A new retrospective opened in London’s Victoria and Albert museum this month, celebrating the woman who created the most iconic fashion of the 1960s. Mary Quant was fashion’s ultimate democratiser, a woman who saved a generation of women from dressing like their mums.
Quant’s no-nonsense approach to practical yet intensely stylish garb is best summed up by the designer herself: “Fashion is not frivolous; it is part of being alive today.” Born in 1934 to two schoolteachers in Blackheath, south London, Quant always wanted to study fashion. However, her parents denied this request, leading her to pursue illustration at Goldsmiths University. After a brief stint as a milliner’s apprentice, Quant struck out on her own, after all, opening her first revolutionary clothing store on Chelsea’s Kings Road in 1955.
Quant not only experimented with new designs, but also new materials from the very earliest days of her empire. Buying material from Harrods and fashioning garments overnight for sale in her first store, Bazaar, she eventually transformed into a businesswoman, mass-producing pinafores, colourful tights and the famous miniskirt, all of which became staples in thousands of wardrobes around the globe.
A flair for marketing (plastic bags from her Bazaar store remain collectors’ items), coupled with a cultish following of five-point-bob-sporting fans, fuelled Quant’s astronomic rise to fame in the Swinging Sixties. However, in recent decades, her influence and work have lain unexplored, discarded like much of the fast-fashion she helped to create.
All this may be set to change, though, as the V&A throws open the doors to its Mary Quant retrospective until February 2020, which incidentally is the month she’ll turn 90. “Mary Quant was incredibly influential on a whole generation, and we wanted to look at her story, research the facts and the details,” says Jenny Lister, co-curator of the exhibition, adding: “And it’s much more than just the miniskirts.”
Pieces in the Quant exhibition were sourced from the very people she strove to include in the world of fashion: ordinary British women
Indeed, the items on display paint a fuller picture of the designer and expert marketer Quant is. Trussed up like shop windows on the lower floor and progressing to a lighter, brighter upper gallery, the cases take visitors through Quant’s journey from her first Kings Road shop, to mass-production deals for the US market, spanning 20 years and 120 items.
In a swift gear-change from the V&A’s ongoing Christian Dior exhibition, many of the pieces on show in the Quant exhibition were sourced from the very people she strove to include in the world of fashion: ordinary British women. Quant decided French couturiers shouldn’t be deciding what regular people wore, and instead created affordable, modish looks for her young followers.The retrospective may surprise some visitors in its depth. The things the British designer was famous for are featured heavily, but so are her creative use of tartan and trousers, military fabrics and make-up.
The V&A used social media to ask the public for contributions, and was inundated with photos, stories and clothes lovingly saved from the era. Of the 800 responses to the #WeWantQuant call-out, 35 pieces from 30 owners were included in the exhibition, many with photos showing the original wearer.
A blouse, bought from Bazaar and displayed on the ground floor, was bought by a research scientist hoping to impress her geologist boyfriend upon his return from Antarctica; an Alexander Stripe pinafore dress was bought for another of the contributors by her parents – she called Bazaar “by far the most stylish shop in London”.
On the upper floor, five cases form the petals of Quant’s daisy logo, showing her brightest and best pieces along with a stunning collection of Daisy dolls, Quant’s rival to Barbie. The central carousel brings the theme back to the women who wore the clothes, showing videos and images from contributors to the collection.
It’s not only Quant’s creations on show at the retrospective. Images of her surround visitors, having her hair cut by Vidal Sassoon, meeting executives and frolicking for magazine shoots, reminding viewers of how central her personal image was to her brand.
She created a movement. A movement of freedom and fun
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A Museum
Her ability to market herself as part and parcel of her company was a fresh approach to fashion, something couture designers had never done.
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, says the exhibition is a fitting tribute to a woman who was a “powerful role model for working women at a time of entrenched gender conservatism. She created a movement. A movement of freedom and fun. A movement of liberation.”
Quant, who was awarded damehood in 2015, has called the exhibition a “huge honour”, but played down the role she played in creating a new brand of teenage-centred style. “We didn’t necessarily realise that what we were creating was pioneering, we were simply too busy relishing all the opportunities and embracing the results before rushing on to the next challenge,” she says.
Those who played with their style in the 1960s will be transported back to an era of fun and new femininity at the retrospective. Those too young to remember the Quant fashion revolution will gain an understanding of just how influential she was on the world fashion stage – at least that’s what Lister hopes.
“I actually want [visitors] to come away thinking about fashion in a slightly different way. I think that they should be thinking about how they dress themselves. I want them to really see how Mary was so clever … [and her] strong individual style.”
Updated: April 20, 2019 05:42 PM