A new exhibition on designer Mary Quant opens at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum today. Rachel Marie Walsh meets the curator
Mary Quant’s first London retrospective since 1973 opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum this weekend.
Her fashion and lifestyle products, sold at Clerys in Dublin in the 60s, are most associated with London when it swung and bring back happy memories for women all over the world.
Her signature look: Sassoon-ed hair, a minidress, coloured tights and plastic rainwear, was simple but liberating.
She totally revolutionised the way women dressed, with a little help from licensing deals and newly available mass production.
“She was the godmother of the youth movement in fashion, the first to realise that how women dressed needed to change,” says Jenny Lister, curator of textiles and fashion at the V&A.
The exhibition includes over 200 pieces, including unseen items from the designer’s personal archive.
Not everyone gets nostalgic about style, time spent on the past can make for a secondhand present, as the late Karl Lagerfeld said, but Mary Quant is also super-contemporary.
You probably have something quite Quant in your wardrobe right now, perhaps a shift dress, a Peter Pan-collared blouse or a miniskirt.
She popularised tights and even created the first waterproof mascara. At least three generations of women can connect with this event’s content.
Ms Lister wanted to make us part of the exhibition, so put out a social media call for Quant clothes, makeup and accessories last year and received over 1,000 responses. The results show the brand’s development as well as its global reach.
PVC macs purchased in the 1950s and made on the designer’s kitchen table now sit alongside mass-produced pieces for the Japanese and American markets at the V&A.
“Hearing these women’s stories really stressed to me the idea of Mary, how these women wanted to share her attitude as well as look like her,” says Ms Lister. “‘Freedom of expression’ and ‘the confidence to be oneself’ were definitions we kept hearing again and again.”
Jannette Flood, a Dublin-based graphic artist with a fantastic eye for vintage fashion, had previously contacted the curator to ask how best to conserve her own extensive Quant collection.
Ms Flood unearthed some of Mary Quant’s most iconic pieces while vintage shopping in London and New York in the 90s. These include the Banana dress, a magenta cape and pieces from a 60s collaboration with JC Penney that broke the brand in America.
She immediately recognised their significance, having played with ‘Daisy’ dolls (Quant’s take on Sindy) as a child and fallen in love with the Quant designs her mother and aunts handmade from patterns.
Her treasures were catalogued by the Museum’s fine arts department and form a significant part of the exhibition.
Mary Quant was both original and easily emulated, the perfect fashion pioneer.
She was clothes-obsessed as a child, cutting up bedspreads to make dresses and once answering a school essay question on whether she’d have favoured the Roundheads or the Cavaliers with a comparison of their dress.
She was not allowed to attend fashion school but later expressed gratitude that she’d been made to attend art college instead as fashion students were taught to rework Paris couture for the masses rather than create something new.
Her contemporaries at Goldsmiths included Barbara Hepworth and Bridget Riley. She was confident in her own vision early on, even hurling her sketchbook at a Royal College of Art lecturer who dismissed her ideas (his granddaughter sold it at auction in 2014).
She met her future husband and business partner at a college ball while wearing mesh tights and strategically-placed balloons. Alexander Plunket Greene was charming and very well-connected, a natural marketing man for his girlfriend’s clothes.
They opened Bazaar, her first boutique, in Chelsea in 1955, and a second shop in Knightsbridge before they were married two years later.
The King’s Road is still a shopping hub but maybe a little soulless compared to the days when queues for Bazaar would be “four women deep.”
Quant could barely keep the Harrods men’s shirting and Rex Harris cardigans she bought and re-styled as minidresses in stock, so began producing her own clothes in 1957.
Her looks were simple and practical — shift dresses and swing-coats, fitted blouses and pleated skirts — yet quite radical for the time. Writing for The Daily Mail in 2012, she described older men in bowler hats banging on the windows, appalled by the clothes on the women within.
The advent of mass production made everything more affordable and her base included women from all walks of life.
Customers admired the young designer’s own mini skirt and asked her to sell them something similar, then something even shorter. There is some dispute as to whether she should take credit for the mini, some fashion historians say that belongs to André Courrèges.
