The V&A continues its celebration of all things fashion with a new exhibition opening this weekend. Turning gaze away from the glamour of haute-couture with the record-breaking Christian Dior exhibition, the latest instalment to the museum looks at the life and designs of Dame Mary Quant in a celebration of revolutionary female fashion. As her shop became a cultural hub for Chelsea’s elite artistic society and newly evolving British subcultures, her designs empowered women from all walks of life and she pioneered the creation of the all-encompassing lifestyle brand, designing everything from dresses to duvet covers. A wonderful snapshot of seminal style, Backstage Tales got a first look at the exhibition – here’s everything you need to know.
Iconic styles last forever
Mirroring a fashion boutique, the second floor of the exhibition features a crowd of mannequins donning stylish retro hairdos and modelling Quant’s garments throughout the years. This allusion to her original Kings Road store, Bazaar, could be easily mistaken for a high street store in 2019 and the garments presented wouldn’t look out of place on a scroll through ASOS’ new-in section. This is due to Quant spearheading designs; being the first of their kind, they possess a power to drift in and out of fashion. At a time when women’s style was tantamount to expensive cocktail dresses, Quant revolutionised clothes to be both wearable and trendy, daring and effortless, so if you own anything with a Peter Pan collar, you’ve got Quant to thank.
A feminist icon
“I didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib.”
Many might attribute the designer’s feminist identity to her ‘invention’ of the mini-skirt, however, not only is this incorrect (more on that later), it’s also a wild understatement. Quant’s designs teamed with her attitude to business and life made her a rebel, despite being quite shy and introverted in her demeanour. Her early design work utilised male shapes and patterns, essentially inventing androgynous style. At this point nobody made trousers for women, and if someone did manage to get their hands on a pair, she’d be refused access to formal settings like restaurants whilst wearing them. Quant designed stylish, smart trousers using quintessentially British fabrics like tweed and wore them wherever she wanted. She re-imagined city gents’ suits and military uniforms and gave the styles witty names such as Byron and Barrister, both mocking and appropriating male culture of the early 60s. She called this “borrowing from the boys”, still existing today with the popularity of the oversized female suit.
Whilst the business was run with her husband Alexander Plunkett-Greene and business partner Archie McNair, as the face of the company and the lead designer, Quant became an inspiration to women of the mid 20th century. Her career began in the 1950’s, when Britain was suffering from a post-war gloom. Whilst rationing and the ‘make do and mend’ ethos did not align with the Quant brand, the roles created for women during World War Two left them feeling dissatisfied with their home-making lot in life, so women sought employment after proving their capabilities and worth to society. This empowering gender shift is an important part of Quant’s success, as she designed clothes for the emerging generation of young, professional women. She hired female designers and ensured they had the opportunity to evolve in the business, reaching equal levels of superiority as male colleagues.
In 1967, Quant credited her Kings Road customers as the inspiration for her feminism. She described the women leading the feminist revolution as “prototypes of a whole new race of women…it’s their questioning attitude that makes them important and different.” Fundamentally, Quant deserves recognition as a feminist due to the nature of putting women at the centre of everything she created. In a world which didn’t seek to explore female identity, viewing women as a second class afterthought, Quant lead a revolution by allowing women to explore their identity through style. She designed comfortable clothes for women of all walks of life, setting out to make them affordable and accessible to everyone.
She didn’t, in fact, invent the mini skirt
The pill, rock’n’roll and the mini-skirt are heralded as the birth of a female uprising, a declaration of youthful independence. For years Quant has been considered the designer of the mini-skirt, however, she never considered herself responsible for this social revolution. Instead, she attributes the design of the mini to the street style and school girls of the 1960’s. Girls everywhere were re-hemming their dresses in an effort to make them last longer, and taking off an inch or two extra just to show off their legs. In fact, curators of the show struggled to find original, unaltered Quant pieces to showcase due to the universal habit of women everywhere shortening their hem lines. Chelsea’s streets were a catwalk of short skirts and Quant just used her work to bring this into the mainstream. Creating a refreshing contrast to the high-waisted ‘midi’ skirts of the 1950’s, the short-skirted jersey dress was a bold move for the liberation of the female form. To accept an OBE at Buckingham Palace for her contributions to fashion, of course Dame Quant wore her own cream wool mini skirt. Showing her legs off to the world – and the Queen – she shocked the British public in the most spectacular way. After all, she did once say “a woman is as young as her knees…”.
Her work meant a lot to a generation of women
Whilst the show doesn’t begin until this weekend, it all began last summer. In June, the V&A announced a call-out for Quant with the hashtag #WeWantQuant. With the sheer popularity of her work, it’s no surprise that they received 1000s of responses from women with a story. The show exhibits thirty-five original garments from thirty women, alongside their personal Quant love stories. The central point of the exhibition is a projection of photos and quotes gleaned from thousands of respondents to the call out. Beautiful old pictures of women in their favourite Quant pieces offers a nostalgic snapshot to the reserved 50s, swinging 60s and revolutionary 70s. Perfectly capturing the ethos of the Quant brand, being accessible, on-trend fashion for women everywhere, the exhibition brings an uplifting contrast to the somewhat esoteric nature of fashion, warming the heart by seeing all the women who benefited from Quant’s creations.
The exhibition opens to the public this weekend (6th April), and will be available to view until February 2020. With her first boutique reigning in the heart of Chelsea, the show is sponsored by the King’s Road. Tickets cost £12 and in true V&A style, the gift shop is superb, offering Quant’s daisy branded t-shirts, bright posters and plastic jewellery.
Tell us if you’re paying a visit to the exhibition in the comments below.
Text: Maisy Farren
Images: Maisy Farren, V&A Press Office, John Cowan Archive, PA Prints, Rolls Press/Pepperfoto – Getty Images, Ronald Dumont – Getty Images