Yesterday's discussions on modesty had me thinking about my mother's mini-skirts. As I said in the comments thread, any kind of cultural mandate that expresses women's primary value as her sexuality is anti-feminist. Thus a cultural mandate that modesty is a crucial moral imperative for women is really just the flip side of a cultural mandate that sexualizes women at every turn. I should be able to live my life without having to always be covered from neck to ankle but I should also be able to live my life without feeling pressure to show more skin than I would like.
Thus, I should be against the late '60s era mini-skirt craze wherein women almost universally wore very short skirts. Several inches above the knee was the expected norm. But, although I don't personally remember that era, I have very fond nostaligic feelings for the late '60s mini-skirt. My sense of nostalgia most likely stems from my mother's example as a devoted and highly successful practitioner of mini-skirt wearing. Hot pants too (with perhaps less fortunate results -- it's hard to like hot pants).
When my mother was a teenager in a minister's family in the '50s, her devout first cousin confided in her that he hoped to marry a homely woman because a homely woman was certain to be more Godly. My mother still tells this story almost fifty years later because, to her, it expressed an anti-beauty and anti-pleasure ethos in her extended family that she desperately wanted to escape. She became quite the fashionista in the '60s and her love of beautiful clothes included wearing very beautiful but very short dresses. These dresses were all very conservatively cut in the top -- often with long sleeves or even high necks -- but she wore her dresses with the hem lines as high as they could possibly go with any degree of decency. I once asked my mother how she sat down in those dresses and she said, "Very gingerly."
My mother even got married in a white mini-dress -- which sounds vaguely shocking until you remember that, in those days, a mini-dress was just a normal day-time dress. And indeed in the wedding photographs, even the older women were all wearing skirts a few inches above the knee. These were Establishment people, not counter-cultural types. My mother also wore her mini-dresses to her job as a secretary in a very Blue Chip organization.
I suppose I like the idea of the mini-skirt because I associate it with the explosion of rebellion against the stifling conformity my parents experienced in the '50s. To me, the mini-skirt has always been about being young and having fun and looking great.
My mother, however, has mixed feeling about her '60s attire. On the one hand she had a lot of fun with it. On the other hand, she admits to feeling a bit sheepish about the way her '60s outfits draw one's eye to her legs when one looks at the old photos. She has also pointed out to me the troubling contrast between the semi-nude secretaries in her office fluttering around waiting on their fully clothed male bosses. As many people have pointed out, less clothing generally equates to less power.
In addition, sexual harassment was very much the norm in my mother's office, blue chip and ultra-respectable though it supposedly was. Bottom-pinching was a frequent occurrence, and more than once my mother had to turn to a male colleague at lunch and say in her frostiest manner, "Please remove your hand from my thigh." The big boss in the company, a married man, constantly called my mother's roommate, also a secretary at the same firm, to try to arrange an affair -- leading my mother's roommmate to break down in tears on numerous occasions from the stress of the pressure placed on her. There was a real sense that the mini-skirted secretaries were there as eye candy and sex objects, in addition to their functions of taking dictation, typing, filing, and answering telephones.
I certainly do not mean to imply that women have the responsibility to prevent sexual harassment by dressing more modestly. But I do imagine that there may have been some sort of connection between the cultural norm at that time of wearing extremely short skirts in the workplace and the expectation that women employees were there so that their male superiors could get their jollies.
Hmmmm . . . I'm not sure I'm leading to very profound conclusions here. (After all, we are talking about mini-skirts.) But I guess I like the idea of fashion as an opportunity to express beauty and pleasure and sexuality, but I dislike the idea of fashion promoting power differentials among classes of people. Today I think we probably have a much better cultural norm in which most people with common sense would probably not wear a mini to the office (Ally McBeal notwithstanding), but where one might wear a very short skirt to a nightclub. It's all about context. It's also about personal choice and agency. Today, if I wear a mini-skirt it's because I have made a choice to wear one in a particular context-- not because it would look weird if I don't.