Mary Quant, V&A, until 16 February 2020
Where would we be without coloured tights, skinny rib jumpers and comfy loungewear? Can you imagine life before the miniskirt? And just what were ‘hot pants’?
All these questions and more are answered at the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A, which is a complete inspiration to visit. It tells the story of how Dame Mary Quant, who was born in 1930 in south-east London to Welsh parents, grew up with austerity and clothes rationing, and went on to become Britain’s best-known fashion designer and define the look that characterised ‘the Swinging Sixties’, helping to create a forward-looking, innovative identity for post-war Britain.
As a child Quant longed to train in fashion design, but to please her teacher parents, she did a Diploma in Art Education at Goldsmiths College. There her horizons were expanded as she started to meet free-thinking people from different walks of life. Her first job was trimming hats at a couture milliner in Mayfair, but the lure of the King’s Road and the people she met in London’s jazz clubs, not to mention the man who was to become her husband, set her off in the direction she had always wanted. In 1955 she opened her first shop on the King’s Road, Bazaar. By the 1960s she had expanded into an international fashion brand.
The exhibition shows how, through Quant’s designs, London became a challenge to Paris as a fashion centre. There are miniskirts of all fabrics and designs (named after the Mini, Quant’s favourite car, and a symbol of Swinging London in its own right). Despite causing outrage in the older generation, by 1966 the miniskirt had become an accepted part of fashion as well as a symbol of London’s look and of women’s liberation.
There are coloured jersey dresses with matching tights, office wear, party wear, loungewear, underwear and rainwear. Quant collaborated with Alligator Rainwear, based in Stockport, to develop ranges of PVC rainwear in primary colours, which completely upended the notion of the English mackintosh, hitherto only seen in navy and shades of beige. The partnership extended to developing new synthetic fabrics for her rainwear collections, which allowed Quant more freedom in her designs.
The exploration with new materials extended to footwear: there is a range of PVC ankle boots in a variety of primary colours that wouldn’t go amiss in an episode of Star Trek.
Quant’s designs were branded with the daisy emblem, which she trademarked in 1966. Her style was both androgynous and childlike. It celebrated the rise of youth culture and reflected a more relaxed attitude to sexuality in general. This was another feature of the 1960s, together with the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.
Quant created a total look that extended to accessories and makeup, even sewing patterns, unheard of at the time. She credits her King’s Road customers as her inspiration and the leaders of the feminist rebellion, describing the young as ‘prototypes of a whole new race of women. It’s their questioning attitude that makes them important and different.’
I will leave you with two more of her quotes I found at the exhibition:
‘Fashion is not frivolous; it is a part of being alive today.’
‘The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone.’