Women’s Fashion Transformation: The 1960s
In part 2 of our look at the 30 years that transformed women’s fashions, we were in the 1950s, swanning about in gorgeous, long, swing dresses or skirts and body hugging wiggle frocks to give ourselves that trademark 50s hourglass look. And when we felt like a change, to keep up with the Audreys and Graces, we put on our capri pants or a pair of high waisted jeans with the cuffs rolled up, of course!
In our final installment then, let’s take a look now at what happened to fashions and how women dressed throughout the 1960s.
When it came to fashions, the start of the 1960s were still relatively conservative and classically tailored for women. Think Audrey Hepburn as Holly Gollightly in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Women’s fashion had deviated only a little from the 50s aesthetic. Hemlines rose slightly from mid calf to just below the knee. The body hugging wiggle dresses gave way slightly to looser and shorter more a line pencil dresses. And the volume and elaborate detail of the wide swing and poodle skirts slowly became replaced by sleek and simple a line skirts (pleats being a notable exception), now ending at or just below the knee.
You can see the sleeker look from this photo of Jacqueline Kennedy and her equally fashionable sister Lee Radziwill:
However social changes, technological advances and youth culture in particular soon led women’s fashion in the 1960s in a very different direction.
London: the fashion capital of the 1960s
When it came to culture and trends, London was the place to be in the 60s. The city also became the world’s fashion capital with the arrival of The British Invasion and Swinging London. The British Invasion was the name given in America in the mid 1960s to the huge influx and popularity of British culture and music in the US. Beatlemania was at its height. Alongside it, Swinging London sprang up as the youth fashion and culture epicentre. The youth were into Mod fashion, and the queen of Mod was Mary Quant.
Mod fashion was all about everything modern, fun and new. The ideas behind Mod fashion were really the essence of what 60s trends and fashions were all about.
Mod was about bold, bright colours, geometric shapes, new technology and materials and above all, the mini. Gone were the long, hourglass skirts and dresses of the 50s, the pastel colours and the acres of fabric. These were replaced with loose fitting shift dresses, tunics and tops and hemlines that leaped from mid calf to mid thigh (or shorter!!). In fact if there is one thing that 60s fashion has become defined by, it’s the mini dress or mini skirt.
The mini and ultra short shorts or hotpants as they were known in the 60s, became THE fashion trend for young women during the decade.
These became so popular in the late 60s that with the arrival of the jet age in the late 1950s, even the airlines began cashing in on their sex appeal to woo passengers.
Women’s dresses, skirts or pants had never before been so short. To complete the look with those mini dresses, skirts or hotpants, boots, preferably knee high or long socks or tights became the accessories of choice.
Lovers of pants were also not forgotten with the bodysuit becoming another defining invention and look for women fashion in the 1960s.
Designers also began to experiment with new materials as progress in technology introduced the world to synthetics such as plastic and vinyl. Inspired by these as well as the other technological advancements of the age including the space race, innovative fashion designers like Paco Rabanne, André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin started making clothes out of all kinds of materials including plastic, vinyl, metal and even paper!
Needless to say that the old school designers were not impressed. Coco Chanel even quipped that Paco Rabanne was not so much a couturier as a metalworker.
Indeed, Paco Rabanne’s first solo collection launched in 1966 was titled “12 Unwearable Dresses in Contemporary Materials”.Yet many of the biggest stars of the 60s loved him and he counted Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot among his clients.
But aside from such over the top dresses, the invention and mass production of new synthetic fabrics including polyester, nylon, acrylic, vinyl and PVC made many of these new fabrics very popular in the 1960s. Metal zippers on tops, dresses, boots, well anything really, also became very fashionable.
The most iconic designer of Mod fashions at the time was Mary Quant. She is a Welsh designer who set up a high-end boutique in London where she designed fun fashions for young people that were all about short shift dresses, geometric patterns, bright colours and tights. Although she didn’t invent the mini (that honour seems to fall to the designer André Courrèges), she is credited with its spread and huge popularity. One thing which Mary did however invent in the late 60s were the hotpants. Either way, she was the hottest London designer of the decade and everyone wanted to wear her designs.
