Mary Quant at the V&A
Diana Vreeland once declared ‘ you can see an approaching revolution in clothes’. She could have been talking about Mary Quant – the most influential British Fashion designer of the past sixty years.
So, if you long to immerse yourself in that revolutionary sixties spirit then you must drop everything, throw on a mini skirt or a Mod suit and make a pilgrimage by bus, naturally, to the V&A, to marvel at a doe-eyed Twiggy in hotpants, space-age, wet look Beatle capes, flower power, and Victoriana meets the Mods as the Mary Quant retrospective takes a dazzling trip back to Kings Road and swinging London – before it vanishes in mid-February 2020, quite possibly in a puff of smoke, stardust and daisy trails.
If you want to know what a cultural revolution looks like, this is about as good as it gets. There are over 200 Quant pieces in the exhibition and together they capture the extraordinary sense of youthful rebellion, optimism, daring, creativity and freedom that put London at the centre of the new youth culture. It’s like falling down the rabbit hole into a brighter, more colourful world where women not men rule the roost and Mary Quant looks like a cute Martian princess or the fifth Beatle with her Vidal Sassoon pudding bowl haircut. She’s come to show the world and women how to dress for emancipation from polka dots and daisies to stripes and every colour under the rainbow.
Mary Quant, together with Hubert de Givenchy and Coco Chanel still exert extraordinary influence over our wardrobes from hemlines to the power of the logo and the eternal allure of the mini skirt.
Quant’s genius as a self-taught fashion designer was a rare ability to plunder clothing references from every facet of British culture – from childhood clothing to the heart of the establishment, and then to subvert that tradition and design fashion that was irreverent, wickedly fun, daring and sexy.
Nothing was off-limits from oversized sailor collars to modest Victorian bathing garments to bankers pinstripes and space travel. Go and admire her safety pin dress. She gave women permission to dress like the boys by appropriating menswear for the girls from sassy checks to dapper pinstripes and waistcoats to cardigans and then poking fun at formality and gender stereotypes. While Alexander Plunkett Green Quant’s business partner and husband came up with cheeky names for her masculine meets feminine dresses including – Byron and Bank of England.
What I wouldn’t give to see inside the beautiful, playful and inventive mind of Mary Quant. It makes you jealous not to have been sweet sixteen in 1963! The year Quant launched the Ginger Group and began wholesaling her fashion designs across the globe.
The exhibition is absolutely the most magical fun you could possibly for an afternoon, whilst marvelling at how daring, how cheeky, how exuberant and optimistic the gamine Mrs. Plunkett Green – AKA Mary Quant and her childlike, Alice Through the Looking Glass Approach to fashion was and still is and what an enormous influence she continues to exert on fashion and each generation of women who love to be free, to wear what we damn well please and to express ourselves through the language of clothes. As women, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mary Quant.
Back in the late nineties, I was just starting out as a feature writer and fashion editor, and whenever we were looking back to the sixties and the mini skirt was making a comeback, I would ring up the Mary Quant press office and arrange to speak to Mary, the voice of sixties style for a fabulous quote. She was always so au courant, fun, charming and witty, and something of a heroine of mine.
To understand just how revolutionary Mary Quant was at the dawn of the sixties, her ideas need to be set in the context of how grim fifties London was after six years of war and the Blitz. Quant talks about the interminable fog and the desire of many older people to return to the status quo before World War Two, even though the reality was far from rose-tinted, rather like Brexit. Imagine as a woman not being able to open a bank account without a man’s signature to guarantee it? Divorce was a sin and only 4% of the population went to university in the sixties. Today, that figure is 40%. At this crucial crossroads, many women had enjoyed a taste of freedom and jobs reserved for the boys during WW2 and they had no intention of going back.
Mary who was evacuated during the war and experienced food rationing sums up fifties Britain –
“London was a bombsite and the only thing that thrived was the buddleia. Fog permeated everything. It was railway stations and Typhoo tea, stockings, and suspenders.”
Mary, who had just graduated as an art school teacher opened her first boutique in the Kings Road in 1955 with a party. She was one of the first designers to turn fashion into a social and cultural event. It was a huge hit. Suddenly, it was music, film, and fashion coming together in the ‘youthquake’ to defy outmoded ideas of conformity, class, gender and social mobility that defied the establishment and conjured up the idea of swinging London, women’s lib and the London look and turned British fashion into a global export phenomenon.
Mary Quant, the daughter of two teachers from Wales led the charge for women with fashion that swept away the modesty of the fifties and dared to hike hemlines sky high, plunder menswear for the girls and put Jean Shrimpton, the most beautiful and alluring model of the sixties into her witty cardigan dress inspired by Rex Harrison’s suave, cardigan-wearing Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, in which he rails against letting a woman into your life!
Ah, if only fashion felt this revolutionary and fun right now. The Mary Quant retrospective is teeming with delicious vignettes like this.
As a fashion innovator, it is fascinating to see that Quant used the safety pin a decade before the arrival of Punk and Vivienne Westwood, and together with Biba, she created the intimate thrill of the boutique experience with her legendary Bazaar fashion emporiums in Chelsea and Knightsbridge, opposite Harrods, which she playfully and famously described as a ‘bouillabaisse of clothes…. and peculiar and odds and ends. ”
I can’t help thinking that Mary would have some brilliant ideas for reviving our empty high streets and enticing people to fall in love with the actual rather than the virtual experience of buying fashion, especially fashion that is beautiful, authentic and earth-friendly, eco-chic. If she was designing today, she would be leading the way to a circular fashion revolution with compostable party dresses and super cute coats that keep you warm and recharge your mobile phone using solar power.
Her genius as a fashion designer was always to tap into the zeitgeist and to dress the rebels from IT Girls, actresses and movers and shakers of the day to the many ordinary women who were intoxicated by her ideas and saved up to make a pilgrimage to Bazaar and take ownership of a Mary Quant original. You can see the skill and artistry that went into these rebellious fashion masterpieces in the exhibition. Each piece was frantically run-up by Mary in her bedsit, using exquisite fabrics bought from Harrods, before she also moved into mass production of her clothes to democratize fashion.
After the V&A put a call out for members of the public to come forward and contribute to the exhibition with their ‘We Want Quant’ call for vintage Mary Quant originals, more than a hundred women got in touch from as far afield as Texas to share the stories behind their Mary Quant treasures with one ensemble costing the equivalent of £700 in today’s money.
Thirty outfits from the public made it into the exhibition and it is intriguing and exhilarating to hear the stories behind these revolutionary fashion garments and the women who wore Mary Quant from school girls to the air hostess I stumbled across who looked as film star beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor in her monochrome Quant dress with oversized school girl collar and kohl black eyes.
This exhibition is hard to leave behind. Wherever you are in life, it will make you feel what marvellous fun it is to be female. Mary Quant changed everything. Go and admire a fashion revolution in every stitch, every daisy, every stripe, and each electrifying clashing, printed wonder mini or maxi dress. It will make you want dress up not down forever.
The Mary Quant Retrospective Continues until Sunday, February 16th 2020. For more information Mary Quant at the V&A Museum
Copyright Alison Jane Reid All Rights Reserved February 2020
Want to read more fashion journalism by our founder and editor Alison Jane Reid – Then check out this fashion feature on how to invest in a coat made to last from a bespoke to preloved fashion work of art in natural fibres from Harris Tweed to British wool, linen, and alpaca. The Forever Made in GB Coat Guide
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All Pictures Courtesy of the V&A Press Office. No Reproduction without Permission.