Until 16th February 2020, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating the career of Dame Mary Quant whose work as a fashion designer led her to become a powerful role model for women. Spanning twenty years from 1955 onwards, the Mary Quant exhibition displays clothing from her experimental brand Bazaar, Parisian couture and her success across the pond. Popularising the mini-skirt, hot pants and other fun fashion trends, Mary Quant revolutionised fashion throughout the world.
Barbara Mary Quant was born on 11th February 1930 in Blackheath, London to Welsh teachers Jack and Mildred. Her early life was marred by food and clothing rationings due to WWII, however, she was determined to become a fashion designer. Her parents, who studied at Cardiff University in order to earn first-class degrees and become teachers, were disappointed with their daughter’s ambitions and encouraged her to think about more conventional career choices for women. As a compromise, Quant attended Goldsmiths College to study illustration with the intention to train as an art teacher. College life introduced Quant to new and exciting people and prospects, resulting in an apprenticeship at Erik, a high-end Mayfair milliner.
Mary Quant’s ambitions to become a fashion designer were realised shortly after meeting her future husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene (d.1990) in 1953. The couple married in 1957 and later had a son named Orlando (b.1970). Two years before they became husband and wife, Quant and Plunket Greene teamed up with a friend, Archie McNair, to open a boutique called Bazaar. The shop was situated on the corner of Markham Square and King’s Road in Chelsea in a building above the basement restaurant Alexander’s, owned by Plunket Greene.
Quant began sourcing materials, quirky garments and jewellery from wholesale warehouses and art schools to fill her new shop, as well as producing unique works of fashion. Bazaar was described as “a bouillabaisse of clothes … and peculiar odds and ends,” and stock sold out during the opening night. Encouraged by this, Quant continued to make masses of dresses in her own home to sell in the shop. Every day, she bought fabric from the department store Harrods in Knightsbridge, opposite which, three years later, she opened her second boutique.
Whilst Bazaar was successful, allowing Quant to purchase expensive fabrics, the constant repetition of selling during the day and making new stock overnight was exhausting. Nonetheless, Quant persevered and was rewarded with a flourishing business. Due to making each garment by hand, there was usually only one of each design. The examples shown at the V&A are labelled with the name of the person who wore the piece. It was not until the 1960s that Quant began to work with machinists, who were able to produce her garments more rapidly. By 1966, she was working with 18 different manufacturers, which allowed her to mass-produce her popular designs.
Quant’s designs were influenced by London’s youth culture, which included dancers, Beatniks and the Mods (Modernists). Her clothes were modern and totally different from the acceptable style of dress for women during the war years. Simple and easy to wear, Quant aimed to produce clothes that were “relaxed … suited to the actions of normal life.” More women were going to work and needed appropriate clothing but Quant believed that did not mean they could not be stylish too.
As can be seen throughout the exhibition, Quant experimented with scale, proportion, and style. She incorporated features from the clothing of previous decades and centuries with modern ideas. Collared shirts and bodices were combined with short skirts, bright fabrics, and tights. Quant also recreated some of the clothes she wore as a child, altering parts to make them suitable for an adult. She also styled dresses on men’s clothing, for example, long male cardigans or jumpers.
By “borrowing from the boys”, Quant introduced tailoring cloth, which was intended for suits or military uniforms, to women’s clothing. In doing this, Quant broke fashion hierarchies and gender rules; no longer were certain materials reserved for particular people or classes. Items that were once only considered wearable by the upper classes were suddenly available to everyone. With clothing slightly bordering on satire, Quant allowed women to dress as bankers or barristers as well as the more feminine secretary.
In 1963, Quant launched her Ginger Group collection, which was mass-produced and available in 75 outlets across the UK. The name comes from a political term for a pressure group, using the term ginger as a verb meaning to “pep things up”. Whereas Quant’s clothing was already popular, she wanted to produce modern and edgy clothing for a wider clientele.
Quant’s inspiration for the first Ginger Group collection was American sportswear. Rather than all-in-one dresses, she designed items that could be paired together with different things, thus the wearer could mix their wardrobe up without exceeding their bank balance by buying several outfits. The name of the collection led itself to an unusual “ginger” colour palette, which involved a range of red and orange tones.
