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Mirjam Shatanawi and Wayne Modest (eds) The sixties: a worldwide happening Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Lecturis B.V. 2015, pp. 161-177

ISBN-10: 9462261504

ISBN-13: 978-9462261501

Mini-skirts, Afghan coats and blue jeans: three global fashion happenings of the Sixties.

David Gilbert and Sonia Ashmore

Who ‘invented’ the mini-skirt mattered in the Sixties, and for some, perhaps it still does. There are competing claims for Pierre Cardin in Paris and for John Bates in London; in his Autumn 1964 collection, André Courrèges created a sensation with beautifully tailored short flared shift dresses.[1] A quick web search will return claims for the mini’s origins in New York, Canada and Mexico, and a much repeated insistence that the mini-skirt is one of the oldest styles of human dress (possibly owing more to dimming memories of Raquel Welch in the 1966 film One Million Years B.C. than to scientific archaeology). However, the clear winner in the ‘Mini Wars’ was the British designer Mary Quant. Quant was selling above-the-knee skirts from her boutique Bazaar in London’s Chelsea from the late-1950s, but her gifts extended to a talent for self-publicity and myth-making, key qualities in the happenings of the Sixties. Although others were designing skirts with shorter and shorter hemlines in the early 1960s, it was Quant and her team that coined the name ‘the mini’ in 1964 (after another Sixties design classic, Alec Issigonis’ car), forever locking her name to the garment in the global imagination.

Why the ‘Mini Wars’ still trigger debate is not really about fixing the widespread adoption of short skirts in the Sixties to a single moment of invention. This history, often rewritten and overwritten, matters because the mini-skirt mattered politically and sociologically, and because the mini-skirt was a particular kind of global happening with a remarkable geographical reach. This was true for other elements of the Sixties fashion scene; for example, both denim jeans and the hippy look of the late Sixties worked as global phenomena, albeit in rather different ways, with particular kinds of connections and power relations between the consumption cultures of the USA and Western Europe and other parts of the world. More often than not, these stories have been told with a tight focus on particular cultures and cities, such as Swinging London, or Haight Ashbury era San Francisco. The less-often stories are about the reception, adoption and adaptation of such styles in other places, or about the complexities of flows of influences, materials and people in fashion cultures. The outstanding feature of the fashion of the period was a kind of democratization that challenged a rather controlled network of designers and fashion houses, seasons, looks, licensing and emulation. That network had had a long-lasting geographical form, with fashion used as a means of expressing the superiority of certain places in the world order. In what Marshall McLuhan called the ‘global village’ of new mass-communications and cultural forms, and particularly in light of fashion’s new relationship with popular culture, there were still powerful central sites, but also more scope for experimentation and hybridization[2].

In the mid-Sixties, the mini-skirt and its associated culture of consumption spread rapidly beyond the global fashion centers. The mini-skirt was worn in many different types of places, from provincial British cities, to the streets of Moscow, Accra and Bangkok. Writing about Swinging London, Quant gave credit to active independent young consumers, shifting the focus of fashion away from wealthy, elite and often mature couture customers. She promoted the ideal-type of the ‘Chelsea Girl’, a figure defined by youthfulness and skinniness, by her casual confidence in the streets of the city, and by her willingness to experiment with style and life-style. Quant recognized that this type was rapidly becoming a wider phenomenon: “Chelsea ceased to be a small part of London; it became international; its name interpreted as a way of living and a way of dressing far more than a geographical area.”[3]

In part, the spread of the mini owed something to its simplicity. At its most basic, it was a short, plain shift dress, and thus easy to manufacture and extremely easy to copy, often undermining couture experiments with the style. Within days of the unveiling of Yves Saint Laurent’s famous Mondrian dresses in his Autumn/Winter Paris 1965 collection, manufacturers were making mass market versions, replacing the expensive silk crepe with cotton or nylon.[4] This move to fast, disposable fashion threatened the established couture system; Courrèges, for example, after his critical successes in 1964 and 1965, retreated from the spotlight, frustrated at the way that that widespread plagiarism undermined his commitment to high quality materials and craft skills[5]. For others, particularly Saint Laurent and Cardin, these changes provided an opportunity to experiment in ways that broke the conventions and constrictions of Parisian fashion design, and ultimately to become globally-recognized brands.

