Skirt Lengths in the 1960s

I do intend to write about the way pantyhose changed our lives, but first I want to lead a brief tour through the 1960s’ skirt revolution that made pantyhose necessary.

Mary Quant was the quintessential “Youthquake” designer of the 1960s. You really could not wear traditional stockings with the skirt on the right.

In fashion there are very few absolutes, but I’ll share a group of images I’ve collected. Keep in mind that not all women follow fashion slavishly, and that even within one country, some areas will be more conservative than others.

Early Sixties:

Many people think that all the “short skirts” of the Sixties were mini-skirts. Not true. The skirts we wore in the early 1960s came in for some criticism because they were short in relation to the skirts of the 1950s. It was only near the end of the 1960s that skirt lengths exposed more leg (and thigh) than was ever before shown by fully dressed adult women.

Left: We sometimes forget how long skirts were in the late Fifties. Right: three years later.

It’s surprising to see how long the post-war “New Look” remained main-stream fashion. From 1947 to 1956, Dior’s influence dominated.

1956. This Butterick suit pattern is still long and tight-waisted, like Dior’s 1947 collection.

1956. These hems are several inches below the knee.

1957. Simplicity 2311 is four or five inches below the knee.

Then hems began to rise.

Left to right: 1957, 1958, 1959.

We can understand that the skirts of 1959 did look shockingly short after ten years of mid-calf fashions.

I started high school in 1958. Our school uniforms had brown wool skirts with stitched-down pleats, and came well below the knee. Skirts continued to rise in the early 60s, but in my school the line was drawn at the bottom of the kneecap. By 1961, if a teacher or hall monitor thought your skirt was too short, you would be asked to kneel on the floor. If the hem didn’t touch the floor while you were kneeling, you would be sent to the principal’s office where a seam ripper was waiting. (I mention this because it tells us that by 1961 girls were trying to wear mid-knee skirts.)

The skirts of Butterick 9082 would easily have passed the “kneeling test.”

1959. Butterick 9082.

1960. These women’s dresses (Butterick) cover the knee and then some.

However, in the same year other designs just covered the kneecap.

1960. A McCall’s dress that just covers the knee.

1958 to 1960: Skirts are getting shorter. It’s the Sixties, but they’re not mini-skirts yet.

In fact, hems that just covered the knee were the norm for a while:

1961. Vogue 5251 covers the knee — but may not when the wearer is walking….

Keep your eyes on this spot, where the curve of the calf bends in.

From now on, we’ll have to look for the spot where the curve of the calf indicates the bottom of the knee.

1963. Empire styes were an option. Kneecaps were hidden until you sat down.

1963. This Marian Martin pattern was aimed at conservative dressers. But it’s the same length as the Butterick pattern above.

Marian Martin pattern 9495 from 1963.

It’s good to look at patterns sold through newspapers, since they were aimed at rural and small town women — women who did not have access to department stores. I was surprised to see that the lengths are in step with fashion.

[My husband grew up in small-town Texas, while I grew up near fashionable San Francisco, California. We’re the same age. He and I kept disagreeing on what teenaged girls wore in the Sixties — until we realized that the girls he remembered lived in North Texas, which is still quite conservative.]

Later Sixties:

1964 was the year the Beatles came to America. British fashion, at least for young people, suddenly went from notoriously dowdy to trend-setting. Young women began to dress differently from their elders — and from sophisticated adult fashion models.

1964 fashions for women — hems rising slightly.

1964. Notice the “calf curve” point on the red one. The knee cap is appearing.

1964: Designer Mary Quant, Carnaby Street, Mods, a “Youthquake” in British-inspired fashion. This dress is girlish, not aspiring to womanly sophistication.

In 1964, teens no longer aspired to become sophisticated women. Youth was the new ideal.

1964. Coat and dress by Mary Quant for Butterick. It’s illustrated in two different lengths — one exposing the knee.

People waiting for the mini skirt to appear may feel that “now we’re getting somewhere!” However, this model’s Vogue pattern partially covers her knees even when she’s sitting. (I had a hat like that and those gloves designed for 3/4 sleeved coats, circa 1965.)