Having conquered London and the rest of Britain, Quant set her sights on the United States of America. In 1960, Quant and her husband flew out to New York, just two years after the first commercial transatlantic flight. American journalists had previously written about Quant’s “kooky” look and she was welcomed to the States as a celebrity.
During her first trip to America, Quant pitched her ideas to US department stores and met fashion editors interested in her “ready-to-wear” system. Rapidly, her clothing was purchased and displayed in store windows throughout New York.
In 1962, Quant signed a contract with the American department-store chain JC Penney. When her Ginger Collection launched the following year, her clothing was suddenly at the forefront of the mass market. By 1965, Quant was regularly flying between London and New York.
Quant shared the success of her Ginger Collection with the manufacturer Steinberg & Sons, who assisted with production, supplies, and exports. By 1965, Quant was producing 50 designs a year for the Ginger Collection as well as her other dresses. Working six months ahead, Quant produced sketches for future lines, which were costed and approved at the Steinburg head office before being sent to their seamstresses. The V&A includes a couple of Quant’s sketches in the exhibition.
In 1963, not only was Quant working on her Ginger Collection, she was establishing her Wet Collection too. A new material called PVC (polyvinyl chloride) was gradually making its way into the fashion industry. It had previously only been used for protective garments but Quant was fascinated by “this super shiny man-made stuff and its shrieking colours … its gleaming liquorice black, white and ginger.” The Wet Collection was launched at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and only contained garments produced in this plastic-coated cotton material.
Despite being unlike anything they had seen before, fashion editors and buyers were inspired by the “space-age” look and orders flooded in. This collection earned Quant her first magazine cover for British Vogue, which featured her bright red PVC rain mac. Unfortunately, there was a delay in launching the collection on the high street due to a problem with the seams of the garments. Standard sewing machines could not tightly seal the seams and often caused the material to rip or melt. Specialist machinery was needed, which was eventually found through collaboration with Alligator Rainwear in 1965.
In 1963, The Sunday Times had awarded Mary Quant with an International Award for “jolting England out a conventional attitude towards clothes” but in 1966 she received a more prestigious award. Wearing a cream wool jersey dress with a low waist, short gathered skirt, high collar and bell-shaped sleeves with blue top-stitching and brass zippers, Mary Quant arrived at Buckingham Palace with her husband and their business partner. Hours later, Quant left with an OBE (Officer for the British Empire) as an award for her contribution to the UK fashion export trade and supporting the British economy.
Already known across the world, this event promoted her clothing further in international newspapers. Using the opportunity of all the media attention, Quant began to produce other items under her brand name. Recognised by her big Daisy logo, Quant began to sell makeup (male and female), hats, bags, stockings, underwear, colouring books, knitting patterns and so much more.
In 1966, Quant trademarked her daisy emblem, which became easily recognisable, attracting more customers to her brand. This was one of the first designer logos and it helped to establish the authenticity of her clothing and mark them apart from rival brands. The daisy logo lent its name to Quant’s next big idea, the Daisy doll. Quant moved to the toy market in 1973 with “the best-dressed doll in the world”. Daisy enabled the next generation to connect with her brand. The doll wore miniature versions of Mary Quant designs and the launch at the Harrogate Toy Fair involved models dancing down a catwalk wearing life-size versions of Daisy’s wardrobe.
“The shock of the knee”
Of all Mary Quant’s designs, she is undoubtedly known best for the miniskirt. Since the war years, the length of women’s skirts had gradually shortened to knee-length, however, Quant took it even further. Based on children’s pinafores, Quant rose her hemlines well above the knee causing scandal amongst the older generation. The teenage dance scene of the 60s, however, embraced the new fashion and by 1966 many young women were wearing the newly titled miniskirt. The style also became an international symbol of London’s youth and women’s liberation.
With the miniskirt becoming accepted in society, Mary Quant used a new type of wool jersey to produce a new style of her signature minidresses: the Jersey Dress. In keeping with her previous sporty theme, the machine-knitted dresses allowed for fluidity of movement at the same time as being fashionable. They were practical, affordable, and most importantly, crease-free.
