How Visionary Fashion Rebel Mary Quant Changed The Lives Of Women
Gaby Wood on the force of nature whose clothes did more than capture a moment in time
It is a half-truth universally acknowledged that the fashion designer Mary Quant was ahead of her time. But how ahead was she? Was she really the sole author of patterned tights, or of the miniskirt?
How mini was mini anyway? Were her window displays really so avant-garde, when Andy Warhol had been decorating department stores on the other side of the Atlantic for years?
What the Auckland Art Gallery’s forthcoming retrospective shows about Quant is something more interesting and more complicated than that. She was the product of a particular aspect of her time — a child evacuee who became a freewheeling young impresario in London after the war.
Armed with that instinct, she turned out to be a singular interpreter of the next chapter — the turn of the 50s into the 60s; and her interpretation of what women wanted went on to contribute to the creation of a further instalment in their lives.
In other words, she identified a set of needs, then made their fulfilment possible. To imagine Quant as ahead of her time is in some respects to misjudge her influence. She was, in part, the wind behind it.
And yet, seeing all the branches of her products now — an expansion brought about between 1955 and 1975 — it’s hard not to reel at all they anticipated. Her daisy logo is as simple and as recognisable as the Apple symbol.
She began with handmade clothes, made expensive ones, moved into the mass market, exported them, then produced everything from dress patterns and children’s dolls to tights and makeup.
She embraced technological innovations in fabric, designing PVC macs and Lycra underwear; her jersey minidresses became as much of a staple as (her personal benchmark) Levi’s jeans.
Her fashion shows were like performance pieces: catwalk-less, with a party atmosphere and a lot of unconstricted dancing. Her very first venture was more like a pop-up shop than a designer’s debut.
Taking over an empty space in Chelsea, she and two friends filled it with things found in art schools and wholesale warehouses. It was only when her own designs within this “Bazaar” sold out fast that she started sewing more of them in her bedsit, buying fabric in Harrods each morning and running up the results for sale later that day.
By the mid-70s, Quant’s innovation, branding, mass-market appeal, fashion sense and off-the-cuff energy had become a precursor to everything from Nike to flash mobs to all of the shops in Hoxton, as well as Marks and Spencer. Oh, and she was the poster girl for all of it: as only Gabrielle Chanel had been before her.
The exhibition originated at London’s V&A where the curators have done an excellent job, not only of tracing this explosive story, but of attempting to replicate its gradually shifting aura.
This means that although the charting of Quant’s cultural, economic and historical significance might be seen as the major achievement of this retrospective (which was made possible by collaboration with the now 91-year-old Quant, with full access to her archive and the reminiscences of her former employees) the most vivid aspects of it are the voices of the women who wore or made the clothes.
From the specially edited newsreel footage to the interviews with former models, the exhibition gives a sense of immediacy to the world in which Quant operated. And thanks to a vibrant press and social media campaign in the UK, WeWantQuant, several dresses were lent to the exhibition by women who told stories about them.
It’s this that makes you realise that Quant’s clothes were the material accompaniment to a major moment in women’s history, when women were more commonly attending college and earning their own living.
She made clothes, in her own expression, “suited to the actions of normal life”. And as “normal life” for women in Britain began to change, her clothes may have been more than an accompaniment — the testimonies of those who wore them suggest that they felt emancipated in Quant’s clothes, and no doubt this caused them to behave differently, contributing with confidence to the revolution that was in progress.
Further, many of Quant’s employees were women who went on to become business colleagues. (This, it should be recalled, was at a time when women couldn’t open bank accounts without a male guarantor.) They generated their own liberation while they wore it on their sleeves. Wore it AS their sleeves.
Scattered among the seeds of this tale is another, about cutting across class to foster invention. Quant the brand was made possible by Quant the person, the hard-working daughter of Welsh-born grammar school teachers; by her husband, the aristocratic and imaginative Alexander Plunket Greene, who spun the story; and by Archie McNair, wartime pilot and enterprising son of a Devonian clerk, who was the business brain.
But for that, you’ll have to read Quant by Quant, the heroine’s autobiography, written with admirable bravado in 1965 and, line by line, the funniest thing written about any of this by far.
‘Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary’ runs at the Auckland Art Gallery from December 10, 2021, until March 13, 2022. Visit Aucklandartgallery.com for ‘Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary’ tickets and event line-up.