Claire Mahoney talks Mary Quant and the current Mary Quant exhibition, which you can find at London’s V&A and running through to 2020.
Mention Mary Quant and most people will mention mini-skirts. Quant designed lots of short skirts and dresses, but a new exhibition at London’s V&A demonstrates in glorious technicolour how Quant was the driving force behind so much more than higher hemlines.
In essence, what we learn about Quant from this fascinating and comprehensive exhibition covering her career from 1955 to 1975, is that her ethos was about freedom: Freedom of choice and freedom of movement for women.
Take tights for instance. Before Quant, women were still grappling with suspenders. But suspenders and shorter hemlines don’t really work day today. So Quant went off and found a company that could make stockings that joined up in the middle. They made them in all sorts of bright and beautiful colours – reds, greens, oranges, even sparkly fabrics to match or contrast with the ‘pop art’ colours of the dresses and shoes of the time. Girls could work, shop and dance in them and they made their legs look brilliant.
As much as she was playful in her designs, Quant was also pragmatic. Her early work which forms the first section of the exhibition – laid out as a series of shop window-type displays – shows how she borrowed ideas from the everyday that would appeal to women whatever their class. There are dresses inspired by sailor-suits, butcher’s aprons style frocks with blue and white vertical stripes, exaggerated cuffs and colours that would more usually be found in men’s tailoring. Then there are the pinafore dresses – ever practical and comfortable, but still fashion-forward.
The mannequins are interspersed with photographs and film which give an insider view of how much fun it must have been to work with Quant. You see models dancing freestyle at her fashion shows – they wear the clothes, the clothes don’t wear them. It looks more like they are having a party.
The exhibition then walks you through Quant’s more mass produced ranges, beginning with her Ginger Group Collection in 1963. The range featured her favourite ginger-bread colour and was made up of sporty separates in a variety of biscuity shades.
Her love affair with PVC for her wet-look collection is an obvious focal point of the show. The Mary Quant shiny mac was one of the must-have items of the 60s. One of the mac’s in this particular display is fastened with a giant safety pin – so even the punks stole from Quant.
By 1966 Quant’s stock in trade was the A-line dress – usually in coloured jersey with little details such as a front zip, giant patch pockets, coloured trims or peter pan collars to make them different. As you are guided up the white galleried staircase past the giant black daisy motif to the second floor, you are greeted to a stunning line-up of mannequins in blacks and cream modish dresses – we then move into the next phase of Quant – the brand. There’s make-up, shoes, underwear and even Mary’s Daisy dolls dressed in matching outfits next to their corresponding mannequins.
As much as this show screams 60s, the curators appear to have been careful not to go for the obvious iconography. Many famous 60s models such as Twiggy and Shrimpton wore her designs. But these images themselves have become almost too iconic to include and would in fact overshadow the clothes. Over 40 items in this collection have either been donated or lent by Quant fans – which proves that these were not just designs for the rich and famous – but the ordinary girl on the High Street.
Polly Love from Dublin has provided the exhibition with perhaps its most comprehensive collection. “The V&A borrowed 20 pieces from me, a mix of dresses, cosmetics, bags, shoes, packaging, a playsuit from her first USA collection and an outfit called Car Crash in its original box with tags still on. I have about another 80 pieces here in my wee house in Dublin. I started off buying pieces to wear and ended up collecting everything from advertising pieces to nightdresses…. it kind of took over. Up till the week the V&A collected them I was still using the bags and they were shocked. I didn’t realise they were so rare, when you’ve been collecting for over 25 years it becomes your normal.”
What is perhaps most striking about this whole exhibition however it how modern it all still looks. The pinks and yellows and oranges would not look out of place on a modern catwalk. The High Street is currently chock-full of skinny rib sweaters, pinafore dresses and playsuits. All this is thanks to Quant. Over forty years later year she still has the edge with designs that look fab fun and as fresh as only a daisy can be!
Mary Quant is on at the V&A in London until 16th February 2020.
You can find more information on the V&A website.
If you can’t make it to the exhibition, there is an accompanying Mary Quant book, courtesy of the V&A.
The book shows how she revolutionised fashion, harnessing youth, street style and mass production to create a new look for everyone. Featuring new photography of Quant garments, alongside previously unpublished fashion photographs and designs, this book is pitched as an ‘authoritative account’ of the designer and her legacy.
If you want the 224-page book, that’s available now for £30 from the Amazon website.
Some pictures from it below.
Images and text (c) Claire Mahoney.