By Rena Niamh Smith
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Mary Quant

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Issue 446

For their latest exhibition, the V&A invites the viewer to “discover how Mary Quant launched a fashion revolution on the British high street”. The R-word features heavily throughout, used to describe everything from her use of coloured tights to a prescient view of the sweeping social change which characterised the 1960s.

Certainly, Quant operated differently to traditional designers, with innovations now ubiquitous in fast fashion. An art school graduate rather than couture apprentice, Quant built up a cult around her King’s Road boutique Bazaar, stamped packaging with her highly recognisable daisy logo, created a range of products around her core line of clothing such as Daisy doll for little girls, and collaborated with Manchester-based rainwear manufacturer Alligator and American retailer JC Penney.

Exhibition curator Jenny Lister writes that Quant “used clothes to demonstrate that change was coming. Fashion was no longer about couture, it was about expressing individuality.” The 1960s saw a shift in cultural cachet between upper classes and the so-called youthquake, when capitalist culture newly obsessed over the young and beautiful.

The exhibition spotlights Quant’s work, but a little fashion history might have contextualized this point. In the mid-century, British designers like Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell and Charles Molyneux were creating traditionally feminine gowns, twinsets and day dresses embodying middle-class respectability.

In contrast, Quant’s work is characterised by abstract pattern, flat colour and simple construction. Short jersey dresses, pinafore styles, miniskirts, hot pants, PVC rainwear and tailored trousers are among the items on display.

The kind of democratisation of fashion which Quant championed was enabled through mass production. As she herself described it, “Snobbery has gone out of fashion…In our shops, you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dress.” As such, Quant helped enable today’s understanding of fast fashion, clothing which is affordable, trend-focused and fun.

In 2016, Quant told the Guardian that Margaret Thatcher would be an invitee to her dream dinner party. Quant’s success embodies a kind of bright-eyed entrepreneurialism that Thatcher would have been a fan of.

Like many effective entrepreneurs, Quant had a strong team backing her up. She met her husband and business partner Alexander Plunkett-Greene at art college, and they worked closely with photographer and former solicitor Archie McNair. She herself was the product of twentieth century upward social mobility. Her parents were teachers, both hailing from Welsh mining families.

A pretty, vivacious woman, she was a personal ambassador for her brand and became an icon of Swinging Sixties London. Another leading light of the British fashion scene Vidal Sassoon cut her hair into his famous five-point bob in 1964.

While Quant was a cult figure in her day, individual presentations of fashion history sometimes blur the lines between the clothing that enabled social change, and the social change which called for new forms of dress.

Quant’s work is presented as inventing a new kind of femininity that was playful, sexually liberated and youthful. Much is made of her designing trousers for women when wearing them was newly acceptable, and women were entering the workforce in large numbers. Quant is often credited with inventing the mini skirt — though some fashion historians argue it was her French contemporary André Courrèges.

If Quant was a revolutionary designer, it was because she lived in revolutionary times. As Christopher Brewer writes in the Oxford History of Art: Fashion, Quant “developed a signature style rooted in the bohemian ambiance of Chelsea yet receptive to the desires of affluent young women for a look that echoed new social and sexual freedoms”.

In fact, she herself stated that “It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini. I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move, in which you could run and jump and we would make them the length the customer wanted. I wore them very short and the customers would say, ‘Shorter, shorter.’”

This relationship between mass-market manufacturers and consumers via shop floor was a new feature of the industry in the 1960s.

Many items on display have been loaned from members of the public, found through a V&A social media drive #WeWantQuant, and accompanying descriptions include detail about the women who bought and wore the designs. This gives the exhibition an intriguing subplot of fashion as social history.

Less comfortable hangovers of the way in which shopping was reimagined in the 1960s are predictably absent.

For young women raised on war rations, Quant’s slim silhouette might have been welcome relief to the 1950s hourglass ideal, but today, it might seem dated to today’s teenagers who celebrate Kardashian curves and call for greater diversity in body representation.

In the 1960s, throwaway resources were marketed as modern. Today, humanity faces an enormous task cleaning up not only that legacy in landfill form, but attitudes to disposable consumption too.

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