The first supermodels
No discussion of 1960s fashion would be complete without mentioning a couple of the world’s first supermodels, Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy (Lesley Lawson).
Both personified in their own unique way the thin, wide doe eyed and in the case of Twiggy also androgynous look that became popular during the decade. Jean Shrimpton dominated the 1960s, becoming the highest paid model of the time while the incredibly thin Twiggy who was barely 16 at the time, burst on to the London scene in 1965. She looked up to Jean Shrimpton as a role model and hugely influenced the fashion scene until her retirement from modelling in 1970.
Mary Quant designed for both of these supermodels. In fact, Jean Shrimpton inadvertently helped launch the mini when she attended Derby Day in Melbourne, Australia in 1965. She scandalised Melbourne society by wearing a white mini shift dress that ended four inches above her knee.
Rather tame by today’s standards isn’t it!
Space age fashion
Fashions in the 60s were all about the new and the fun, drawing on the social changes and innovations of the time so it was only natural that some rather entertaining trends also emerged. One of these was the ‘space age’ look or style of clothes which was of course inspired by the space race that had started back in 1957.
The first to put out a space age fashion collection was Andre Courreges in 1964 and other designers including Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne soon followed. In fact for any film buffs out there (which we at Glam certainly are), you can check out some of Rabanne’s space fashions in the 60s cult film Barbarella, starring Jane Fonda.
Another unusual fashion trend in women’s dresses that took hold was the paper dress. What started as a marketing gimmick by the Scott Paper Company in America in 1966 ended up as a fully fledged fashion craze by 1967 with all manner of clothes including underwear, coats, even bikinis and wedding dresses made out of paper!
In total contrast to the mod fashion style and consumerism of paper dresses was the hippy movement which started in the late 60s among a group of artists in San Francisco. They were a counter-culture rebelling against society as a whole, which included a rejection of its consumerism and fashion rules. Their rise in popularity towards the end of the 1960s went hand in hand with some of the social and civil rights movements such as the Civil Rights, Women’s Lib. and Gay Rights which became very prominent during the last years of the decade. Not to mention that general mood of sexual liberation and free love which the 60s has become so famous for.
The hippie alternative style featured long skirts, bell-bottoms, colourful flowing clothing, paisley and lots of tie dyed material. And of course as we now know with the benefit of history, it was the hippie fashions of the late 60s which became the ‘trendsetters’ as it were for the fashions of the 1970s as more and more celebrities like George Harrison and Pattie Boyd took up the new hippie alternative.
But here is where our story ends.
As you can see, the 60s really covered a wide spectrum of fashion changes and innovations in style.
But looking back from where we began this journey in the 1940s, then on to the 50s and finally the 60s, what drove such radical shifts in women’s fashions in such a short amount of time?
By far the biggest influence was society’s shifting attitudes regarding what was deemed acceptable or appropriate. Not necessarily just within fashion but in general. Since we are specifically looking at women’s fashions though, it was the attitudes of society towards women and their role which helped to drive and define women’s fashions during those decades. Naturally there were external influences which shaped these attitudes such as World War II or the various civil rights movements, but it was the fact that it became important, necessary or even acceptable for women to have certain roles within society – such as that of home front worker in the 1940s or housewife in the 1950s or of the ‘liberated’ carefree girl in the 1960s which caused such wide shifts in women’s fashions and how they dressed.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our trip through time looking at fashions from the 40s, 50s and 60s as much as we have. It has been quite a ride and absolutely fascinating to find out about how women’s fashions changed so dramatically over such a relatively short period of time. Some elements we already knew about but some, like just how much the war restricted clothing or the paper dresses of the 60s were a surprise to us. Interesting though they might sound, we keeping our fingers crossed that that’s one fashion fad that doesn’t come back in a hurry!
Till next time, yours in glamorousness!