The Swinging Sixties: a period of time that truly revolutionised the visual world. And where the Beatles were shaking up the music industry and sweeping Beatlemania across the world, Mary Quant’s iconic and instantly recognisable fashion designs defined the ‘Swinging’ Sixties style. In fact, you could say she was the Beatles of fashion at the time.
And now the splendour of Sixties Style that was emblematic of the future of fashion is celebrated by the V&A in this incredible tribute to the legacy of Mary Quant.
The V&A Mary Quant exhibition is an incredible collection of her fashion history, bringing together over 120 garments, accessories, cosmetics, and so much more, which have never been on display before on this scale.
Mary Quant grew up in South East London and trained as an art teacher at Goldsmith’s College. She opened her first boutique Bazaar on King’s Road in 1955. Quant initially sold other labels at this store but soon became frustrated with the dated look of fashion of this age. As a result, she purchased sewing patterns and set to work to create the garments she dreamed of.
Soon after this discovery of designing and creating her own clothes, Mary Quant became a prolific designer, who built an innovative fashion empire with her husband and business partner Alexander Plunkett-Greene who she met at Goldsmith’s College.
This exciting exhibition from the V&A truly captures the excitement of this age, both culturally and in aesthetics, and illustrates how so much of Quant’s success was down to how she utilised the advertising phenomenon of the decade and became such a modern-day marketing queen. For Quant truly owned the power of her branding, who emblazoned everything she did with the iconic daisy logo that would indeed cement her genius in the fashion history books forevermore.
The fashionable woman wears clothes. The clothes don’t wear her.– Mary Quant
The Ginger Group
In 1963 Mary Quant launched the ‘Ginger Group Line’ to distribute her designs. With this new line, Mary Quant was able to move into mass-production, and thus the world of fashion changed forever.
The 1960s was a decade that broke many fashion traditions, and birthed many others in its place, mirroring the social movements that were arising during this time.
Towards the mid-1960s, the most influential dressers were arising from teenagers and young people in a few urban centres who began to heavily influence both the haute couture of elite designers and the mass-market manufacturers.
But it was Quant who was ready to tap into this market. Making fashion accessible was incredibly important for Mary Quant, who loathed the stuffiness and inaccessible nature of Parisian fashion. She felt that fashion should be accessible for everyone, and dreamed of finding ways to dress the everyday girl.
And thus, Mary Quant’s inventive and commercially minded approach to fashion is truly why the designer has revolutionised fashion as we know it today and is just so very iconic.
Moreover, it is also why Mary Quant became a powerful role model for the working woman because they were then able to afford the ideas Quant was bringing into the world.
Mary Quant has truly made the British high street as we know it. And so much of Quant’s success is that she truly harnessed the youthful spirit of the sixties with these new mass-production techniques that created a new look for women as revolutionary as Dior’s ‘New Look’ of the 1950s.
The Ginger Group line of clothing was a true hallmark of the synonymous Sixties Style Quant made so popular. Her dresses were easy fitting and the styling was overly informal featuring pinafores for layering and easy styled swing dresses with zipping detailing at the back.
Moreover, Quant modernised the look further by pairing short tunic dresses with brightly coloured tights in shades of bright scarlet, ginger, prune and grape, and truly gave birth to the colour blocking trend.
Shortly after the launch of The Ginger Group, Mary Quant then launched her make up line, lingerie and accessories that were introduced and marketed using the famous Quant daisy design. By that time, Mary Quant was the leading fashion designer outside Paris.
Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dress.-Mary Quant
PVC and The Wet Collection
The next section of the collection highlighted Mary Quant’s ‘Wet Collection’ that featured the iconic PVC raincoats. Launched in 1963, these shiny and colourful designs were an enormous hit with fashion buyers and even earned the designer her first magazine cover for British ‘Vogue’.
During the 1960s there was an abundance of ‘new’ in the form of trends, styles, revolutions and other discoveries. Mary Quant was of course at the heart of this, capturing the decades’ love of discovering and working with new materials. As a result, Mary Quant was the first designer to use PVC, to create ‘wet look’ clothes, and different styles of weatherproof boots in her footwear range, Quant Afoot.
