A visit to the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A was not just about viewing examples of her amazing and iconic fashions, it is also a history lesson in social economics and the development of ready to wear affordable clothing.
Mary Quant at the V&A is the first international retrospective exhibition on the iconic fashion designer Dame Mary Quant. Receiving unprecedented access to the Mary Quant’s Archive, as well as drawing on the V&A’s extensive fashion holdings, which include the largest public collection of Quant garments in the world, the show will bring together over 200 garments as well as accessories, cosmetics, sketches and photographs. Also included are pieces form the designers personal archive – the majority of which have never been on display before.
The exhibition explores the years between 1955 and 1975, when Quant revolutionised the high street, harnessing the youthful spirit of the 1960s and new mass production techniques to create a new look for women.
Mary Quant personified the energy and fun of swinging London and became a powerful role model for the working woman. Challenging conventions, she popularised the miniskirt, colourful tights, and tailored trousers – encouraging a new age of feminism. The mini skirt would go on to become an icon of the time and spark a new creative scene in London and beyond.
Following a call-out to the public to track down rare Quant garments from wardrobes around the country, 35 objects from 30 individuals were selected and are displayed alongside personal stories from the owners and 50 photographs of the women wearing their beloved Quant clothes. These objects include rare examples such as a very early and unlabelled blouse, a hat sold at Bazaar – Quant’s experimental shop on Chelsea’s King’s Road – and colourful PVC raincoats.
The exhibition focuses on the social and historical context of that time. Mary Quant opened up her famous Bazaar boutique on the Kings Road In 1955 just one year after rationing ended and, in many ways, her playful and colourful designs are a reaction against the austerity and drabness of postwar London. Continuing to chart the first 20 years of her adventurous designs up to 1975 by which time Mary Quant had established a global fashion empire.
The exhibition takes a broader view of the designers career, therefore does not begin and end with the miniskirt which she popularised. For your interest it was French designer Andres Courreges who has the honor of ‘inventing’ the miniskirt.
The museum’s collection of more than 120 Quant garments is also a testament to the designer’s ability to challenge fashion and gender rules with her clothes. A surprise for visitors is to find that trousers are a big part of the Mary Quant story, being one of the earliest designers to promote trousers for sexy fashionable womenswear, at a time when trousers just tended to be worn by women for informal occasions and at home. There are examples of how tailoring cloth intended for men’s suits or military uniforms were repurposed by Mary Quant – who famously “didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib” – to create fun and relaxed garments for women.
The show explores some of Quant’s most memorable moments, from collecting her OBE to the evolution of her rising hemlines. It looks at her collaborations with manufacturers, her diverse legacy as she expanded into underwear, hosiery and cosmetics, home furnishings and even her Daisy doll toys, all made to her designs, and packaged with her distinctive daisy logo, while pioneering marketing techniques far ahead of her time.
The first pieces visitors encounter are not immediately recognisable as the work of the now-legendary fashion designer, featuring below-the-knee dresses with pleats with equivalent price tags of the well to do middle classes at that time.
Mary Quant is the designer who made fashion accessible to the working woman, and is synonymous with the Swinging London of the 1960s. The exhibition shows a selection of minidresses and pinafores from her Ginger Group collection of 1963, which prided itself on having a lower price point, as well as mix-and-match potential. Taking things a step further the following year, she began to sell paper patterns for her designs, enabling women to sew their own ‘Quants’ at home.
Seeing such a vast array of Quant’s clothes in one space really highlights the impact of her cultural spirit of the the time defining clothes. Beyond the miniskirt, she was a designer breaking boundaries for the everyday woman; allowing them to be young and liberated. It’s difficult to imagine the British high street as it is today, without the influence of the amazing Mary Quant.
The wonderful thing about this show is how contemporary Quant’s designs still feel some 60 years after she opened her first store. Perhaps that’s because Quant gave women exactly what they wanted.
“The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone”.