It is tempting to read the geographies of the mini-skirt as a new phase in a long history of cultural imperialism. Certainly, the new youth-centered fashions were interpreted by contemporaries as a change within fashion’s world order, with Paris’ long-established reputation for authority challenged by new centers - by a revitalized London, but in different ways also by New York and Milan. [6] In this reading, the established cultural imperialism of fashion authority, particularly the notion of certain urban milieu as the sources of style, had previously worked through discourses of sophistication, tradition, romance and luxury. In the Sixties, this imaginative geography of fashion’s world order was modulated to work through ideas of youthfulness, modernity, sexual desire and personal liberation. In different ways, both Quant’s celebration of the democratizing effect of the Chelsea Girl and experiments in elite fashion with new space-age shapes and new materials (such as metals and plastics) could have the effect of associating old imperial centers with dynamism and progress.

While it was certainly true that part of the appeal of the mini-skirt came through associations with western cities and cultures that were literally promoted as where it was ‘at’, the spread of the mini-skirt was never a simple case of emulation. There was a complex interaction between western influences and local cultures that were often imbued with sexual and generational politics, post-imperial nationalism, and even geopolitics. There were, for example, struggles over mini-skirts in post-colonial Africa. The mini-skirt was worn primarily by young, financially independent urban women, distinctively African versions of the ‘Chelsea Girl’, who were often seen as an affront to traditional male authority. While western suits were acceptable dress for presidential trips to Washington or the UN, women in mini-skirts were attacked, both in the press and sometimes physically, and the style was denigrated as foreign, colonial and indecent. In 1968, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania criminalised the wearing of mini-skirts for women (as well as tight trousers for men, wigs, make-up and other ‘un-African’ fashions).[7] Mini-skirt bans were also imposed in Zambia and Malawi in the early 1970s. In the Soviet Union during the Sixties there were earnest debates about whether the public display of women’s knees reflected bourgeois immorality or was a liberating form of working-class dress that chimed with a state culture of athleticism and bodily work. During a period of détente between the West and the USSR, propagandists in Cultural Revolution China seized upon the spread of the mini-skirt on the streets of Moscow and Leningrad as evidence of Soviet decadence and deviation from the true path. [8]

There was a rather different kind of fashion globalization woven into the Afghan coats that first appeared in the fashion scenes in London, Amsterdam, San Francisco and other western cities from 1966 onwards. If the global happening of the mini-skirt could be understood as the rapid spread and popularization of a metropolitan style, with complex local meanings and consequences for those women who wore it, the Afghan coat pointed both towards flows of materials and styles into the fashion cultures of the West, and towards particular forms of Orientalism that pervaded the later Sixties. The first coats to arrive in London were beautifully embroidered examples from the Ghazni province in Afghanistan.[9] After the Beatles bought Afghan coats from the Chelsea boutique Granny Takes a Trip, the importer Craig Sams remembers that,

within a few weeks no sheep between Istanbul and Kabul was safe - suddenly they were worth more for their skins than for their meat as people hastily killed them, skinned them, did machine-stitched embroidery or quick hand-stitching and rushed them to the UK and other countries where the market was booming.[10]

The best of the coats were expensive showpieces; both David Bowie and Eric Burdon (of The Animals) wore Afghans for their weddings. However, the market became flooded with cheap, poorly-finished versions that were often not properly cured and developed disgusting smells, particularly when exposed to the cold and damp of northern Europe.

Afghan coats were part of the wider hippy look of the late Sixties and very early Seventies that used supposedly ‘ethnic’ dress styles as part of a wider counter-cultural reaction to social conventions. For some western consumers, there was a concern with the provenance and authenticity of the clothes and materials they were buying; this was the case for some buying expensive luxury pieces, but also for some on the political left, where the period saw a growing concern for the connections between producers and consumers, and for alternative consumption models (Sams, for example, moved into the early Fairtrade movement after importing ethnic clothing.) For most, however, hippy dress was highly eclectic and diffuse, its counter-cultural force coming from its very visible challenge to authority. The loose, layered and disorganized look was a contrast with the emphasis on sharpness and cut in earlier Sixties styles, but also with the tailored, seasonal correctness of ‘straight’ fashion.