1964. Vogue pattern photographed for Elegance.

1965. Littell was another featured designer. These hems are mid-knee.

Those outfits by Deanna Littell are suitable for business or travel, but the ones below (not by Littell) are definitely for the young.

1965. These outfits are for teens and Junior sizes (“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!”)

1965. Butterick Fashion News. These are not teen dresses; they are suitable for office work or church. The one on the right would have struck my younger self as middle-aged!

By 1965, knees were bared.

1966. An entire wardrobe from Simplicity, No. 6882. Bare knees.

1966. Vogue patterns for adults. All  have bare knees.

1966. Vogue Designer patterns. Definitely not for teens, but they all show hems that bare the entire knee.

It appears that by 1966, a woman who did not bare her knees was out of fashion. (As a senior in college, I often wore these short skirts with opaque tights.)

1967. These basic Simplicity dresses were worn to school and to offices. This pattern is in teen/Junior sizes, but grown women wore the same clothes.

1967. I had a store-bought dress very like the one on the right, but not quite so short: it was light blue paisley linen blend, with a bow at the white collar. Notice the low-heeled shoes.

1967. The classic shirtdress was mini-length, too.

1967. Mary Quant continued to go shorter and shorter.

1967 was also famous for the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. It was getting hard to find dresses the weren’t this short! These were the years when I took every new dress straight to the fabric store and bought matching 2 inch hem tape so I could let the dress down before wearing it. Sitting on a cold cable car’s wooden seat in one of these was unpleasant…. Panty-hose or tights were a blessing.

1968. Mary Quant again. I wore drop-waisted dresses like the one on the right (without that scarf) to my job in a bank.

1968. A McCall’s dress that is definitely not aimed at teens, but at women. A good look for the office or for church; it’s rather dressy.

1968. Again, dress patterns sold through newspapers echo the short hems of the major pattern companies.

1969. Very short skirts that bare the knees and several inches above the knee (mini-skirts) are mainstream fashion.

But the very shortest skirts were yet to come…

1970. Butterick dress patterns expose knees and several inches of the thigh. These are true mini-skirts.

1970. A chart of all the possible skirt lengths being worn. From Butterick Fashion News, July 1970.

Even that chart didn’t include the shortest of the short skirts:

1970. A “micro-mini” with matching bikini briefs. Butterick Fashion News, July 1970.

It makes the mini-skirts of the 1960s seem tame by comparison.

Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that in 1970 the bank I was working for announced that female employees would finally be allowed to wear pant suits (or trousers with a matching top) to work. In the fall of 1970, I returned to teaching high school. I was glad that trouser suits were soon permitted in the classroom, too. It was a conservative (“men wear the pants in this family”) Central California community, but around 1970 we had reached the point where trousers were often less shocking than dresses.

It’s often hard for young teachers to maintain discipline in high school classes. I knew some young male teachers who grew beards or wore jackets and neckties just to look older. Here’s a piece of advice about classroom discipline and those very short 1960s’ and 70s’ dresses: turning your back to a class full of adolescent boys when you reach high to write on the chalkboard while wearing a mini dress is not conducive to the ideal learning environment…. Better to be a little out of fashion!

13 Comments

Filed under 1950s-1960s, 1960s-1970s, Vintage Couture Designs

13 responses to “Skirt Lengths in the 1960s

  1. marijo1951

    Thank you for featuring Butterick 3288 designed by Mary Quant. My mum made me two versions for my fourteenth birthday in March 1965, probably the best birthday present I ever received. I wore them as she made them for 2 or 3 years, then lopped off several inches and wore them as mini-dresses for a few years more.