In fact, the demand was so high for the exciting ‘Wet Collection’ that she had to find machines geared up for this level of production! And for me, this shiny, colourful material truly encapsulated so much about the liberation, innovation and sexiness of this new era of fashion.
One day, a new fabric appeared on the scene. PVC was shiny, waterproof, and unlike anything I’d ever seen before.-Mary Quant
Styling a New Generation
A huge inspiration behind Mary Quant developing the aesthetic for The Ginger Group was influenced by the Beatnik Chelsea London style of the famous Kings Road, and the Mods (short for ‘Modernists’).
This Sixties Style Mod look manifested itself in sharp tailoring and clean outlines. This made the designs so vastly different from the more structured clothes still popular with couturiers in Europe.
But as well as designing clothes for this new generation of women, this exhibition also highlights Mary Quant’s status as a pioneering businesswoman.
Whilst there was indeed so much revolution, innovation and modernism that swept across the 1960s, it was still a decade that lacked prominent female entrepreneurs.
So not only did Mary Quant truly make fashion accessible for women, but she also applied this same ethos to her business where she hired several women to help run her company and boutiques.
And of course we think of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, models themselves of Mary Quant, whose look encapsulated the decade, but it Quant too who took her Mod and Swinging London aesthetic around the world.
There are several photos and videos across the exhibition that highlight Quant living her best life racing across cities in a mini (later she even went onto design an exclusive design for them!), tearing up the dancefloor at nightclubs with her husband Alexander Plunkett Greene and owning all her business trips promoting her brand.
It cannot be stated enough how much Mary Quant herself gave birth to a huge part of the Girl Power movement, whose modern, youthful, playful approach to the fashion industry translated into something incredibly powerful and a constant reminder to women everywhere how possible it is to achieve all your dreams and release your inner purpose in this world.
The real creators of miniskirt are the girls, the same that you seen in the streets.-Mary Quant
Mary Quant Make-Up
As Mary Quant had truly dominated the way women dressed, it was time to revolutionise the cosmetics industry. And after the success of The Ginger Group, Quant introduced skincare for women and men, makeup, and published books about makeup and the beauty industry as she saw it.
One of the most iconic stand-out pieces from her beauty range included the ‘Paintbox’, a box of brightly coloured crayons that could be used for eyeshadow or simply to draw flowers on your cheeks. Quant herself has said that it was one of her most proudest releases. Can you just imagine if Youtube had existed back then?! But proof that the beauty community existed long before we can imagine!
In fact, the 1960s are one of my favourite periods for beauty and make up. It marked a transition between the ladylike looks of the 1950s and the free-spirited glamour of the 1970s yet to come.
Beauties like Twiggy became a symbol of the beauty style of the decade where the Mod subculture was at its peak. This style, in terms of beauty, was all about a playful approach to makeup and the use of colour. Characterised by voluminous hair, lots of eyeliner, the pixie cut (that, of course, Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon became icons in themselves!) and nude lips.
The 1960s was also a decade where advertisements were truly coming of age, and Mary Quant, with her now-iconic black and white daisy logo, emblazoned every single item she created making her products truly stand out.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is the 1967 Mary launched Cry Baby mascara launch. Just how innovative and creative is this poster in relation to what we see spread across beauty ranges today?
And as with the Ginger Group Line of clothing, the low price point made her brand even more accessible to her followers. In fact, it made it even more accessible as younger girls and teenagers who may have struggled to buy Mary’s latest dresses could stretch to nail polish or lipstick and thus made them belong to Quant’s fashion movement.
I think to myself, ‘You lucky woman – how did you have all this fun?’– Mary Quant
Mary Quant Accessories & Daisy Doll
Quant was the embodiment of her own label and it didn’t just stop at fashion garments and makeup. Her distinctive, playful and revolutionary style even went through to her own line of dolls, known as Daisy Dolls.
Daisy was a 1970s doll designed by Quant with the tag line “Mary Quant makes Daisy the best-dressed doll in the world”. Daisy’s clothes were designed by Mary Quant and there are hundreds of different models.