Quant has said she put it out first, christening it after her favourite car, but that Mr Courrèges made it respectable. Her high hemlines got more attention but Quant also helped to make smart trouser-suits and shorts acceptable daywear for women.
Bazaar is now a juice bar but the V&A team has recreated the fun King’s Road of 1960s ‘Chelsea Set’ for the first half of the exhibition. This crew virtually originated with the Plunket Greens and their friend and lawyer Archie McNair, who owned a hipster cafe called Fantaisie there.
The Beatles brought their wives and girlfriends to Bazaar and film stars like Audrey Hepburn and Julie Christie were fans though the designer’s own image was so bright and inspiring that she scarcely needed celebrity endorsement.
The way the clothes were sold to press and buyers was just as refreshing, with petite, smiling models leaping and dancing through shows and promotional materials.
Quant was very particular about the ladies she worked with, though Jean Shrimpton was an obvious fit, as was fellow model du moment Jill Kennington and Roxy Music covergirl Kari-Ann Moller. Twiggy (Lesley Hornby) was discovered by Deirdre McSharry in 1966.
The Irish editor saw the 16-year-old’s headshot after a very difficult day’s shooting with Grace Jones for The Daily Express and thought “we need more sweet faces in this world.”
At 5 6” and six-and-a-half stone, Twiggy was perfect for Quant’s little dresses and also had a face for the doll-like look her makeup effected.
The cosmetics emerged that same year, after the designer decided her models’ faces no longer matched their clothes.
The lip colour crayons and paint-by-number eye palettes’ packaging was part of the allure, she wanted lipstick tubes to look like lighters and everything stamped with daisies.
Fashion got nothing like the respect that art did then but there are obvious Bauhausian elements to the Quant look and this event coincides with the movement’s centenary.
The simple, practical modernity of her clothes and interiors, if not their daisy prints, speaks to that compulsive lack of adornment.
In 1968 she told CBC she wanted her shoes to look as though they were “joined up with the stockings, creating one cool line.”
Vidal Sassoon’s ‘5-point’ cut, first worn by Vogue’s Grace Coddington but popularised by Mary and friends, was a Mies van der Rohe-inspired style meant to emphasise the face’s own architecture.
Walter Gropius’s only house in the UK was not far from Bazaar, at 66 Old Church Street, built for Benn Levy in 1936.
This exhibition is distinct from other V&A fashion presentations because there is no couture and the clothes, while well made, are very simply constructed.
“Fashion’s always happening, changing, you take from it what you need, make it yours and leave the rest,” the designer told Thames Television in 1985.
A Cassandra might have warned she’d co-sparked the kind of fast-fashion production and reliance on plastic that so threatens the environment today.
Also that experimenting with not just men’s clothes but children’s (her popular skinny-rib cardigan resulted from trying on kids’ clothes for fun) as women’s wear promoted an adult female body with no hips, breasts or backside to speak of.
But I wouldn’t have listened to her in young Mary’s shoes, would you? Plastics were “the secret of life,” per The Graduate (1967), young people even liked how they smelled.
We’d have grown up on rations (enforced by the UK government until 1954) with far less sugar in our diet, not to mention the joyful chain-smoking.
The gamine look was validated by cinema as well as fashion. Two For The Road (1967) is one of Audrey Hepburn’s lesser known films but amazing for fashion, with costumes by Paco Rabanne, Ken Scott and lots of things by Mary Quant, including a glossy black PVC skirt-suit.
Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall did not wear any clothes by the brand but the full wide-leg trouser and waistcoat look, complete with hat and tie, were a Quant signature in the early 70s.
Quant’s fashion star started to fall as the decade progress. The brand endured, thanks to cosmetics and licensing deals for carpets and lifestyle products. She retired from Mary Quant Limited in 2000, though she still consults.
Being the woman your brand sells is a tough thing to maintain, we typically see designers who do this distance themselves from fashion with age. Quant held out longer than most. Her influence, while diffuse, remains undiminished.
‘Mary Quant,’ sponsored by King’s Road, is at the V&A from 6 April 2019 – 16 February 2020, vam.ac.uk/maryquant
Mary Quant by Jenny Lister, with foreword by Suzy Menkes, V&A Publishing, €36.97, is available via Amazon.