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14 July 2021

From the NS Archive: Fashion changes are changing

31 July 1970: Was the mini a menace to the textile manufacturers of the Seventies?

By Jean

The 1960s mini-skirt has been hailed as one of the most celebrated trends to come out of the era. The staple piece was first seen in the shop window of London’s Bazaar and was attributed to the British designer Mary Quant. That was in 1963, and seven years later for the New Statesman Jean and Andrew Robertson wrote about the fleeting and ever-changing nature of fashion, and whether the mini was truly in or out. With talk swirling about whether knee-length hemlines were about to make their big debut, this piece examines the fast-paced world of fashion and public opinion in the early Seventies. Jean and Andrew write: “Another cutting reminds us that the attack on the miniskirt came about five years ago. The winter of 1967-68, said the pundits, would see the fall of the hem, not just below the knee but practically to the floor.”

***

Autumn sets in early in what we are forbidden to call the rag trade. On 1 June a fashion writer can say, as one did: “Hemlines are back on women’s kneecaps or that is where they will be by the autumn among the women who follow those unwritten rules of style.” The quote above, by the way, is not ten years old but two. The writer was wrong in her prediction, which is a relatively new phenomenon. Hemline heights used to be decreed less frequently, but when they were everybody followed. But the limits were acceptable for all ages: always below the knee.

Another cutting reminds us that the attack on the miniskirt (prompted, some said, by the weavers of skirt materials) came about five years ago. The winter of 1967-68, said the pundits, would see the fall of the hem, not just below the knee but practically to the floor. One Sunday newspaper even declared that it happened in January 1968: “And great was the fall of it.” It added that it was the designers who had been trying to force it through for three years and had now succeeded. We all know from observation that they failed.

Now, for the first time in fashion’s well-tailored history, confusion reigns: this autumn will be the season of the mixi, not the maxi, midi (middy?) or mini. For trend setters (who are in fact followers, obviously) the outcome can be described in their language as boring. Who will recognise a trend and who is setting it? For the fashion writers there may be consolation in the thought that any inspired guess is likely to be right this season.

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Anyone who scans the fashion pages of the newspapers or skims through glossies may have discerned an interesting absence of correlation between editorial and advertising. This is particularly noticeable in the papers, where some quite ludicrous drawings or half-tone pictures of unwearable garments will be flanked by the timeless sweaters and skirts of the Countess of Coventry in Peter Saunders’s mail order ads (“I can help you take your place among the best-dressed women in Britain”) or a Gor-Ray skirt display reflecting just enough trendiness to be “with it” without being “way out”. Who will wear the oriental styles presaged a few weeks ago in Rome (the ladies seemed undecided whether to plump for the Mikado or Chu Chin Chow in their headings and copy)? Not the girl next door. Not because she cannot afford them until they have worked their way through the system from couture to “exclusive” (a few hundred versions) to C & A (several thousand), but because in all probability this attempt at fashion setting will not “take”. It is not the couture house that counts in this decision but the large-volume makers-up.

The basis of fashion economics, as with cosmetics, is conversion of comparatively cheap materials into expensive “confections”. Not expensive in the sense that more than £15 is likely to be asked, but in the sense that the cost of the inputs in material and labour will add up to about one-fifth of the retail price. It is this fact that makes the story that the mini was a menace to the textile manufacturers rather weak. There may have been something in it on the woollen and worsted side of the business, which may help to explain the recent all-out assault on the male market, so vigorously abetted by the press and supported with by contrast, advertising of the same kind of clothes. There are are now signs that this burst of effort has met with the same fate as the periodical campaigns for “men’s toiletries”.

It is doubtful if the maxicoat is going to be God’s gift to the woollen cloth industry. Not enough women have taken to it. So the pressure to get back to lower hemlines generally is much more likely to have support from the West Riding with the probability that one of these autumns the annual prediction will come true, with the inevitable follow-through by all the dependent industries hosiery, underwear, shoes and accessories of all kinds. The apparent aim is to bring about a complete wardrobe changeover, which was what the mini produced eventually, to the extent that a large part of the hosiery and footwear industries had to retool. It can be very costly to guess wrong in this business, as the British Shoe Corporation found some years ago when it had to write off £400,000’s worth of lasts for the square-toed shoe that failed to arrive that season but is “in” now.

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There is no simple, direct relationship between producer and consumer in the fashion business. What seems to happen is that the designers, mainly men, seek to be as different as they dare from their rivals (hence the sack, the shift, the A-line, the H-line and all the gimmicks of the Fifties). The result is a volley of styles and catch-phrases apparently aimed at the female public of the Western nations but actually intended for the buyers of the big clothing firms and department stores. A few of these novelties catch on and are then amplified into a trend. Most fall by the wayside and are forgotten until another try is made.

One certainty persists through the general chaos. While the trade needs fashion there will be no stability, no build-up of possessions for the individual. A clothing trade tycoon once remarked that the best business to be in was children’s clothes: they always need them and are always growing out of them. Little scope for fashion with naturally built-in obsolescence.

When Vance Packard had a go at The Wastemakers he classified fashion as a form of planned obsolescence, but he laid the emphasis on motor cars and household appliance. Marshall McLuhan has suggested that the motor-car, with its continual changes of style, seems to have become a form of human clothing. Strangely he and Packard, quite different performers but both addicted to social generalisation disregarded fashion in clothes as wasteful of resources. Orthodox economics officially takes no heed of such misapplication. For McLuhan it is “the rich man’s foible” and “the poor man’s art”, “a kind of macro gesticulation of an entire culture having a dialogue or an interfacing encounter with its new technologies”. Or in other words, I don’t know what it’s all about either.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson