Mary Quant.
Mary Quant.
Image: Getty Images / Keystone

I remember the Coal Heaver, the Stampede and the Tutti-frutti; I think I remember the Woof-Woof; the halter tops over skinny-ribbed black sweaters, the extreme checks, the canary yellow tights and the strawberry red ankle boots; because how could I not? They came marching down King’s Road changing everything, not least what sexy meant. I was 17; it was 1962 and what else, when it came right down to it, mattered?

There were Fashion Houses and then there were houses where you talked fashion, and ours was one of those. My dad sold “material” (it was never called fabric and woe betide anyone who called it schmattes) to Susan Small and other ready-to-wear merchants in the London Fashion House Group. My sister, 12 years older, modelled some of the possibilities to the Mortimer Street buyers. She was tall and curvy and fashioned exactly like the epitome of pre-Quant modelling: Barbara Goalen as immortalised by the two Normans, Parkinson the photographer and Hartnell the couturier. “Statuesque” was the word you heard a lot and insofar as it meant fixed, impassive poses and form-fitting carapace design that was right. My sister had been thoroughly Goalenised: waist brutally cinched, encircled by the waspie corset that made it possible without being sliced in two; skirts tight at the hips, either pencilling down or flouncing out, bras massively wired so that they turned sweater-hugging breasts into conical forms seen only on Picasso’s Cubist nudes and Jane Russell. 

Then came Quant, and many of the assumptions, which for generations had sustained high fashion, vanished. Minnows in the Trade (like my dad) who swam behind couture hoping to make a quid or two from its commercial approximation, were forced to think again. Not, of course, all at once.

In her lovely memoir written in the mid-Sixties, Quant by Quant, she is disarmingly straightforward about how she backed into designing rather than having nourished a burning vocation. The original idea was just to be a Chelsea retailer with a difference; something she and partner Alexander Plunket Greene did spectacularly well with Bazaar on, where else, the King’s Road, in 1955. What they sold, worked up from Butterick paper patterns, were the kind of clothes that Quant said she couldn’t find anywhere else. Racks in the shops were still dominated by clothes girls would have seen on their mothers. And they were sick of looking like their mothers.

So Quant was mining the mood of the late-1950s and that, as those of us who lived it can testify, was thrillingly restive. It could be voiced with the John Osborne howl of rage, but equally it could be sly and cool as in Beyond the Fringe. Either way, not statuesque.

The replacement of beehive and bouffant by the Vidal Sassoon five-point bob; ballooning skirts by something straight simple and short, harked back of course to flapper fashion of the 1920s (and Plunket Greene’s parents had indeed been part of the Bright Young Things). But the quantum shift went deeper and longer than that: to the move away from emphasis on dress designed for masculine excitement, not much evolved since female mandrills waggled their rumps in hues of scarlet and azure.

WATCH | Mary Quant at the V&A Museum :

The designer who inaugurated war on the torture instruments of upthrust and out-stick, the bustle and the corset, and who created clothes in which pleasurable ease of wear for women was a plus not a minus for their sensual appeal, was one of the giants of modern design: Paul Poiret. In the decades before and after the first world war he put women — albeit women who could afford couture — into harem pants, close-to-bra-less silky, fringed dresses draping straight down over the body to short hemlines, this delivering a single, continuously integrated line. Instead of bust and bum there was the drama of the face, huge eyes framed by the bob, and a generously visible length of leg, signalling limber, tennis court grace.

This has often, and mistakenly been characterised as mannish. Affronted champions of the New Look such as Coco Chanel, not exactly a drooping petal herself, attacked the A-line and later the mini for abolishing feminine beauty. Hartnell called Quant’s dresses “cute but not beautiful”. But this turn from curviness to angularity was not, in fact, mannish; womanish rather, but the kind of femininity that had some basis in physical reality rather than the predictable obsessions of male excitement.

