One of the 20th century's top fashion designers, Mary Quant is the "mother of the mini-skirt" and trendsetter extraordinaire. Her influence on modern women's style is in focus at the V&A Museum in London.
Fashion designer Mary Quant came of age in post-war London, a place where, she said, "most people had returned to their gardens and allotments hoping life would revert to how it was before the hostilities." It shouldn't have come as a surprise, then, that the young designer who employed bright colors and innovative fabrics drew a lot of attention when she first got her start. After all, as she described it, the city was still full of gentlemen in bowler hats and carrying umbrellas. "It was into this world that I launched my new ideas about fashion."
And new they were. After opening her boutique, Bazaar, on King's Road in the early 60s, Quant became well-known for her innovative take on femininity: young, colorful and above all, modern. Her ideas about what suited women best may have been influenced by her close proximity in age to most of her customers.
With her short bob and knee-high boots, Mary Quant championed the mod aesthetic, one which traded sheer stockings for bloomers and stiff bras for flowy baby doll dresses. The look was both reflective of and incendiary to a period of cultural rebellion that would take over England.
A trendsetter throughout the "Swinging Sixties," the designer harnessed the spirit of the times and helped contribute, at least stylistically, to the women's movement as she created a powerful role model for the working woman. By creating both the mini-skirt and tailored trousers, Mary Quant laid out a uniform that helped redefine what women wore, a loud and proud style which proclaims: I'll wear what I like, thank you very much.
"I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move, in which you could run and jump and we would make them the length the customer wanted," said Quant. As a young girl, she said, she used to hem her grandmother's skirts ever higher. But at Bazaar, her customers were the ones driving the trend that eventually had Quant christened the mother of the mini-skirt. "I wore them very short and the customers would say, 'Shorter, shorter.'"
Always a risk-taker, once she'd made a name for herself as a designer, Quant embraced new textiles and fabrics as well as mass production techniques that revolutionized high street and helped make her a household name by making her clothing more accessible to all. "Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dresses," she was quoted in Vogue as saying.
The designer behind the iconic mini-skirt turned her eye to accessories in the late 60s, creating clogs and knee-high boots out of PVC, pairing them with shiny rain jackets. By the end of the decade, though, she gave up her work with garments and lent her name to a cosmetics line — a line which still exists today, although the 85-year-old has long since retired.
On display at the V&A
Quant's popularity in England and her influence in the fashion world can still be felt more than 60 years after the designer made her debut. An exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, which opens April 6, 2019, aims to trace the designer's career and her influence on style by displaying objects from throughout Quant's career.
To create the exhibition, the museum put out a call for people to dig through their closets and add the occasional unique piece to the collection; they received more than 800 garments and accessories to choose from. Asked by the curators of the exhibition what she thought of her work at the time, Quant replied, "It was a wonderfully exciting time and despite the frenetic, hard work, we had enormous fun. We didn't necessarily realize that what we were creating was pioneering, we were simply too busy relishing all the opportunities and embracing the results before rushing on to the next challenge!"