  2. i was interested to read your opinion of this fashion trend, as someone who actually wore these short skirt. i was born in 1969, and don’t remember the super-short skirt well other than seeing it later in images. my mother was very stylish, but she never went for extreme styles, so she never had frocks this short. of course, micro-minis returned; 5 minutes in any nightclub right now will make that clear! but they have never appealed to me; i think they are impractical/uncomfortable, because they require a restriction of natural movement, and also ungraceful, as there is no flow to the fabric, and legs look sort of gawky to me with a brief bandage of skirt at the thigh. i am not at all motivated by “modesty” concerns; it is an aesthetic issue for me. i’m curious to know what others who wore these skirts felt about them…

  3. My problem was that my legs have always been heavy compared to my torso. I didn’t want to attract attention to them, but buying age appropriate clothing (teens and early 20s) meant wearing short skirts. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, trousers were not worn to class at my college 1962 to 1966, and not to work before 1970.

  4. I adored Mary Quant and the other British designers! I wore skirts to the mid-knee because at my high school, we weren’t allowed to wear really short skirts.

  5. ceci

    I was in high school ’64 – ’68 and skirts were indeed short in our suburb of a big east coast city. My mother told me every day that my legs were so unattractive that I should wear longer skirts (actually pectoral evidence indicates that I didn’t listen and my legs were fine, if not fashionably long). And yes, I remember the feeling of bare thighs and undies agains various kinds of seats because my skirts were so short. My rural college was in a colder climate but we just wore taller boots and long coats with the short short skirts, with tights and panty hose.

    ceci

  6. Connie in Colorado

    Your review of 1960s skirt lengths took me down Memory Lane! I was in high school from 1968 to 1972, with my mother and I sewing most of my clothes in exactly those styles. (My mother was a commercial artist/ illustrator for a department store and drew so many of the styles of the 1950-60s.) I remember in 1967 my first party dress was above the knee and my dad almost didn’t let me out of the house! It fell on the girls’ gym teachers to measure the questionable skirt lengths, no more than 2 inches above the knee. We were not allowed to wear pants until my Sr. year, and that could only be with a long top or suit jacket. When I look at those yearbooks I see what the extremes were and why skirt lengths – and boys’ hair length – were such issues!

  7. Perhaps a reader with better access to vintage newspapers can help locate a news storm I remember from the late sixties. Joan Kennedy, wife of Senator Ted Kennedy, got a lot of negative press because her skirts bared her knees. She was young and dressed normally for her age, but some members of Congress (or their middle aged wives) condemned her. I couldn’t find the news reports I remember. Can anyone else confirm or date those news reports?

  8. catniphill

    I could sew, so I made all my own outfits for school. I was in Jr High from 1966 to 1968 and wore a garter belt with opaque hose covered with fishnet hose in a contrasting color. I certainly flashed a lot of elastic during those days and always crossed my legs and sat crosswise on the school attached chairs. Suddenly pantyhose was available and dubiously I tried wearing something that looked like it would fit a doll–but it stretched amazingly. So I switched to opaque tights with fishnet panythose for some outfits and regular pantyhose for others. One of my favorite outfits was a fine-wale yellow corduroy babydoll worn with brown tights with yellow fishnets. I had matching daisy jewelry for this outfit. I still have all my patterns.

  9. It’s interesting reading about the experiences of others in the 60s! Here in the Back-of-beyond, some girls got brave enough to wear true minis around 1971. It was NOT a coincidence that we were allowed to wear pants in 1972.

  10. Pingback: Colorful,Textured Hose in the 1960s | witness2fashion

  11. Great article:Yes your country loves fashion and I love Kate Middleton /Duchess of Cambridges style….she’s my favorite.

  12. The fashion illustrations here are just beautiful. 60s fashion is so neat because people my age don’t get dressed up very much.

    • British Carnaby Street fashions seemed casual to us in the 1960s! I stopped wearing hats and gloves iin San Francisco when I was about 22. I even went grocery shopping in a pair of trousers!(1967) People used to get dressed up to fly somewhere — dressy suit or dress & coat, hat, gloves, high heels… Insane! An 8 hour flight was much more comfy in 1978 in trousers and shoes with room for swollen feet and suitable for lugging suitcases around. But Sixties’ dresses still look good to me!

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