The swinging sixties have returned to London, at the V&A museum, with the first international retrospective on Mary Quant. The exhibition explores the years between 1955 and 1975, when Quant revolutionised the high street, harnessing mass production techniques and the youthful spirit of the times to create a new look for women.
The iconic fashion designer, a powerful role model for women, personified the energy and fun of swinging London. She challenged conventions, and popularized the miniskirt, colourful tights, and tailored trousers – igniting a new age of feminism. The miniskirt became a symbol of the era, sparking a new creative scene in London and beyond.
The exhibition begins in post-war London with the opening of Quant’s experimental shop Bazaar, on Chelsea’s King’s Road in 1955. It shows how her designs, often based on schoolgirl pinafores or masculine tailoring, brought an entertaining slant to fashion, soon noticed by fashion editors and newspaper journalists in the media of the day.
Quant’s tiny boutique grew into a wholesale brand available in department stores across the UK. Her success soon hit America, where her designs were made for chain stores and mail order companies. Inspiring young women to rebel against traditional dress worn by their mothers and grandmothers. Quant became the woman that made fashion less exclusive and more accessible to a new generation.
Ahead of her time in marketing, Quant embodied her own label. Her photogenic style, playful energy, and revolutionary approach made her the ultimate ambassador for the brand. She collaborated with manufacturers, diversifying into underwear, hosiery, and cosmetics, all made to her designs, and packaged with her distinctive daisy logo. She even created the Daisy doll, a rival to Barbie.
Text and photo by Ian Price
It's A Mad, Mod World
According to Jenny Lister, co-curator of the exhibition, “Mary Quant transformed the fashion system, overturning the dominance of luxury couture from Paris. She dressed the liberated woman, freed from rules and regulations, she made designer fashion affordable. Her clothes, inspired by London’s creative scene, made British street style the global influence it remains today.” From small boutique to international label, Quant revolutionized British fashion.
Quant brought an entertaining slant to fashion. She played with color and silhouettes – repurposing Victorian frills and childrenswear. Inspired by serviceable cottons and dependable woollens and tweeds, she worked with traditional weavers and manufacturers, using colourful synthetic dyes, scaled-up stripes, and exaggerated checks, finishing dresses with over-sized, functional buttons.
At the same time Quant revived the boyish look of the 1920s flapper, echoing the dramatic developments in women’s lives of her parents’ generation. She displayed her clothes on gawky mannequins in unusual poses, accessorized with props such as goldfish, stuffed birds, or dead lobsters causing passersby to stop and stare.
Men’s tailoring for city gents’ suits or military uniforms was camped up into fun garments for women, using fashion to question hierarchies and gender rules. Quant’s designs mocked traditional British institutions and attitudes. Her husband, Alexander Plunkett Greene concocted witty and irreverent names for outfits such as Byron, Barrister, and Bank of England. Prim and Prude used Liberty of London prints originally intended for little girl’s dresses and borrowed other details from traditional children’s clothing such as smocking and rounded Peter Pan collars.
Quant’s boutique became a destination for women seeking streamlined, modern fashion. Her clothes appealed to everyone from duchesses to typists. Fashion magazines promoted her unconventional look to a wider audience, while tabloid newspapers presented her as ‘mad’ and ‘way out’.
The Wet Collection
TheWet Collection was launched at the Hotel de Crillon, Paris in April 1963. It featured a relatively new material called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used to make shiny plastic-coated cotton. From this show Quant achieved her first cover for British Vogue. To ensure that PVC raincoats were watertight, the seams had to be tightly sealed by specialist manufacturers. The designer’s first experiments with stitching PVC on a standard sewing machine caused the material to stick, melt, or rip. It took two years from the launch in Paris before a collaboration with Alligator Rainwear resulted in a commercially viable range of Mary Quant PVC raincoats.
The Jersey Dress
Quant discovered a type of wool jersey that was heat-bonded to an acetate backing and available in the brightest, deepest colors. As she said at the time, “I want free-flowing, feminine lines that compliment a woman’s shape... relaxed clothes, suited to the actions of normal life.”
Previously used in underwear and for rugby and football uniforms, jersey’s smooth, fluid qualities were perfectly suited to Quant’s signature sporty mini dresses, worn with matching berets, tights, and shoes – giving a top-to-toe block of color. She made mini dresses with matching undershorts designed as street wear.
Quant’s knee-skimming outfits were first noticed by the media in 1960. As an emerging street style, shorter skirts developed in tandem with teenage dance crazes. Quant’s designs, often based on practical schoolgirl styles, adapt the look for adults with hemlines gradually rising to well above the knee. Although the Parisian couturier André Courrèges achieved international publicity for higher hemlines in 1964, Quant was recognized as inventor of the style.
By1966, many young women were wearing very short skirts and the term miniskirt was widely used. Despite attracting outrage from the older generation, the mini eventually became an accepted part of fashion as well as an international symbol of London’s youthful look and of women’s liberation.
In 1966, Quant trademarked the daisy emblem which instantly communicated her brand’s youthful spirit and connected with customers. As one of the first designer logos, the daisy was a valuable device for negotiating licensing deals with specialist manufacturers. In return for a fee and a percentage of sales, Quant allowed licences to use her name, logo and image for marketing campaigns around the world.
Quant’s reputation grew as she reinvented tired products like raincoats and sewing patterns. As post-war Britain struggled to modernize and redefine its international role, Quant and her fashion empire represented confidence and optimism. Although she is often remembered simply as the inventor of the miniskirt, Mary Quant was responsible for the democratization of fashion as well as a seismic change in the way women dressed.
• The V&A Mary Quant exhibition runs until16 February 2020. For more information visit vam.ac.uk/maryquant
• See more Daisy dolls at thebolddoll.com/vintage/daisy/
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