There was an embracing of the sensual aspects of fabrics, and a resurgence in fabrics such as silks, velvets, brocades, linens and rough-weave cotton, as well as the use of embroidery, batik, tie-dyes, floral and paisley patterns, beading and jewelry. Hippy dress could combine styles from South Asia and the ‘Middle East’ with others from North Africa, West Africa, Native North Americans, South America, as well as generic ‘peasant’ and ‘gypsy’ styles, almost as if ‘different cultural identities could be tried on like clothes.’[11] This fashion for exoticism also crossed over into elite fashion, with designers like Saint Laurent producing expensive versions of ‘peasant’ dresses. A January 1969 British Vogue feature photographed in Kashmir by David Bailey caught this moment, showing flowing garments from the London ‘Indian’ boutique Savita, other outfits in Liberty silks, and a ‘harem’ outfit with floaty trousers in Paisley chiffon.[12]

For many in the counter-culture of the late Sixties, this engagement with other places was highly partial and romantic, reinforcing long-standing Orientalist clichés. [13] Like the trend for eastern religions and gurus, there was often more focus on self-development and expressing difference from the conventions of the establishment than in making connections with a wider world. Many of the textiles of the period were treated as if they were exotic new discoveries by the Sixties generation, ignoring, for example, the long history of imperialism, economic power and cross-cultural exchange between Britain and South Asia that had formed ‘Indian’ textiles. The fashion developments of the late Sixties did have some impact on supply chains and developed or strengthened connections. These developments were particularly important for migrant entrepreneurs in many western cities; changing fashions provided new opportunities in local production, where ‘exotic’ clothes were produced by the local rag-trades. There were also impacts on retailing; for example, by the early Seventies many of the Carnaby Street sites that had been closely associated with the early Sixties fashion happenings had been taken over by traders from South Asia and East Africa selling cheap cheesecloths, paisley shirts and Afghan coats.

It was also in the Sixties that denim jeans first became established as a global form of a very distinctive kind, part of a longer process that by the twenty-first century saw, on some estimates, around half the world’s population wearing denim on any one day.[14] Up to the 1950s, the story of jeans was closely bound with the developing American identity, as this ordinary work-wear took on new kinds of meaning. In the 1950s, the mass-culture industries of Hollywood and popular music promoted contrasting meanings of denim to America but also to the wider world. On John Wayne (and indeed Ronald Reagan), blue jeans were associated with a conservative ‘Western’ heroic masculinity, on Elvis, Dean, Brando, Clift and Monroe they signaled rebellion and different kinds of sexual possibility. However, the Sixties were the key period in denim’s rise to near global ubiquity, with California being the site of key happenings and new cultural forms and identities.

Three contrasting and almost contradictory aspects allowed jeans to flourish in the Sixties. The first of these was their capacity to be a near-invisible addition to an outfit. Jeans could form a kind of neutral base, over which the exotica of counter-cultural style (or just about anything else) could be worn. Secondly, jeans could also be creatively personalized by embroidery, patchwork, painting and deliberate distressing, as well as the more passive ways that their unique wear patterns and changing fit made them very personal and individual. Finally, from the late–Sixties jeans showed their ‘genius for labyrinthine multiple coding’, sending secret messages of inclusion within subcultural groups. [15] In San Francisco, such codes in the brand, style and ways of wearing denim worked for groups as different as Haight Ashbury hippies and Castro gay ‘clones’, but what was perhaps more remarkable was the way that those codes spread and worked in very different contexts far from California. By the early Seventies, gay men in Amsterdam, London, Berlin and other international cities were ordering Levi’s 501s from the USA, and making sure they wore them in exactly the right way. [16]

The globalization of denim was also driven by the opportunities afforded to emerging multinationals that produced different kinds of connections between places. On 21st August 1969, Donald and Doris Fisher opened the first Gap store in San Francisco. The name came from the supposed generation gap, but while that referenced the counter-cultural concerns of the time, the opening of Gap presaged a rather different kind of global revolution. Alongside Levi’s, long established as the leading jeans brand, the Gap was to take full advantage of the growing demand for denim that followed the Sixties, and both companies grew to be among the very largest global apparel brands by the 1990s. Off-shore subcontracting of production came with the restructuring of the garment industry from the early 1980s, but the immediate consequence of the growing global market for denim jeans was the growth of a low-wage sweatshop economy in Southern California that pulled in hundreds of thousands of Asian and Latino migrants.