From left: Alexander Plunket Greene, photographer Terence Donovan, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, film producer Peter Prowse, actor Richard Harris and theatre designer Sean Kenny, pictured 1960.
From left: Alexander Plunket Greene, photographer Terence Donovan, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant, film producer Peter Prowse, actor Richard Harris and theatre designer Sean Kenny, pictured 1960.
Image: Getty Images / Ronald Dumont / Express / Hulton Archive

This physical forthrightness was what Mary Quant reinvented for the dress of postwar modern women. Almost every discussion of Sixties fashion rehearses a stale argument about “who invented the mini” (a term that actually didn’t arrive until well after the thing itself had been on sale for years) and whether Quant’s geometric designs were anticipated in the A-lines of André Courrèges or even Pierre Cardin? While in fact the Courrèges creation — as shown off by the likes of Audrey Hepburn — didn’t materialise until some years after Plunket Greene and Quant opened Bazaar; dating is beside the point. The Paris houses did their thing entirely within the narrow, formalised structure and plutocratic culture of high couture; the drumbeat of the season shows, the allure of the remote taken to the point of bloodless, scent-drenched inertia.

Quant, on the other hand, was all about the chatty democracy of the street; a liberation not just from cone-tit tops and miles of slinky taffeta but from the dictatorship of the houses. The child of schoolteachers who had moved from Wales to London, Quant was born in Blackheath and went to Goldsmiths College of Art, not fashion school. That, she later recalled, was a blessing since students who wanted to go into the trade were instructed to go to the Paris shows, take slavish notes and then produce versions sufficiently simplified that they could be manufactured in volume. To Quant that was all the wrong way round. Ready-to-wear, especially the kind that was fresh, breezy and colourfully original, deserved designing from the get-go.

She had met Plunket Greene at Goldsmiths, so it was second nature for them to bring the eclectic playfulness of art school aesthetic into dress design. Quant actually made a study of what she calls “colour psychology”; setting squares of different hues out on a table and observing which projected and which receded and how each of them interacted with each other. This was not customary form amid the Paris-Mayfair empires of black and beige. There was, also, some inspired mischief with age and gender.

Quant says that growing up she was surrounded by clothes she hated and only when she saw a fellow student in dance school go through her paces in a black shift — like an outsize cardigan stretched over black tights — did she recognise a dress idea that she had herself imagined. Some of the early models shown at Bazaar were, to the couture grown-ups, scandalously girlish: pinafores, halter tops, confectionery colours. It wasn’t Lolita, but it was a dangerous kind of flirt.

The shops became daytime clubs, filled with jazz and pop. And the mannequins were nothing like the usual: instead, they had high cheekbones and endless legs frozen in dance

 

Then there were fabrics raided from menswear: striped shirts and cardigans that were pulled over coloured stockings and tights, nicked improvisations from the boyfriend’s wardrobe. And not least the industrial bits and pieces promoted from mechanical function to arresting form: big buttons and especially those front-and-centre zips.

What Quant and Plunket Greene were selling (and without any compromise when they went wholesale) was a whole new life-look. It was harder work selling in the US. When Quant and Plunket Greene took the brand to New York in 1960 they were greeted by bemused buyers and journalists uncomfortably shaken out of stereotypes of those comically buttoned up ta-ta and toodle-oo Brits. “They thought we were from a different planet,” Quant wrote, though before too long JC Penney was buying.

In Britain, too, it took a while to digest the look. Hearing people complaining about the ascending hemlines of “Modern Youth”, Quant and Plunket Greene took to calling their style that. And as Quant often says, stock sailed out of the shops because so much of the demand was coming from the irrepressible exuberance of the kids.

So they played to it. The window displays at Bazaar were treated like student shows at Goldsmiths: upside down suspended photographers, a lobster on a gold leash (not so great, pong-wise, for the next day’s racks). The shops became places of social encounter; daytime clubs, filled with jazz and pop. And the mannequins were nothing like the usual generic stock-in-trade: instead, specially designed high cheekbones and endless legs frozen in dance.

Likewise the living models; girls chosen because they might, if you were lucky, have been seen on the street. Bye-bye debutantes. Twiggy really wasn’t Coming Out — nor was Jean “The Shrimp” Shrimpton, or Grace Coddington, Celia Hammond or Sue Murray, especially not when shot by photographers such as John Cowan, Tony Armstrong-Jones, Terence Donovan and David Bailey, who despised formal posing and were busy exploding the boundary between reportage and fashion. The Shrimp and Co were beautiful precisely because they didn’t seem like models at all; they were actual women. Add a dash of idealism — the black model Kellie Wilson standing amid a group of Chelsea Pensioners as an advert for the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination — and you pretty much had hearts as well as wallets.

