1970 was a year of great cultural divides.
Alongside war protests and racial unrest, women were in revolt. But in a year of turmoil there was one divisive issue that captivated the media. A hot button topic if ever there was one, it pitted women against men, and women against women. For months on end, day after grinding day, the media covered it unrelenting from the front lines.
What was this deep cultural divide? Was it women’s liberation, the bombing in Cambodia, legalizing abortion, or gender pay inequality?
Nah! It was the Great Hemline Battle of 1970.
As the year spiraled into social and political chaos, women’s hemlines suddenly fell from thigh high to near floor length. At a time of unprecedented upheaval, the media devoted endless ink to covering not only the War in Vietnam buut the fashion war that raged on between the Mini v.s. the Midi.
Since the mid 1960’s the mini skirt had reigned supreme.
The introduction of the Midi length skirt put fear into the hearts of ogling men and spunky women alike. It also caused some dress manufacturers a good case of jitters as to whether the public would accept this dramatic change. But for all the women’s talk of liberation, the fashion world was banking on the fairer sex’s traditional slavish devotion to fashion.
“Every time the ladies turn around these days they discover another freedom,” Life magazine gushed in its March 3, 1970 issue devoted to the Hemline Hassle. “They can protest, they can compete, they can even – if they are Russian- fly of into space. But freedom stops when they turn around to regard their own hemlines in the mirror.”
In and Out
It would seem as though few things struck at the heart of a womans self-esteem than to be out of step with current fashion.
Like wearing white after Labor Day, hemline decrees had to be obeyed, like it or not. The word had been passed down from above through that sacred Bible of Fashion Women’s Wear Daily commanding all women – libbers or not- that skirts shall henceforth plunge to midcalf in what they called the Midi. Dress houses rushed to lower their hemlines to prepare for the big fall preview. The US fashion Industry declared definitively that the Mini was officially OUT.
Devotion to Fashion was just what the greedy Midi Men were counting on to line their own maxi pockets. “There’ll always be that strange woman, God bless her we love her,” reasoned an executive at Marshall Field, “who wants to be the first out of the hen-coop with the latest oddity. She’ll go to any length to be au courant and we make a lot of money because of her.”
Along with fashionistas, they predicted the Midi would be favored by girls not built like Twiggy.
According to Life: “Merchants are now even briefing their armies for the attack, backed by the big manufacturers who are deep into the midiskirt, the big name designers here and abroad who thought it up, and women with heavy thighs.”
For those women hemming and hawing about the hemline, fashion manufacturers prepared to go to battle. Stores quickly banished the mini, sweeping them totally off their racks. By late summer the mini was missing in action.
In August the die was cast. It would soon be farewell to knees and maybe even calves once the enemies of the miniskirts got their way.
Department stores began a vast campaign to re-train the customers eyes and the first target was their personnel. Salesgirls were encouraged, urged, even shamed into wearing the Midi at work. Nearly all stores staged fashion shows to woo their staffs to the Midi and show them how to sell it, encouraging them to spend more time with dubious customers to “get them to try on at least one Midi.”
August 3 was D Day at all the N.Y.Department stores, the day the Midi became the law of the store. At tony Bonwit Tellers in N.Y. salesgirls were given the option of wearing either Midis or pantsuits. No minis.
The President of Saks Fifth Avenue gave the final death knell: “The mini is as dead as a doornail.”
For many these were fighting words. Battle lines were drawn. Suddenly the hemline debate became a matter of absorbing national interest.
Girl Watchers In Revolt
Girl watchers were in an uproar. The mini gladdened (and the past tense was painful) girl fanciers from California to Manhattan.
Most men wanted to see the hemlines remain exactly where they were. “Standing on the other side of the debate were all males over 12 (especially husbands)” Life magazine exclaimed.
For men accustomed to seeing the female leg in full display it was a sad step backwards. How can we bear to bid goodbye to all this, they wailed in unison.
“The only thing this change is going to help is Saturday and Sunday television,” said a man in Denver quoted in the Life article. “Guys who would ordinarily be out in the fresh air watching girls will be inside watching TV.”
Even our National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger a world-class girl watcher chimed in on the issue commenting “that legs were about the only scenery his basement White House office had to offer.”
The most wistful comment came from the Hallowed Halls of Congress where a congressman lamented “I sort of feel momentary regret for the passing of a golden age.”
While most men preferred the mini to mid calf length in women’s fashion, women were evenly divided. While some women said they would wear the midi length just to keep in style, and some praised the Midi’s feminist qualities, others echoed Time magazines assessment that the midi was “ungainly unflattering and unwarranted.”
The most vocal were the female mini skirt devotees who vehemently opposed the Midi and held protests across the country. One lass in a micro-mini vowed that, “if the Midi becomes the style I’ll commit suicide or murder. I’ll stay out of the stores for 4 years if I have to.”
In Their Clutches
The real war often took place right at home.
If a fashionable gal wanted to refurbish her entire wardrobe with new hemline lengths it didn’t come cheap. And convincing husbands to part with money for something they opposed was a battle itself.
“My husband won’t pay the bills,” cried legions of women confronted with the racks of new hemlines.
The style on which the U.S fashion industry was staking its money on, couldn’t very well be paid for it with a woman’s own credit card.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
In 1970 a woman would need her husband’s store credit card since she couldn’t get one of her own.
Even a working woman who got married would have to reapply for a charge account at a local department store under her husband’s name, despite the fact she was working at the same job prior to her marriage. A woman applying for a credit card could be asked a barrage of questions: Was she married? Did she plan on having children? Many banks required single, divorced, or widowed women to bring a man along with them to co-sign a credit card.
A single gal trying to obtain a BankAmericard in her own name would be told: ”Our policy allows cards in the husband’s name only.”
Didn’t matter whether you were dressed in a Mini, a Midi, or a Maxi. Your application would be declined. You needed a man in a pair of pants.
Now that was a hassle. A real battle worth fighting over.
Filed Under Early Sexists Cartoons
A cartoon reflective of the times done in 1970 by my 15 year old self clearly shows that unlike hemlines, my young consciousness had yet to be raised!