Perhaps even more than mini-skirts and Afghan coats, the success of denim jeans shows the complexities and contradictions of the global fashion happenings of the Sixties. A pair of jeans was a mass-produced product that could be used to express individualism, independence and even revolution. Most people in a crowd of protestors against the Vietnam War could be wearing what had been symbols of a confident and conservative American identity. Marxist intellectuals in California and in Paris adopted boot-cut 501s as an anti-fashion statement, despite being made by a giant American corporation. In Sixties Eastern Europe, denim jeans could both be the uniform of dissident intellectuals, and a luxury item coveted by party elites, fetching eye-watering prices on the black market. Part of the longer story of what anthropologists Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward describe as ‘global denim’ is the way that in different times and places jeans could and can be ‘American’, ‘unAmerican’, ‘anti-American’, and increasingly, not very American at all.

In an age when the instant global transmission of fashion, or indeed any other cultural happening, is increasingly unremarkable, it may not be immediately apparent just how novel and rapid the transnational diffusion of the mini skirt, the adoption of the westernised Afghan coat, and the re-codings of blue jeans in the Sixties were. If for many at the time, these fashion happenings seemed to express personal freedom, spontaneity and a break from the constraints of earlier fashion systems, in hindsight we can also see the beginnings of new kinds of relationships between consumers and corporations, characteristic of our times of fast fashion and social media.


1. Mendes, V., & A. de la Haye (1999), 20th Century Fashion, London: Thames and Hudson.

2. McLuhan, M. (1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

3. Quant, M (1966) Quant by Quant London: Cassell, 75.

4. Gilbert, D. (2006), ‘Out of London’, in C. Breward, J. Lister and D. Gilbert (eds), Swinging Sixties. Fashion in London and Beyond, 102-119. London: V&A.

5. Mendes, V., & A. de la Haye (1999).

6. Gilbert, D. (2013), ‘A new world order? Fashion and its capitals in the twenty-first century’, in S. Bruzzi and P. Church Gibson (eds) Fashion Cultures Revisited: Theories, Explorations and Analysis 11-30. Abingdon: Routledge.

7. Kiiruga, M. (2014), ‘Understanding Africa's “fashion gestapo”: Miniskirts, maxi skirts, make-up and long beards’ Mail & Guardian Africa online edition: mgafrica.com/article/2014-12-04-understanding-africas-fashion-police

8. Gurova, O. (2009), ‘The art of dressing: Body, gender, and discourse on fashion in Soviet Russia in the 1950s and 1960s’, in E. Paulicelli & H. Clark (eds), The Fabric of Cultures. Fashion, Identity, Globalization, 73-91. Abingdon: Routledge.

9. Kane, S. (2012), ‘Sweet Jane: The Rise and Decline of the Afghan Coat’ Blog posting: sweetjanespopboutique.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/rise-and-fall-of-afghan-coat-1966-197.html. Includes comment from Craig Sams quoted in text.

10. Ibid.

11. Ashmore, S. (2010), ‘Hippies, bohemians and chintz’, in C. Breward, P. Crang and R. Crill (eds), British Asian Style. Fashion and Textiles/Past and Present, 106-121. London: V&A, 110.

12. Ibid.

13. Geczy, A. (2013) Fashion and Orientalism: Dress, Textiles and Culture from the 17th to the 21st Century. London: Bloomsbury.

14. Miller, D. & S. Woodward (2007), ‘Manifesto for a study of denim’, Social Anthropology 15 (3): 335-351.

15. Rabine. J. & S. Kaiser (2006), ‘Sewing machines and dream machines in Los Angeles and San Francisco: the case of the blue jean’, in C. Breward & D. Gilbert (eds), Fashion’s World Cities 235-249. Oxford: Berg, 242.

16. Cole, S. (2000), ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berg.

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