Fashion meets feminism at the V&A’s Mary Quant exhibition

Who was Mary Quant – and why is she revered, to this day, in the fashion world? Thanks to the Victoria & Albert Museum, I now have a good understanding of how this British-born designer blazed a trail in London – and globally – from the 1950s onwards. She also had an enormous influence on the identity of post-war Britain – and on the female sex as a whole.

I loved everything about this exhibition, but most of all that the clothes on display have been lent to the V&A by the women who bought them, who are quoted talking about what Quant’s clothes mean to them. Often, they have been passed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter.

Raspberry Ripple Jacket, 1973

Mary Quant was born in 1930, in London, to Welsh parents and was evacuated during the war. Having grown up experiencing austerity and clothes rationing, she trained as an art teacher at Goldsmiths where, we are told, she loved meeting people from different walks of life. She met her future husband, Alexander Plunket-Greene – a “trumpet-playing bohemian from Chelsea” – at a fancy dress ball; they married in 1957.

Quant’s first job was trimming high class hats for a Mayfair milliner and she spent her spare time in jazz clubs and on the King’s Road. From the very beginning of her design career, Quant did things differently. Buying fabric from Harrods every morning, Mary sewed dresses in her bedsit, enabling her to open a shop, Bazaar, on the King’s Road. She described Bazaar as “a bouillabaisse of clothes…and peculiar odds and ends” and used specially-commissioned mannequins with modern haircuts and gawky poses.

London’s fashion editors fell in love with Bazaar and before long, Quant was able to open a second shop, whose interior was designed by her friend Terence Conran. The clothes appealed to all, particularly professional women – but were not cheap.

I love this 1959 pink party dress with a tulip skirt. Next to it are a pair of 1960 shoes made in collaboration with Rayne and a white party dress from 1960

The world, however, was changing and the late 1950s and 1960s saw growing affluence and social mobility, with young people benefiting from higher education – and higher wages. For the first time, shopping for clothes was a leisure activity.

It’s incredible, just how many trends and innovations Mary Quant was responsible for. It was she who popularised trousers for women, by taking tailoring cloth intended for city gents’ suits or military uniforms and “camping it up” into fun, relaxed garments for women.

Woollen tweed coat-dress, 1962

And Quant was one of the first designers to use PVC, which she did to stunning effect in her April 1963 Paris show. Attended by influential fashion editors, it led to Mary’s first magazine cover for British Vogue.

Below are examples of Quant’s PVC coats; the one on the left features a giant safety pin (another subversive twist) and is in ginger, Mary’s favourite colour.

But it’s surely the mini skirt with which Mary Quant will be forever associated. Her designs, which were often based on schoolgirl pinafores, adapted that look for grownups, with hemlines rising higher & higher. This was shocking at first to the older generation, but was eventually accepted and the mini skirt became an international symbol of London’s youthful look – and of women’s liberation.

Three 1967 jersey dresses, teamed with matching berets, tights and shoes to form a top to toe block of colour

Women talked of Mary Quant’s clothes as “liberating” and “assertive”. It didn’t hurt that tomboyish models, such as Twiggy, were promoting the mini dress look – or that Quant’s success had led to the most renowned models and photographers, of the time, including Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey, wanting to work with her.

These Spotted Pyjamas secured Mary Quant’s first fashion editorial in ‘Harper’s Bazaar’

Mary Quant was a trail blazer in so many other ways. The first to create and trademark a designer logo (her famous ‘daisy’ emblem). The first to repurpose Victorian frills and childrenswear, playing with colours and silhouettes; she also revived the boyish look of the 1920s flapper.

Sailor dress, 1961

And in 1964, Mary Quant allowed Vidal Sassoon to cut her trademark swinging bob into the androgynous ‘five point style’. In doing so, the duo created an iconic image that was reproduced in every newspaper.

By the 1970s, Quant was designing sporty tracksuits and loungewear, stockings, tights, shoes and PVC bags. She even launched a range of cosmetics – and the ‘Daisy Doll’; a cheaper version of Sindy, whose accessories were highly collectible versions of grown up Mary Quant designs. Home furnishings, too, were included in the Mary Quant range; she helped to popularise the duvet cover.

The Daisy Doll

Mary Quant made a point of hiring and supporting other women, some of whom were promoted to co-director roles and all of whom were given opportunities to travel. Her former colleagues remember the work as “fast paced and exciting” and reminisce fondly about buying unique samples from Quant’s workroom.

Given everything she achieved, it’s hardly surprising that Mary Quant was awarded an OBE for her contribution to the UK fashion trade and for supporting the British economy. For her visit to Buckingham Palace Quant, always an ambassador for her own designs, wore the bright cream outfit you can see below, complete with gloves and schoolgirl beret. Cue more worldwide headlines…

Mary Quant’s OBE outfit: the perfect way in which to end this post

18 comments

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I knew little about Mary Quant before I went to this exhibition, other than vaguely connecting her with the 1960s – but she was such a trailblazer, and her clothes are wonderful.

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  1. I remember the 60’s although being born in 1951 I was a little too young to take part in the swinging 60’s at the beginning but when I was sixteen it was an age when you could participate. Youth culture had been invented, which involved trips to Carnaby Street for the fashions of the day, it was a brilliant time to be alive everything seemed exciting and new. Radio Caroline the pirate station started broadcasting from a ship off the coast in 1964 and played the music young people wanted to listen to. I’m very glad I was around in those days, life was fun for young people which is the way it should be.

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  2. You could wear that pink party dress today.

    Having been born at the end of 1950, I well remember Mary Quant and the “youthquake” of that time. As I recall, she also had a makeup line.

    We young teens had to make do with knockoffs, but you can see the quality of her clothes even in photographs. She was a true trailblazer, and your wonderful post reminds me that what seemed so subversive back in the 60’s seems so innocent in today’s world-gone-mad.

    Miniskirts forever!

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    • Yes, she had a make-up line and a finger in all sorts of pies. That wouldn’t be considered unusual these days, but she changed the face not just of fashion but of shopping. I completely agree with your comment: I’d happily wear the pink party dress today (although whether I’d fit into it is another story; all the clothes on display were tiny!).

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  3. Wow this is a really good and informative post! I had no idea who Mary Quant was until now, but she seems to be quite the fashion icon. I feel ashamed for not knowing her, as I really do love 1960s fashion. I want to wear all these dresses!

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    • It was wonderful, Sandra. I had no idea, until I visited the exhibition, how Mary Quant completely changed the face of fashion – and as for the clothes on display, they were utterly gorgeous. Would have liked to take everything home with me!

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post – and I agree: Mary Quant was an innovator and a trailblazer. I knew a little about the clothes and the make up, but much of what I learned at the exhibition was new to me. What an inspiration she was.

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