Mini-politics: saying no in public

From our archive Suzanne Moore on the miniskirt's comeback in late eighties

Taken from The New Statesman 18 December 1987

Twenty years ago, at the height of Thatcherism, the miniskirt made a comeback. Suzanne Moore, who is now a contributing editor to the New Statesman, argued that in the 1980s miniskirts – long associated with sex and the 1960s – had come to symbolise a woman’s right to say “no”. They had also become a staple for power-dressing women and a way to kick back at an increasingly aggressive feminist movement.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Pretty Polly, manufacturers of stockings and tights, have managed to run some Pretty Pathetic advertising campaigns in their time. Do you remember one a few years back — huge posters of women’s legs with the caption ‘For girls who don’t want to wear the trousers?’ It implied a return to an ‘authentic’ feminine identity against an artificial and butch notion of liberation. It might as well have read, 'For girls who want to be treated as complete bimbos’. Yet the glossing over of real questions of female access to power was as transparent as the stockings themselves. The image of feminism could be ‘retouched’, even if real feminists couldn’t.

Nowadays, judging by the masses of young women striding around in mini-skirts, it seems that there are many of us who may not literally want to ‘wear the trousers’. However, I doubt if most of us feel that exposing our legs automatically disenfranchises us from the power that goes with them. Mini-skirts are no longer only worn by the extreme or the ultra-trendy — even Marks and Spencer are doing it: ‘This season we are offering an extra short length 21 inches — two inches above the knee’. Wow!

At the American collections, full of Calvin Klein ‘slips’ and the ‘Shortest, Briefest Dresses of Them All’, we saw what New Yorkers mean by High Rise. International buyers rushed back home ‘to get all their existing stock chopped into minis’. So what does all this mean? Indeed, does it have to mean anything? Maybe not, but unlike many items of fashion, the mini-skirt is generally perceived to signify something — whatever it may be, the ‘60s, sex or success. It now acts almost as a vacuum, pulling every and any potential meaning into itself. People who denounce fashion, and particularly women’s clothes, as superficial or regard it as merely decorative, have poured into this insignificant garment so many meanings that it brims over with possible clues to modern behaviour.

This iconic status allows it to be taken outside the closed world of fashion and read against the economic and political climate. Desmond Morris, who should really stick to talking to monkeys, has a go at this in December’s Elle, telling us that while short skirts signal liberation, long ones mean ‘female subjugation and peasant toil’. The only thing, he says, that has delayed the return of the mini has been the uncertainty in the FT index. Such glib determinism ignores the variety of styles available at the moment and fails to explain how they change so rapidly.

To put it crudely, as Julie Burchill always does, ‘You cannot take the temperature of a culture by measuring a hemline, the collective whim of 15 French fag [sic] dressmakers says absolutely nothing about the shift in status and sensibilities of western womanhood’

Mass style

Yet fashion isn’t just about designers. Some styles filter down and become acceptable to the mass market. Others don’t. Short skirts have cropped up regularly in the designer shows of the last few years with clothes inspired by physical activity, dance and sport. We’ve had the tutu and the skating skirt, among others. On the streets the adoption of the mini-skirt in PVC or rubber by female punks was a deliberate rejection of the long, floaty and ‘natural’ skirts of the late ‘70s. It was all very synthetic, suggestive and full of shockability.

Now it’s no longer just smarties or punks who want to wear mini-skirts. Which is why it’s also tempting to read them as a sign of a post-feminist consciousness. Is this perhaps why there is a difference between the flimsy and skimpy clothes of the catwalk and the way that short skirts are actually being worn? In the collections the clothes were all little girlish, on the streets they are far more businesslike and practical and worn with black tights against the cold wind.

Further, it seems that power dressing can now incorporate the short skirt into its corporate identity. The boss as well as her secretary can wear it. Looking like she means business in a mini-skirt and tailored jacket, she can now display her perfectly-toned body and sexual confidence. It’s no longer a distraction, but a ‘tangible asset.’ This may be anathema to some feminists who feel that this mythical world of women ‘having it all’ is still far away for most of us, and that the tyranny of fashion still excludes all but the adolescent and the anorexic. But fashion is about pleasure as well as pain. About playing with the boundaries of the body. About the constant negotiation between what is public and what is private.

For women, these are always political as well as aesthetic decisions. Can I wear that to work, on the bus, in the pub? We might think that we are signalling sexual autonomy in our 'look, but don’t touch’ outfit, but for every sophisticated Tom and Harry who understands the rules of the game, there’s a Dick that doesn’t. For some men, autonomy dressed up is remarkably like availability. Like all those snarling models in the ads — defiance is just another kind of provocation.

The move towards more blatantly sexualised women’s clothes, which provides an overall context for the shorter hemlines, is also seen by some as an imaginary working through of some of the dilemmas posed by Aids. For women — and men — taking refuge in monogamous relationships in these days of safe sex, the message is ‘Look erotic, but don’t deliver’; as designer Antony Price says, ‘If the product is the same then the packaging had better look thrilling.’

Yet of all the meanings we attach to the mini, its ‘60s connotations are the most powerful. Many of this year's fashion shows had a strong ‘60s feel. Katherine Hamnett’s was completely derived from 60s styles, right down to the psychedelic colours. But it’s all very knowing—a million miles away from innocence. For how we perceive the ‘60s has largely been influenced by Thatcherite discourse; the '60s is what has been repressed in the '80s. Thatcherites talk of the ‘60s as the time when everything started to go wrong; so it’s interesting that designers should visually reclaim the era. But the ‘60s refracted through ‘80s sensibilities means something quite different, especially for women. The freedom the mini-skirt symbolised in the swinging ‘60s was the freedom to say ‘Yes’. In the late ‘80s, it symbolises the freedom to say ‘No.’

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time