It seems apt that Oscar de la Renta would serve as co-chair for the Costume Institute Gala Benefit on the occasion of celebrating Charles James. De la Renta is, after all, known for an elegant and sophisticated style befitting the smart set of the Upper East Side. As C.Z. Guest once said, “Oscar doesn’t even understand what bad taste is”. As such, it seems hard to imagine that the debonair designer would be anything but beloved. But early in his career, he came up against a staunch roadblock, as the world had not quite caught up to his refined palate. Below is the story of Oscar de la Renta’s brief dalliance with notoriety.
It was the hemline drop heard round the world. And the rebuff was so vitriolic, it took all of Seventh Avenue by storm.
To set the scene: 1965. Mary Quant is credited with inventing the Mini, effectively freeing an army of well-formed gams into the world. Women rejoiced, blissfully flapping tender ankles, bronzed knees and shapely thighs everywhere from transatlantic flights to weddings. It was the suitable attire for a youthful generation dedicated to changing the world. But fashion is nothing if not relentless in pursuit of a defying change. Fast forward five years and the daring abundance of skin below the waist somehow seemed dated. For S/S 1970, designers proposed a new look for a new decade; skirt lines would drop demurely to mid-shin levels, while the name retained something of the charm of its predecessor: The Midi. As it turns out, their projections were, if not entirely wrong, then at the very least premature. No one was ready to put the legs away.
The outrage that the new styles caused was so intense that The New York Times dubbed it “The Great Midi Crisis of 1970”. Perhaps not surprisingly, the greatest protestations were from men. “I think they’re awful. They look like 1950 vintage Deborah Kerr movies. And there’s nothing more dated than that particular vintage,” offered Harry Dawson, a 28 prep school teacher from Manhattan. Even Paul Newman weighed in on the matter. “I think it’s absolutely shameful that designers are able to get away with something like this. My wife’s got great legs. Why should she hide ‘em?” Mrs. Kenneth Silver, a thirty-year-old employee at the Scientology Foundation, agreed with the famous actor, “The mini is where it’s at for chicks like me with good legs”. Designers were forced to take a stand on the issue. Mollie Parnis, Pauline Trigère and Sarmi opened their shows that spring with compliant anti-Midi speeches. And so, disgruntled customers turned on those that perpetuated the trend.
Among the American designers, Oscar de la Renta was the principal culprit championing the case for the Midi. (In Paris, Valentino and Saint Laurent were presenting similar silhouettes). On May 4, 1970, the members of FADD (Fight Against Dictating Designers) and GAMS (Girls/Guys Against More Skirt) joined forces to picket outside 550 Seventh Avenue, where de la Renta was showing his boutique collection. “We chose Mr. de la Renta because he is so pro-midi, and he isn’t showing anything else. We thought it important to take a stand in the garment center this week.” For over an hour they stomped their bare stems, waving placard with passionate fury. The courteous Dominican designer faced the irate crowd with good humor, predicting with a knowing smile, “They’ll be wearing the midi length in five years”.
De la Renta proved a proficient soothsayer. By November 1973, the disgruntled troops had disbanded, and the Midi skirt was safely reintroduced to the market. So, the designers triumphed in the end. And, in truth, the idyllic vision of a world entirely populated by naked legs was in actuality not universally appealing. “I have fat knees,” Marcy Donovan, an 18 year old secretary lamented. “But now, I’m going to cover them up again in the name of fashion.”
(L) Mary Quant in her Studio, 1965. (R) 1966.
Women wearing Mini's, 1969.
(L) London, February 1968. (R) Jane Birkin, 1960s.
Midi Protestors, 1960s.
Midi Protestors, 1960s.
Oscar de la Renta Fashion (R: Midi Skirt, Vogue, March 15, 1970)