Quant Introduces the Miniskirt

Mary Quant’s effective marketing of the miniskirt started a fashion revolution that glorified youthful sexuality and freed a generation of designers from the constraints of the hemline.

Summary of Event

Mary Quant began raising the hemlines of her own skirts a decade before the miniskirt defined 1960’s fashion, simply because she hated the long skirts fashionable in postwar London, where she was an art student at Goldsmith’s College of Art. Quant never let convention stand in her way. She knew what she liked, and she did not hesitate, as she moved steadily upward in the fashion world, to use the ideas and resources of others. Miniskirts
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[kw]Quant Introduces the Miniskirt (Early 1960’s)
[kw]Miniskirt, Quant Introduces the (Early 1960’s)
[ g]Europe;Early 1960’s: Quant Introduces the Miniskirt[06270]
[g]United Kingdom;Early 1960’s: Quant Introduces the Miniskirt[06270]
[c]Fashion and design;Early 1960’s: Quant Introduces the Miniskirt[06270]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Early 1960’s: Quant Introduces the Miniskirt[06270]
[c]Marketing and advertising;Early 1960’s: Quant Introduces the Miniskirt[06270]
Quant, Mary
Greene, Alexander Plunket
Courrèges, André
Balenciaga, Cristobal
McNair, Archie[Macnair, Archie]

Quant readily acknowledged that the idea of a short, short skirt—a miniskirt—came from a “whole group of designers.” Her husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene once said, “We started shortening skirts in 1955 and finally Courrèges made it respectable.” Quant was called the mother of “mod” fashion and the creator of the Chelsea Look Chelsea Look ; she shied from claiming sole credit for either.

It was at art school that she met Plunket Greene. The two quickly formed a deep and lasting bond, and they made a striking impression together: he a tall English aristocrat, she a petite schoolteachers’ daughter. They determined early to go into the fashion business. When Plunket Greene turned twenty-one (Quant had been working for a few years in millinery design), he inherited five thousand pounds, and they used the money to open a boutique. They had another investor, Archie McNair, a former lawyer and an astute businessman.

The trio acquired a building in Chelsea, a London neighborhood bubbling with antiestablishment creativity. Young artists, writers, musicians, and actors flocked to Chelsea to explore a new world of expression that challenged what they considered the staid and restrictive ways of their elders. Quant and other young commercial designers burst onto this scene with a colorful exuberance that perfectly reflected the mood of the mid-1950’s. Soon, thousands of teenagers, the first wave of the baby boomers born after World War II, were leaving school at an early age and earning good money in a growing economy. The juxtaposition of youthful earning power and a new fashion sense contributed to the immediate success of Quant’s shop, Bazaar Bazaar (clothing store) , which opened in 1955. It “went z-o-o-m from the start,” she said.

Quant knew the types of clothing and accessories she wanted to carry at Bazaar—but in most cases, no one was designing or manufacturing them. If she found something she liked, she was often shunned by wholesalers who did not care for her eccentric appearance. She thus set about making her own fashions to sell. At first, she worked in her room, making each day’s supply of stock at night after paying retail prices for fabric from department stores. Soon, she hired part-time assistants to work in her room, then full-time employees, before moving to larger quarters.

The business end of the operation was also handled in a hurried and sometimes careless way. Bazaar took in thousands of pounds a week, far more than the partners had anticipated, and often it was deposited in a dresser drawer. Unpaid bills piled up because there was no filing system at first. Because Quant, Plunket Greene, and McNair misunderstood retail pricing in the beginning, they alienated other fashion merchandisers and nearly lost the wholesalers they did have.

The customers, though, found Bazaar—and Quant’s daring miniskirt designs—irresistible. Plunket Greene explained the philosophy: “The young are terrified of salespeople. Our selling people must never sell. They must be in sympathy with the young and show them things always aiming toward self-service but never to pressure them. Fashion is part entertainment and should be fun.”

Quant used sex and technology as fashion tools; the birth-control pill and leggy models helped give Quant’s miniskirts a potent appeal. A textile breakthrough, the invention of Lycra in 1959, meant new possibilities. “I am trying to find a modern way to be feminine,” she explained.

Quant’s fashion business flourished in this culture of change. By 1964, the original Bazaar was making a million pounds a year; two more of the shops opened in London, and Quant’s fashions sold in hundreds of stores in Europe, North America, Africa, and Australia. She was discovered by the fashion press, and in the early 1960’s, American clothing-store chains (J. C. Penney, for one) and a home-sewing pattern firm (Butterick) asked Quant to design their sportswear collections. Not only did she tour North America to promote the miniskirt, but the international fashion establishment also rushed to London to see and buy the ever-smaller minis.

In 1965, the designer André Courrèges elevated the miniskirt to the level of haute couture by including it in his Paris collection. Although some French and American commentators decried the miniskirt for its lack of modesty and predicted its quick demise, the pages of popular magazines mirrored its growing popularity.


Mary Quant’s successful marketing of the miniskirt put her at the epicenter of a “youthquake” that still rumbles through society. The miniskirt has endured as a symbol of liberated sexuality; it changed the face of fashion through the second half of the twentieth century and affected the fashion trade worldwide.