It’s tempting to think of the square-off between couture and Quant (though in different universes) as a duel between classicism and theatricality — impassive statuary against raw panels of colour. Quant self-consciously borrowed from both theatre and painting. In an interesting extended BBC interview with Michael Barratt in 1985 she spoke about conceiving faces as canvases on which persona could be painted, a kind of auto-portrayal in cosmetics. Lipstick went from being the red slash, to near invisibility, the better to highlight the theatre of the eyes: extreme mascara and a rainbow spectrum of eyeshadow.

Peak Quant, though not the business, was nonetheless quite shortlived. She herself is candid about fashion, meaning the Next Thing, and about never wanting to be stuck in a style rut. But what did come next wasn’t just a matter of hemlines changing direction. The grab-bag historicism, the frogging and epaulettes, the lengths of trailing velvet and damask; the Morticia lipstick, the shoulder-length waterfall of curls primed for tossing; not to mention the flower-power ethno-cladding; all those Thea Porter kaftans, Nehru tapestry jackets (I had several myself); Barbara Hulanicki gypsy floor-length creations that made Quant’s zippy ankle, Chelsea and knee-high boots immediately redundant; the whole wafty-drifty, asphyxia-by-patchouli thing, was, for some of us, a regressive lie-down on memory lane’s easeful sofa, trapped in the drone of George’s sitar.

So when the V&A opens its brilliant, overdue show based on Quant treasures in their collection, I won’t be budgeting much time for the stuff of the 1970s. On the other hand you might find me rooted to the spot come chucking-out time, lost in dollybird visions of PVC raincoats, Terylene tunics and, oh yes, that high-collared, ultra-mini with a zip right down the front, the unforgettable Banana Split.

MARY QUANT: A LIFE IN MINIS

1934: Born in London

1950: Enrols at Goldsmiths College of Art (to study illustration) where she meets her future husband and business partner, the aristocratic Alexander Plunket Greene, cousin of the Duke of Bedford and Bertrand Russell

1953: Graduates with a diploma in art education and begins apprenticeship at milliner Erik of Brook Street 1955. That same year, and with £5,000 he inherited for his 21st birthday, Plunket Greene opens a fashion boutique, Bazaar, at 138a King’s Road, London, along with entrepreneur Archie McNair. Quant is the buyer and later begins to sell her own designs

1957: Marries Plunket Greene and opens a second Bazaar store in Knightsbridge, designed by the retailer and restaurateur Terence Conran (a school friend of Plunket Greene’s in the 1940s). Quant later designs the staff uniforms for his furniture store Habitat

English fashion designer Mary Quant dancing at a party with her husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, pictured 1959.
English fashion designer Mary Quant dancing at a party with her husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, pictured 1959.
Image: Getty Images / Evening Standard / Hulton Archive

1962: Quant signs a lucrative design contract with US department store JC Penney. She considers breaking into America one of her greatest achievements: “It was the first time the clothes of a named British designer had been promoted throughout a large chain of stores across the States,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It was exciting but worrying too”

1963: Given the Sunday Times’ International Award for “jolting England out of a conventional attitude towards clothes”

1964: Starts designing for Butterick, the pattern company she used as the basis of her early designs for Bazaar; her patterns sell tens of thousands of copies

1966: “Invents” hot pants, launches Mary Quant Cosmetics (featuring an unprecedented range of colours including crayons which became bestsellers) and is awarded an OBE. She also publishes her autobiography, Quant by Quant, in which she writes: “I think I always knew that what I wanted to do most of all was to make clothes . . . When I was about six and in bed with measles, I spent one night cutting up the bedspread with nail scissors. Even at that age I could see the wild colour of the bedspread would make a super dress”

1967: Opens third shop, on New Bond Street and launches Quant Afoot footwear range featuring blocky heels and moulded plastic boots in bright colours

1970: Son Orlando is born. He is now father to Quant’s three grandchildren

1970s: Produces household furnishings and domestic textiles with British manufacturing company ICI

1990: Plunket Greene dies aged 57

2009: Features on a postage stamp

2012: Published her second autobiography, Mary Quant: My Autobiography

2015:  Named a dame

• ‘Mary Quant’ is at the V&A from April 6 until February 16.

• Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.

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