The V&A’s much-anticipated exhibition of the works and career of fashion icon Mary Quant opens on April 6th. Featuring over 200 objects including items from her own collection never seen in public before, the exhibition will include her trend-setting designs, including mini-skirts and trousers for women, and will also chart her rise to success through the ’50s to the ’70s, and share stories from friends and fans alike who wore her designs.
“She freed women from rules and regulations, and from dressing like their mothers,” said Jenny Lister, curator of Mary Quant at the V&A. “This long-overdue exhibition will show how Mary made high fashion affordable for working women, and how her youthful, revolutionary clothes, inspired by London, made British street style the global influence it remains today.”
Inventive, opinionated and commercially minded, Mary Quant was the most iconic fashion designer of the 1960s. A design and retail pioneer, she popularised super-high hemlines and other irreverent looks that were critical to the development of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ scene. She said: “Fashion is a tool to compete in life outside the home”, and “The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone.”
Born and brought up in Blackheath, London, Quant studied illustration at Goldsmiths, where she met her future husband, the aristocrat Alexander Plunket Greene. She graduated in 1953 with a diploma in art education, and began an apprenticeship at a high-end milliner, Erik of Brook Street. In 1955, Plunket Greene purchased Markham House on the King’s Road in Chelsea, London, an area frequented by the ‘Chelsea Set’ – a group of young artists, film directors and socialites interested in exploring new ways of living and dressing. Quant, Plunket Greene and a friend, lawyer-turned-photographer Archie McNair, opened a restaurant (Alexander’s) in the basement of the new building, and a boutique called Bazaar on the ground floor. The different strengths of each partner contributed to their long term success; while working together on all aspects – Quant concentrated on design, Plunket Greene had the entrepreneurial and marketing skills, and McNair brought legal and business sense to the brand.
Quant initially stocked the shop with outfits she could source on the wholesale market, exploiting the opportunity to offer a new take on women’s style. But she soon became frustrated with the clothes available, and encouraged by the success of what Quant described as a pair of ‘mad’ lounge pyjamas , she decided to start stocking the boutique with her own designs.
Quant was a self-taught designer, attending evening classes on cutting and adjusting mass-market printed patterns to achieve the looks she was after. Once technically proficient, she initiated a hand-to-mouth production cycle: the day’s sales at Bazaar paid for the cloth that was then made up overnight into new stock for the following day.
Quant’s developing aesthetic was influenced by the dancers, musicians and Beatnik street chic of the Chelsea Set, and the Mods (short for ‘Modernists’), a powerful subculture that helped to define London’s youth culture in late-1950s Britain, with their love of Italian sportswear, sharp tailoring and clean outlines.
Quant is often credited with inventing the decade’s most iconic look: the mini-skirt. Certainly, extremely short skirts and shift dresses became Quant’s trademark, and were popularised by the era’s most high-profile model, Twiggy, whose willowy figure helped turn super-short hemlines into an international trend.
For the first half of the 1970s, Quant remained at the forefront of fashion – her work was celebrated in a retrospective exhibition Mary Quant’s London, at the London Museum (Kensington Palace), from November 1973 to June 1974. From the late 70s onwards, the business produced high quality womenswear, alongside coordinated interior designs for British manufacturing company ICI, including bedlinen, carpets, paint and wallpaper; diffusion ranges such as swimwear, hosiery, jewellery, the Daisy fashion doll, and popular make up and skincare products. Quant introduced skin care for men, and published books promoting her ideas about cosmetics.
In 1990 she was awarded the prestigious Hall of Fame Award by the British Fashion Council, recognising her outstanding contribution to British fashion. She published her second autobiography in 2012 and became a Dame in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list.
Tickets for the V&A exhibition at Gallery 40 cost £12 and are available here.