“London was dead. Fog permeated everything. Fog was a smell. Fog was a colour.”
In the context of a grim, black and white post-war London, the work of Mary Quant bloomed like a Winter Rose – an unexpected crimson brush-stroke in the snow.
No one in that colour-blind world could have foreseen it but when the suburban Goldsmith schoolgirl opened her first experimental shop in Chelsea, she was meant to start a vivacious revolution. Back in the day, couture embodied the rigid war generation mindset, deeply related to subjects such as traditional gender roles and a narrow elite class access to fashion. Baby boomers not only failed to empathise but also refused to do so: they were eager for freedom. “Fashion should be a game,” Quant wrote once, a motto an entire generation lived for.
When wandering about the V&A halls at the Mary Quant exhibition, one can easily come across ladies who look at the dresses with a nostalgic smile. “I had a dress very similar to this one,” 73-year-old Mary Brighton says, “I was only 14 then. My parents didn’t like it but they hadn’t much to say. I would work every Saturday on a tiny Carnaby Street shop to save the money.” Her friend Betty Wilkes nods her head: “Everything was grey then: the rain, the streets, the boring schooldays… And suddenly, she showed us the idea of hue. It was a bit like Technicolor, only better.”
This image deeply resonates with Quant’s work. Chromatism was used wisely as a part of an elaborated concept – to deconstruct British tradition by empowering women. Significant examples (sometimes, in the form of iconic dresses; sometimes, in the shape of lustrous raincoats, shoes or tights) are visible: if you take a minute to visit the ground floor, the OBE Dress must be admired. In 1966, the designer was appointed Officer of the British Empire, a medal awarded for her contribution to the UK fashion export trade, supporting the national economy. For the occasion, Quant created a bright cream gown to stand out in the crowd in a gloomy November afternoon. Her beret was designed to look like an English schoolgirl hat, the entire outfit recalls the Victorian boarding school institution but she gave her a fresh and modern twist. The short skirt shook Royal protocol.
Another quintessential example is to be found on the first floor. The 1967 tartan dress was deliberately made on Victorian-inspired patterned cloth and conservative bodice. However, the new hemline, as well as the usage of synthetic materials such as rayon with Lurex thread, helped to create a sparkling party dress – The Swinging 60s paradigm.
Although Quant is mainly credited for making mini-skirts popular, it could be argued that her most impressive achievement was the capacity to anticipate and capture the new age sensibility. Hence, it is no shocker that other visionary legends of the period like former Vogue creative director Grace Coddington (then a promising model) embraced Quant’s philosophy and wore her pieces.
But what makes Quant work bewitching is her own fascination about modernity. When new materials first came out, she was eager to experiment with them. “One day, a new fabric appeared on the scene,” she said, “PVC was shiny, waterproof, and unlike anything I’d ever seen before.” Her revolutionary usage of plastic for the 1963 Wet collection was a turning point in fashion. She conceptualized practical clothes to brighten gloomy weather days, sure, but the choice of a watery material and a simple, natural pattern has a lot to do with her early prediction of the deconstruction process: By rejecting perpetuation of the highly structured Dior silhouette, Quant seems to anticipate Zygmunt Bauman’s liquefaction concept. The 50s corseted designs are inevitably connected to highly hierarchically organized structures such as family, social class, and gender roles, all of them early refused by the Baby boomers generation who started moving from a solid, heavy society to a more fluid one.
It is quite significant that the V&A team decided to hold Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams and Mary Quant exhibitions at the same time, confronting both visions. On the subject, Quant once declared: “I always designed clothes from a very young age because I didn’t like the way they were. They were paralyzing; they were stilted.”
Paralysis is deeply connected to the topic, indeed. Women were frozen, a dragonfly on amber, trapped in a forced passive role conceived during the Old Regime times. With the second wave of Feminism in the 60s, themes such as reproductive and work rights became socially relevant. By giving women freedom of movement and rethinking gender stereotypes (her androgyny designs are worth to mention still today), Quant significantly contributed to the new cosmological vision. Hence, we can shamelessly affirm her work transcended the mere fashion substance to achieve a cultural patina of grandeur.
Certainly, Dame Quant also owned a natural genius for marketing and audience understanding: among many other fascinating moments, the exhibition portrays her elaborated plan to promote London as an avant-garde destination for the emergent American cosmopolitan class, while visiting New York in 1965. The Youthquake tour not only put London on the map but also succeeded to create a fan phenomenon over the brand, which sold out collections overnight.
Curators Jenny Lister and Stephanie Wood have worked hard to bring together more than 200 pieces for the exhibition, many of them never displayed before. This is the result of a brilliant strategy: a public call-out to track down rare Mary Quant garments. Through hashtag #WeWantQuant people are still sharing their experience on Instagram. Many of the original owners’ stories are presented –together with their gowns– on a memorabilia masterpiece which is a page in the fashion book, as well as in the English history.
Now you have the opportunity to experience it: the exhibition opened on April the 6th and will run to March the 8th, 2020.
When leaving the V&A building, springtime drizzle falls across the grey London streets and a few colourful umbrellas pop here and there. And at the end of the day, the 21st-century woman writing this cannot help but bless Mary Quant for that.