However, the miniskirt inadvertently contributed to embedding diet culture in society, at the time it was widely believed that the style was for the young and thin, perpetuated further when Twiggy became the face of the mini. Hall (2018) explores this phenomenon detailed in McClendon’s ‘The Body: Fashion and Physique’ exhibition, as following the 60s, women were increasingly pressured to maintain the trendy, thin body type.

Conclusion

Quant’s unconventional approach to fashion design led her to create a garment that bestowed freedom, both physically and symbolically. The discourse surrounding feminist ideals in fashion boil down to the need for women to have free access to their inherent right to dress as they please, without judgement or criticism. Since Quant created the miniskirt, it has allowed us to express our rejection of traditional and modest standards and stand up with other women for agency over our own bodies.

Though our clothes will not directly protect us from, nor endanger us to sexual assault, slut-shaming narratives are still heavily purported. Rebellious and liberal fashion innovations allow us to break free from stereotypes and express ourselves freely, despite the scrutiny that may follow.

Slutwalks have emerged organically through women tiring of the relentless discernment when we show our skin. Through organising in groups under the title ‘slut’, women are reclaiming the power that Mary Quant sought to endow us with in the 60s through her invention, the miniskirt.

Feminism and femininity must be friends for the miniskirt to unlock its inherent powers as a symbol of feminine freedom. When a woman exercises her right to dress freely, feminism and the miniskirt are the anti-establishment, in-your-face-society, liberated best friends we want to unite with. 

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