20 Years of Mary Quant

10th November 1964: Clothes designer Mary Quant, one of the leading lights of the British fashion scene in the 1960’s, having her hair cut by another fashion icon, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I popped into the V&A yesterday in eager anticipation of the groovy, fab and far out fashion at the new Mary Quant exhibition which opened in London last week. Okay, I’m done with the hip vocabulary now.Mary Quant traces the personal and social history of the iconic designer from 1955 to 1975. Set over two floors, make sure you allow a couple of hours browsing if you want to immerse yourself.

I hadn’t appreciated at the time – yes, I do remember the Swinging Sixties – how childhood influenced Quant’s designs. Sixties fashion was about fun, not intellectualising. The Miss Muffet crepe dress for instance, the baby doll outfits and more were a deliberate move away from the haute couture of the Fifties, still stunningly beautiful, but undoubtedly very grown up. In a film running as part of the exhibition, Quant talks about a departure from couture and the “wedding cake” hair styles. Designs were also about freeing women physically and trousers became popular for women. Flat shoes were worn with mini skirts allowing women to move and run freely. Fabrics such as pinstripe and other fabrics traditionally used in men’s tailoring were frequently part of her collections, as were military style epaulettes, and mock neckties.

AUGUST 1967: MARY QUANT (FOREGROUND) WITH MODELS SHOWING HER NEW SHOE CREATIONS IN LONDON

A favourite of mine is the shiny PVC fashion and the boots which had the famous daisy logo in the bottom of the heel, so it would leave daisy prints. I had a yellow pair and they were a little uncomfortable but oh so cute.

Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene, photograph by John Cowan, 1960 Courtesy of Terence Pepper CollectionImage © John Cowan Archive

Credited with the creation of the mini skirt and hot pants the exhibition tells a much bigger story, opening with Quant’s meeting in 1955 with photographer and former solicitor, Archie McNair, and opening Quant’s first shop – Bazaar – in the King’s Road. There’s quite a lot of detail about the ingenious branding and marketing, and business savyy, which turned Quant into a global success. Full credit is given to husband and business partner, Alexander Plunkett Green whom she married in 1953 (until his death in 1990).

Jill Kennington wearing white PVC rain tunic and hat. Photograph by John Cowan, 1963 © Ernestine Carter Archive, Fashion Museum Bath

Of course, the exhibition is also a testement to the iconic Sixties photographers including David Bailey, John Cowan, Terence O’Donovan and John French, and their muses, Jill Kennington, Jean Shrimpton and a very young and beautiful Grace Coddington amongst others.

Model holding a Bazaar bag c.1959 (C) Mary Quant Archive

My only negative thought was that for younger audiences the displays didn’t quite capture the thrilling excitement of the era and the fashion. The suits, dresses and other outfits on modern ‘shop window’ mannequins wearing very stiff wigs didn’t entirely do Quant’s designs justice. I would have liked to see more wall to wall blow ups of the magazine shoots displayed inside the cabinets (and placed quite low down so you had to crouch to read some of these). A minor niggle and still a one-off must-see.

Mary Quant at the V&A runs until 16 February 2020. www.vam.ac.uk

P.S. If you want to experience more fabulous Sixties’ fashion watch Arabesque (1966) with Sophie Lorenn (costume designer Christian Dior), or The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) in which Faye Dunawayy changes outfits (by Theadora Van Runkle) in every single shot.

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