Quant experimented with different shapes and colours. Some jersey dresses had a skater skirt, whereas others were more like long jumpers or shirts. The material allowed for embellishments, such as buttons, collars, and zips, which also became a recognisable element of her brand.
The miniskirt was not the only new fashion Quant introduced to the modern generations. Already mentioned are her PVC rainwear but one of her greatest ideas were tights and long socks. Previously, women had to suffer fiddly suspender-belts and nude coloured stockings but Quant wanted to change this. Marks and Spencer had already introduced tights to the market, however, at 12 shillings a pair (three times the price of stockings) they had not yet caught on. Quant proposed brighter coloured stockings and tights – bright mustard yellow, ginger, and prune – that would match her miniskirts and jersey dresses.
Partnering with the Nylon Hosiery Company, Quant designed stockings and tights that enabled women to dance, run and move. The company developed a technique of making self-supporting long stockings that joined together at the top; therefore, women no longer needed to use suspender-belts.
Another of Quant’s contributions to fashion is trousers for women. Historically, trousers were a male item of clothing and, whilst Quant did not invent the female version, she pushed to make them more acceptable. Women, particularly students, were comfortable wearing trousers, however, most only wore them to informal occasions or at home. Quant wanted to make trousers acceptable for women in the workplace, at parties and other formal events. Not many Mary Quant trousers exist today, however, the result of her determination to make them a regular part of female fashion can be seen in every clothes shop today.
The last of Quant’s major contributions to fashion were hotpants and loungewear. Combining the miniskirt and trousers, Quant produced extremely short shorts that bemused department stores; which section should they sell them in?
“As I love breaking down barriers all this was great fun. Quite soon this collection was promoted as ‘underwear as outerwear’ and vice versa.”
– Mary Quant, Quant by Quant, 1966
Never before had people worn such revealing clothing but the trend caught on quickly amongst the younger members of society. Today, shorts and hotpants are acceptable forms of clothing for women but in the 60s and 70s, this was a risky, although successful, move for Quant.
Loungewear combined trousers, jersey dresses, and hotpants to create stretch towelling one-piece suits. Some had full-length legs that included feet (a precursor of the “onesie”) and others were short zip-up versions. Their purpose was to be worn when lounging at home, which was a foreign concept in Britain at the time. Women only had dressing gowns, which were worn last thing at night and first thing in the morning. The thought of laying around during the day was alien enough, let alone having special clothes in which to do it.
Quant’s inspiration for loungewear came from Babygro (invented in the US in the 1950s). This was the adult version of a baby’s outfit. When reflecting on her designs, Quant once said, “I didn’t want to grow up, perhaps that’s something to do with it.” This explains many of her designs, not just loungewear.
Most of Mary Quant’s greatest fashion achievements occurred within the twenty years shown in the exhibition. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she decided to concentrate more on homeware and make-up than only clothing. This included the duvet, which she dubiously claims she invented.
In 1988, Quant designed the interior of the Mini (1000) Designer. Dubbed the Mini Quant, it featured black-and-white striped seats with red trimming and red seatbelts. The steering wheel featured her signature daisy.
In 2000, Mary Quant resigned from Mary Quant Ltd, selling the company to a Japanese business; there are currently over 200 Mary Quant shops in Japan. Nonetheless, her fame lives on in Britain and she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to British fashion. Quant is also a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers and the winner of the society’s highest award, the Minerva Medal.
The Mary Quant exhibition is a must-see for those who grew up wearing or being influenced by Quant’s designs. It is also interesting for the younger generations who were not around to experience the fashion first hand, but who benefit daily from her contributions. Mary Quant is a phenomenal woman who single-handedly became known and loved for her designs long before they were mass-produced. She knew she wanted to be a fashion designer from a young age and she made her dream come true.
The V&A are exhibiting Mary Quant until 16th February 2020. Standard tickets are £12, although concessions apply. The exhibition takes place on two levels but it has been made wheelchair friendly.