The clothes were cutting-edge 1970s design, as would be expected of Mary Quant, and the materials included satin, for long evening gowns and flared pants, stretch jersey nylon/polyester for T-shirts, fake “fun fur” for jackets and matching hats, and denim for jeans, waistcoats, hats, skirts and even a boiler suit (very fashionable at the time, as you can see below!).
I, for one, would have absolutely have loved a Daisy Doll and I just find it nostalgic enough thinking about being a fashion designer for my own dolls! But the Daisy Doll truly was the ultimate fashionista with patterns cutting-edge fashion, with flowers, stripes and polka dots.
The Daisy Dolls were displayed amongst other stand-out playful accessories including glitzy tights (I am absolutely taking this look back up again this autumn/winter season!), sunglasses (showing Quant’s understanding of her audience now taking advantage of the age of travel) and the oh-so-chic turned mod beret in a rainbow of playful shades.
Mary Quant Sewing Patterns
As Mary Quant herself fell in love with sewing from using and finding patterns she loved, it is no surprise the huge success Quant had creating patterns with Butterick and others.
Butterick released its first Mary Quant patterns in fall, 1964. My Mum was a huge fan of these patterns, and I’m so thrilled we still have access to them as they are such a wonderful way to fall in love with dressmaking.
Butterick began its Young Designer series of patterns in 1964 in an effort to appeal to a more youthful seamstress, and Mary Quant was a natural choice to begin the series. And given the above and everything we have witnessed so far, I’d say that Butterick definitely had their finger on the pulse of youthful fashion when they chose Mary Quant as their first Young Designer!
And if you fancy getting your designer hat on, the V&A is running a fantastic workshop alongside this collection that you can find out more about here. You can also have a go at making your own Georgie dress (I’m all over this name!) with this free pattern download from the V&A which is absolutely not to be missed!
Fashion, as we knew it, is over; people wear now exactly what they feel like wearing.-Mary Quant
A History Of Mary Quant Style
What I found immediately striking upon entering this exhibition is just how modern and fresh the designs were. Isn’t that a crazy thought, seeing as some of the outfits on display are over 60 years old?! But this is so much of the timeless and universal success of Mary Quant’s designs.
As you head upstairs to the second part of the collection you find yourself immersed by a huge capsule collection of Mary Quant’s styles from thigh-skimming pinafore dresses layered over block colour turtlenecks, to glossy patent trench coats in a rainbow of colours holding psychedelic bags that are oh-so ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ to kitsch lingerie, high-neck polka dot playsuits, glittering tartan party dresses, notice me stripes and bold bodysuits in pillar box red.
You then find Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton esque mannequins adorning the sweetest pinafore styles that are so synonymous with these beautiful ladies that only needs some doe-eyed lashes and nude lips to complete the visuals we are so used to seeing from this age.
Altogether it feels so thoroughly modern. And despite growing up many decades later, I felt myself thinking so often ‘oh I love that’, ‘I have something just like that!’ when in fact it’s because, since the 1960s, high streets chains like Topshop have lovingly adopted Quant’s style into the foundation of their British style that women like me would come to adore generations later and beyond.
Fashion is not frivolous. It is a part of being alive today.-Mary Quant
Mary Quant will always be one of my favourite fashion designers in history and the Mary Quant V&A exhibition is a truly stylish, exciting memorable tribute to this fashion pioneer who revolutionised fashion as we know it.
However, as touched on so often above, beyond Quant’s true legacy as a fashion designer who liberated women, this spread far beyond fashion. With the invention of the miniskirt she, of course, became the face of liberation for the women of the sixties.
But beyond this, Mary Quant’s feminist significance is more than miniskirts and bob haircuts, as it shows how Quant empowered women of this decade, by making them feel confident and independent to truly manifest everything their heart desires. In fact, as Mary Quant so beautifully says herself:
Risk it, go for it. Life always gives you another chance, another go at it. It’s very important to take enormous risks.– Mary Quant
V&A Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL
020 7942 2000
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday 10am -5.45am (Friday until 10pm)
(The Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A is on until Sunday 16 February 2020)