Jean Shrimpton’s white dress

When Jean Shrimpton walked out onto Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, Australia, in 1965, she didn’t know she was about to make fashion history.

Joost Evers / Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

Australia takes their horse racing very seriously. The whole country shuts down on the afternoon of Melbourne Cup Day! That event is just the high point of a whole series of premium races held at the Flemington Racecourse, which are collectively known as the Spring Racing Carnival. One of the biggest events in carnival history, however, involved no horses at all.

In 1962, the organisers of the carnival began a fashion contest – basically as a way to encourage more female attendance at the races. “Fashions on the Field” is now an intrinsic part of the Australian race day experience. There is also a tradition of having celebrity judges (Paris Hilton and Eva Longoria have both served in that capacity). But back in 1965, three years after its introduction, the celebrity judge was an English model named Jean Shrimpton.

Shrimpton was a big deal for Melbourne. She’s today considered one of the world’s first supermodels (along with Lisa Fonssagrives and Dorian Leigh) and at the time was a significant international presence. Her fee for judging the Fashions on the Field contest was astronomical: apparently more than the Beatles made in their Australian tour the year before. DuPont paid the fee because they were keen for Shrimpton to promote their synthetic fabric Orlon. Just one problem: they didn’t give her enough.

The white dress that Shrimpton wore on Derby Day (three days before the Melbourne Cup) was short. A full ten centimetres above her knees! To make matters worse, Shrimpton was not wearing a hat, or stockings, or gloves – a serious breach of the conservative racing dress code. The crowd turned on her, and the next day the newspapers bled ink.

It was a miniskirt, of course. Miniskirts were all the rage in London thanks to the designer Mary Quant, but it had certainly not gotten as far as Melbourne, Australia. The press that resulted from Shrimpton’s appearance pushed the miniskirt into popular consciousness, and very quickly that fashion crime had become an iconic moment in fashion history.

A year later, in the 1966 Fashions in the Field, miniskirts were everywhere. And they’ve been with us ever since.

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