Mary Quant’s fashion-defining era is still fresh as a daisy

woman standing and holding umbrella

While staff at the V&A were preparing for its major Mary Quant retrospective, which opens next month. They launched the #WeWantQuant campaign to appeal to the public to lend or donate clothes. Jenny Lister, the show’s curator, says that they were overwhelmed. “We received more than a thousand emails – some from Quant’s friends and others from the bohemian circle she belonged to – but most of them were just ordinary women. Some got in touch from as far as Australia and San Francisco, some were former students, teachers, and nurses.” Lister’s delight at this is that one woman described how she took her Quant dress to Antarctica to wear at the south pole. Others have kept their makeup (e.g. the eyeshadows Quant, her husband and business partner, Alexander Plunket Greene), which are affectionately called “jeeperspeepers”. Quant’s clothes were not just clothes – they were treasured clues to the past. This was the collective message. The museum was unable to accommodate the 30 female offerings (four of which are discussed below). For everyone who lived during the Quant era, the show will be a form time travel. It will take you back to the 60s and 1970s, the coolest surnames (Q had kudos), and the simple daisy logo which kept on blooming. Mary Quant reminisces in a new introduction to Quant by Quant (1966): “Life was a whizz!” It was so much fun, and it was unexpectedly amazing, despite or perhaps because of its intensity… We were so lucky with our incredible luck and timing. We partied too – there were no real limits.” Her writing style, which was ingenue enthusiasm, matched her clothes. Quant considered fashion “a game”, and her son Orlando (who wrote In the V&A catalogue) recognizes the joy he had with his parents after they met at Goldsmiths as art students. His father was “riotously exhilarating” and he is still able to recall how he made his life so much more enjoyable. People would say to Mary: “But Mary, that … is impossible”, and this was an invitation to proceed for her. He also claims that his mother’s plans were more serious than she modestly stated, and that they effected an “attitude revolution” that was more than fashion.

Quant, 89 years old, still follows her original design. She tells me via email that she loved wearing the clothes she designed for her friends and herself. “They were a reflection of the freedom we felt at that time. The shorter skirts allowed us to move, jump, and have fun. Because I am easily bored, I was constantly looking for new inspirations. If they worked on me, they would fashion everyone who liked the styling, crazy accessories, and the cosmetics.”

Lister emphasizes Quant’s prescience. “She used clothes as a demonstration that change was coming. Fashion was not about fashion, but about individual expression.”

She understood that fashion “anticipates”, and her design revolution emerged from a postwar Britain at the edge of social change. Quant was a prominent figure who, according to Lister, “expressed how women were moving away from traditional stereotypes.” Quant’s clothes were a way to express women’s empowerment at a time when words like “sexism” were not yet invented. They also represented Quant’s personal rebellion and her attempt to avoid becoming a grammar school teacher. This was the fate that her parents, who hail from Welsh mining families, had envisioned for her when she was raised in Blackheath.

woman touching her hair standing near teal gate

After leaving Goldsmiths, Quant was an apprentice at Mayfair’s milliners. Bazaar was her first shop. It opened at the corner of King’s Road and Markham Square in Chelsea in 1955. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that the brand really took off. It was a time of energy, both in fashion and the arts. Lister suggests that Quant’s “generosity, drive to make fashion affordable through mass production is a reflection of a higher quality life which became more accessible in the postwar period.” As her clothes became more widely available, they expressed both the disruption of class hierarchy and gender roles.

The strength of Quant was in the fact that she did most of the modeling herself (as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli before were – both of which were inspirations).

Quant’s 1920s-bobbed hair is shown in photographs. They show how Quant liked to keep her upper half sane: Peter Pan collars and rollnecks. Cleavages never featured. Models are all about attitude, leg and teasing hemlines. They had a playful, gamine-like quality.

Lister says that she didn’t want to grow up. “The clothes wanted to keep her childhood going, but that turned into a new type of sexiness, which was defined by her.”

Quant is credited with inventing the miniskirt. He shares this honor with André Courreges, a French designer. Although some claim he was the first to do so in 1964, Quant is the one who introduced the mini-skirt and hotpants to the streets. In her autobiography, she shares a funny story about a trip she took to Malta as a recuperating worker. Before they were accepted in London, or even Malta, she was wearing a mini skirt. “I was picked up by the men.”

Yet, roll on a year or two, and this is how Alexandra Pringle, now the editor-in chief of Bloomsbury publishing house (quoted in the catalogue), remembers the anything-goes-exuberance of the King’s Road: “Big floppy hats, skinny ribbed sweaters, key-hole dresses, wide hipster belts… white lip-sticked lips and thick black eye-liner, hair cut at alarming angles, op-art earrings and ankle length white boots.”

Let’s not forget the beautiful colored tights that Quant invented, which were highlighted by the mini-skirts. The PVC zip-up macs with purples and reds, as well as the PVC zip up macs in purples or reds, and the dresses that sewed men’s suits, all of these items were defined by humor and classlessness.

woman standing and holding umbrella

They were expensive – twice the price of what you would get at Marks & Spencer, but they were not couture. Quant believed fashion was for the masses. You could even make her designs from Butterick patterns. Her clothes were made in democratic multiples 1,000 from 1962, but many details didn’t seem mass-produced: groovy zips and contrast top-stitching. Tapered sleeves also featured. Six guineas was the cost of a “Snob”, pinafore dress. This is roughly equivalent to just over PS100. These were “feel-good” designs for women, meant to give them freedom and enhance their lives.

Her clothes weren’t friendly to curvy women, however. Lister states that these clothes were useful for women who grew up on war diets. She says Quant wanted to be “flatter personality” and love functionality (she once stated that she wished she had invented jeans).

It may seem counterintuitive to reflect on a designer who was always looking for the next thing. The V&A retrospective will reveal how contemporary Quant is – and how daring she was too. Her clothes don’t get old, just like Peter Pan.

Lister answers a question about her legacy by saying, “If someone wore Mary Quant now, you wouldn’t blink an eyelid.” London’s young designers continue to reflect her spirit, keeping London a centre for street-style-inspired fashion. If you take a look at the designs of young British female designers, like Molly Goddard and Simone Rocha’s, you will see that their designs reflect the same spirit of female enterprise, risk-taking and innovation as Quant’s.

This is how Women’s Wear Daily praised Quant in her prime: “These Britishers are a massive onslaught talent, charm, and mint-new idea.” English fashion is fiercely current.

Quant is the same thing as Quant now and then.

King’s Road sponsored Mary Quant is at the V&.A between 6 April 2019 and 16 February 2020

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