When Queen Elizabeth II awarded the Order of the British Empire to Quant in 1966, the honor was in recognition of the enormous boost that the miniskirt gave to British exports. During one short buying spree in 1965, American retailers made nearly $1 million in orders for the new London styles; twenty-five years later, fashion was the fourth-largest industry in Great Britain.

Tourism grew, too, with beautiful Chelsea girls in their provocative miniskirts acting as a magnet for visitors. (“Sex appeal has absolutely Number One priority,” Quant said.) The image of a stuffy Great Britain exporting such intangibles as government and finance changed and Quant’s miniskirts were a major part of the new image of “swinging London.” Quant’s fashion empire expanded steadily, with sales in the millions of dollars (two more Bazaar stores opened in London in the 1960’s and became tourist attractions on their own; by 1990, Quant had 150 stores in Japan alone).

With commissions for the design of scores of sportswear collections in the 1960’s, Quant churned out new ideas, and Plunket Greene evaluated them for marketing potential. By the late 1960’s, nearly twenty manufacturing firms worldwide held licenses to produce her clothing. Her work, though, went beyond clothing to include the development of new products: waterproof makeup, crazily textured and patterned tights, eyewear, jewelry, men’s ties, and carpets. All this buoyed domestic consumption (postwar researchers found that young workers preferred spending money on clothes over any other item).

When Quant “split the fashion atom” with her uninhibited youth-oriented styles, Paris lost its place as the center of the fashion universe. London, New York, Florence, Dublin, Tokyo, Madrid—all developed as fashion centers, often with their own specialties in fabrication. “High society had disintegrated incredibly,” wrote Diana Vreeland Vreeland, Diana , editor in chief of Vogue in the 1960’s. “Meanwhile, the young did things their way, without regard to the old world. And anyone who wasn’t with them made no difference at all.”

Youth was the new engine of fashion. The miniskirt was meant to be worn on a lean body. The principal erogenous zone, long the bosom, became the leg, the thigh; then the whole body, sheathed in Lycra and highlighted with colorful plastic baubles, became an erogenous zone. Vreeland wrote that “the idea of beauty was changing. If you had a big nose it made no difference, so long as you had a marvelous body and a good carriage. You held your head high, then you were a beauty. The throat was long, the wrist slim, the legs long.”

The treatment of legs at the dawn of the miniskirt era changed lingerie forever. New textiles allowed the development of tights to replace stockings held up with garter belts (and bras had to become streamlined under tight sweaters). In this respect, the miniskirt was a tease, for just as the tender inner thigh looked set to be exposed by the miniskirt, it was covered by tights. This “erotic defusing” was part of the powerful and long-lasting women’s rights movement that was born in the 1960’s. The long skirts of the past, according to the new thinking, hobbled women, immobilized them, and bound them into dependency. Miniskirts, in contrast, allowed total freedom of movement and ushered women into an age of equality.

Ultimately, the miniskirt’s message was that youth, British youth at first, had broken away from constraints of sexual modesty and tradition to embrace styles of great originality. In rejecting traditional English style, with its careful tailoring and slow changes, Quant and others reflected the times they lived in; they wished to reject the pessimism and hardship of the recent World War II era and longed to embrace optimism, newness, and prosperity—in short, the future. Miniskirts
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Further Reading

  • Bender, Marylin. The Beautiful People. New York: Coward-McCann, 1967. A former fashion reporter for The New York Times wrote this fast-paced book, making good use of quotes and other detail to illustrate the 1960’s fashion scene. Thirty-two pages of illustrations range from the model Veruschka in body paint to prominent patrons of design salons.
  • Cawthorne, Nigel, et al. Key Moments in Fashion: The Evolution of Style. London: Hamlyn, 1998. This overview of the history of fashion—focusing on trend-setting moments rather than attempting to be comprehensive—includes a chapter on Quant and the miniskirt, as well as chapters on the invention of the bra, trousers for women, Studio 54, and the punk movement, among others.
  • Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1978. A history of women’s underwear. Shows how technology (including the development of Lycra in 1959) played a part in the miniskirt revolution. Separate bibliographies for American and British libraries.
  • _______. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1986. A careful narrative history of fashion from 1900 to the mid-1980’s. Touches on war, economics, technology, employment patterns, and designers. Nearly three hundred black-and-white illustrations, with bibliography and index.
  • Glynn, Prudence. Skin to Skin: Eroticism in Dress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A tantalizing and richly illustrated guide to the erotic symbolism of dress. Humorous but thorough. Photos of the smallest miniskirts and fashion oddities such as the plastic corset.
  • Laver, James. Modesty in Dress. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. A history of modesty from earliest times. Illustrates extreme cases of fashion fetishism. Strident tone dates back to 1960’s; lack of index is a weakness. Does, however, contain comprehensive bibliography for fashion and society.
  • McDowell, Colin. McDowell’s Directory of Twentieth Century Fashion. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1985. A copiously illustrated, essential guide to fashion designers of the twentieth century, with cross-references to show their influences upon one another and over time. Glossary, listing of fashion awards, bibliography of autobiographies, guide to fashion education and fashion organizations.
  • Quant, Mary. Quant by Quant. New York: Random House, 1966. Freewheeling firsthand account of the life and times of the famous designer.
  • Steele, Valerie. Fashion and Eroticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Good historical overlay for The Beautiful People and good source for the origins of historical fashion illustrations.

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