This week the V&A will open the first international retrospective on the iconic fashion designer Dame Mary Quant, who revolutionised British fashion with energy, flair and rebellion, going from a small boutique in Chelsea to a major international label.
The exhibition explores the years between 1955 and 1975, when Quant overhauled the high street, harnessed the youthful spirit of the sixties and new mass production techniques to create a new look for women.
The exhibition brings together over 120 garments as well as accessories, cosmetics, sketches and photographs – the majority of which have never been on display before – courtesy of unprecedented access to Dame Mary Quant’s Archive, as well as drawing on the V&A’s extensive fashion holdings, which include the largest public collection of Quant garments in the world.
The show begins by setting the scene in post-war London, when Quant’s opened her experimental boutique, Bazaar, on Chelsea’s King’s Road in 1955 – just after rationing had ended in Britain. It shows how her designs, often based on schoolgirl pinafores or masculine tailoring, brought an entertaining slant to fashion, soon noticed by fashion editors and newspaper journalists in the burgeoning media of the day.
Bazaar was ground zero for the fashion revolution that swept the world, with Chelsea and the King’s Road as bywords for bohemian cool and modern attitudes. In her 1966 autobiography, Quant by Quant, the designer described the store as a “bouillabaisse of clothes and accessories… sweaters, scarves, shifts, hats, jewellery and peculiar odds and ends”.
“There was hardly a day when Chelsea was not mentioned or featured in one way or another in the newspapers. Chelsea suddenly became Britain’s San Francisco, Greenwich Village and the Left Bank. The press publicised its cellars, its beat joints, its girls and their clothes. Chelsea ceased to be a small part of London; it became international; its name interpreted a way of living and a way of dressing far more than a geographical area,” Quant wrote in the book.
Extremely short skirts and shift dresses became Quant’s trademark, popularised by the era’s most famous model, Twiggy, whose svelte figure helped propel escalating hemlines into an international trend, followed by the 1966 advent of hot pants – a Quant invention.
Those mini-skirts and dresses were perfectly complemented by Quant’s tights and underwear range, one of the first lines produced using the Mary Quant name under license and, capitalising on the Sixties’ obsession with new materials, she was the first designer to use PVC in ‘wet look’ clothes, and different styles of weatherproof boots in her footwear range, Quant Afoot.
The label quickly grew in popularity, with girls encouraged by Quant to rebel against the sartorial choices of their mothers and grandmothers. By 1957 demand for Quant’s clothes had led to the opening of a second Bazaar store on the King’s Road, in a space designed by Terence Conran.
The brand was soon a wholesale proposition and stocked in department stores across the U.K., swiftly followed by success in America, where, in1962, she signed a lucrative deal with American department-store chain JC Penney and, in 1963, Mary Quant Limited expanded into the UK mass market with a lower-priced diffusion line, Ginger Group. Quant quickly became the woman that made fashion less exclusive and more accessible to a new generation.
By the end of the Sixties, Quant was the UK’s most high-profile designer, with unprecedented reach in the market. It the time, it was estimated that up to seven million women had at least one of her products in their wardrobe.
The exhibition highlights Quant’s knack for marketing, illustrated through her distinctive photographic style, while it also explores her collaborations with manufacturers of underwear, hosiery and cosmetics, all made to her specifications and packaged with her distinctive daisy logo. It will also explore her own line of dolls, known as Daisy dolls, a rival to Barbie.
To illustrate the deeply emotional connection her customers felt to the brand, a selection of 35 objects selected from 30 individuals is presented alongside personal stories from the owners and 50 photographs of the women wearing their beloved Quant clothes. These were sourced via a public appeal issued by the V&A last summer that resulted in 800 responses. These objects and stories have transformed the exhibition narrative, uncovering rare examples such as a very early and unlabelled blouse, a hat sold at Bazaar, and colourful PVC raincoats.