Judged by today’s standards it was the very model of modesty, but on October 30th, 1965, a simple white ‘minidress’ worn by English model Jean Shrimpton scandalised Australia.
Now seen as a pivotal moment in women’s fashion, the dress – with a hemline “a daring four inches above the knee” – captured newspaper front pages around the world. While it’s hard to imagine the notoriously laid-back Aussies being “outraged” by anything these days, the country was much more conservative in its outlook half-a-century ago.
The problem was that Shrimpton, who can lay claim to being the world’s first ‘supermodel’, wore the ‘daring’ dress to Derby Day at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse, where the convention was for ladies to wear traditional outfits with stockings, gloves and hats. Shrimpton, who claimed to have no notion of the fuss her outfit would cause, had none of these accessories.
A few years earlier, the Victoria Racing Club had added a “Fashions in the Field” competition to the programme for the four-day Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival at Flemington Racecourse. Loosely based on Ladies’ Day at Royal Ascot, it was designed to boost attendance at the annual race meeting by attracting more women who would be interested in the fashions on display, as well as the racing.
For the 1965 Spring Carnival, textile manufacturer DuPont engaged Shrimpton – then the world’s highest paid model – to attend the event and be a judge for Fashions in the Field, while also promoting DuPont’s new ‘Orlon’ acrylic fabric. Prior to the visit, DuPont sent rolls of Orlon to Shrimpton’s London-based dressmaker, Colin Rolfe, so the two could design a series of outfits for her to showcase.
For Derby Day they came up with a simple white shift dress, but DuPont hadn’t supplied enough fabric to complete the intended design, so at Shrimpton’s suggestion Rolfe improvised with a higher hemline four inches above the knee. When Rolfe suggested it might cause a stir, Shrimpton apparently replied: “Nobody’s going to take any notice.”
She couldn’t have been more wrong. When she arrived at the racecourse, fashionably late and accompanied by her actor boyfriend Terence Stamp, there was a stunned silence in the members’ lounge, followed by gasps and whispered reprovals. She was openly scorned by some of the ladies, outraged by her open defiance of the established protocol of wearing a hat, gloves and stocking. She was also surrounded by kneeling photographers, shooting upwards to make the dress appear even shorter.
Shrimpton shrugged it all off and carried on regardless. She later told an interviewer: “The day of the races was a hot one, so I didn't bother to wear any stockings. My legs were still brown from the summer, and as the dress was short it was hardly formal. I had no hat or gloves with me, for the very good reason that I owned neither. I went downstairs cheerfully from my hotel room, all regardless of what was to come.”
The next day’s newspaper front pages and radio broadcasts across Australia were all dominated by “the dress” and people’s reaction to it. The former Lady Mayoress of Melbourne accused Shrimpton of being “a child” and the city’s Sun News-Pictorial newspaper reported: “There she was, the world’s highest paid model, snubbing the iron-clad conventions at fashionable Flemingon in a dress five inches above the knee, NO hat, NO gloves, and NO stockings!”
The controversy quickly spread around the world, including to Britain where the national press in ‘swinging sixties’ London angrily defended Shrimpton. The fashion correspondent of The London Evening News wrote: “surrounded by sober draped silks and floral nylons, ghastly tulle hats and fur stoles, she was like a petunia in an onion patch.”
When Shrimpton was back at the racecourse three days later for Melbourne Cup Day, she bowed to pressure from her sponsors and wore a much more conventional outfit comprising a three-piece grey suit with stockings, a straw hat, beige gloves and a brown handbag. She later told a reporter: “I feel Melbourne isn’t ready for me yet. It seems years behind London.”
Longer term, Shrimpton’s ‘minidress’ had a lasting impact on women’s fashion around the world and especially in Australia, where young women suddenly wanted to dress like ‘the Shrimp’ in styles that were free, cool and elegant. At Melbourne Derby Day the following year, all the most fashionable young women were wearing their hemlines above the knee, with many daring to discard their gloves and stockings!