Art review: Mary Quant, V&A Dundee

The story of how Mary Quant changed the way a generation dressed – and in doing so helped to shape the look of post-austerity Britain – is lovingly told in a new exhibition at V&A Dundee, writes Susan Mansfield

Mary Quant designs at V&A Dundee PIC: Courtesy of V&A Dundee

Mary Quant, V&A Dundee ****

One of the many events to fall foul of the start of lockdown in March was the anticipated opening of V&A Dundee’s Mary Quant retrospective. Having completed its run at V&A Kensington, the show spent five months in the basement of the Dundee museum before opening – finally, joyfully – in late August.

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At the media launch, Heather Tilbury Phillips, PR director with Mary Quant in the late 1960s, compared the opening of the show after lockdown to Quant’s arrival on the scene in post-war London: after a time of austerity and anxiety, a welcome avalanche of brightness, colour and fun. Remember that? Fun?

Mary Quant selecting fabric, 1967 PIC: Courtesy of V&A Dundee

In 1955, a year after rationing ended, Quant – an art graduate from Goldsmiths in her early 20s – opened a shop called Bazaar in the King’s Road, Chelsea. She made her first collection on a sewing machine in her bedsit. Her business partners were her future husband Alexander Plunkett-Greene and friend Archie McNair. There was a party. The collection sold out.

While Quant’s name is synonymous today with the miniskirt, hemlines did not rise above the knee until after 1960. The early Quant lines were revoluntionary in other ways: stylish, comfortable clothes a world away from the sculpted shapes and full skirts of Dior’s New Look, which set the tone for so much of the 1950s.

Inspired by school pinafores and 1920s “flapper” dresses, Quant made practical, stylish clothes for young women who were entering the workplace in large numbers for the first time. They had their own spending power, and wanted clothes to reflect their lifestyle choices, garments chic enough to wear out to dinner straight from the office, practical enough to run for a bus. Quant later said her customers were her inspiration as much as she was theirs.

By the early 1960s, Quant had hit her playful, irreverent stride. She played with ideas from sailor dresses, smocks and Victorian bloomers to gents tailoring, ties and waistcoats. Always a genius with names (perhaps aided in this by her husband Plunkett-Greene), she created styles called Barrister, Bank of England, Gamekeeper, Coal Heaver and Snob.

Mary Quant with models at a photoshoot in Manchester, 1966 PIC: Courtesy of V&A Dundee

And with good ideas came good marketing. The company developed its instantly recognisable “daisy” logo and slapped it on everything from labels to carrier bags. Nor could it hurt that, unlike almost any fashion house at the time, leading the operation was a young, beautiful, successful woman, a role model for the women she designed for and perfect material for the new generation of lifestyle magazines.

The challenge facing the curators, Jenny Lister and Stephanie Wood, was to make an exhibition about the history of Quant in the spirit of Quant, to avoid the ponderous and po-faced as she did so expertly. Their genius idea was to create a show in which almost every outfit tells part of the story of the woman who wore it, whether it came from a museum collection or was loaned by a member of the public after the V&A’s #WeWantQuant appeal.

These stories – the dress bought for the job interview (the woman in question got the job and went on to become Quant’s buyer), the outfit bought to impress a future sister-in-law, the scarf which has remained a treasured possession for 60 years – keep our interest as we absorb case after case of dresses. The show looks great in V&A Dundee’s large-scale special exhibition space and is superbly spacious and airy.

Quant was always practical. While she mounted catwalk shows (revitalising the format with dancing models and live music) she seems always to have been more concerned with making clothes for real women than size-zero models. You couldn’t wear a thigh-skimming mini-skirt with a suspender belt (which most women in the early 1960s still wore), so Quant persuaded a manufacturer of theatrical hosiery to develop a new line of tights in bright colours which promptly sold out.

Jersey dresses (made by taking fabric used in sportswear and bonding it to acetate backing) were an innovation in style and comfort. Day-to-evening-wear, no-make-up make-up, underwear using lycra for support (at a time when most women wore something akin to body armour) – all these we owe, in some part, to Quant.

At a time when some formal restaurants would not admit a woman in trousers, Quant produced stylish lines which have more than a passing resemblance to the slim, hipster look popular in recent years. By today’s lights, I’m still not sure if wearing a miniskirt which barely covers your bum is an expression of women’s liberation. Perhaps practicality, comfort and a chance to wear the breeks have done more to bring in the revolution. Either way, Quant was at the helm.

By the 1960s, the world was taking notice. Quant’s 1963 collection was launched in Paris, and the fashion world was recognising streetsy London style as a growing influence on the way people dressed. In 1965, Quant and her team toured the USA with rock band The Skunks and a group of young models as American teenagers quickly fell in love with British music, fashion and even slang.

But America meant something else for Quant which was perhaps even more important: the chance to further democratise her ideas. Adored though it was, Bazaar wasn’t cheap: an outfit would cost the equivalent of a week’s wages for a shop assistant. Quant formed Ginger Group in 1963 (the name itself was playful and subversive, a term for a political pressure group) with a view to making mass-market clothing, and her team took to the road to sell the designs to stores outside London.Electrified by the scale of manufacture she witnessed in New York’s garment district on her first visit in 1960, she saw the opportunity to do this on a larger scale, and struck deals to license her designs to major US department store chain JC Penney. Back in the UK, she also created a range of Butterick patterns which women could use to make Quant clothes at home. V&A Dundee issued its own appeal for #SewQuant stories, some of which are included in the show.

The exhibition becomes sketchier after 1970. The outfits are increasingly diverse: maxi dresses, platform shoes, bold stripes, Liberty florals, a racy PVC catsuit. Times have changed again, and the single-minded confidence of the 1960s seems to have passed. Quant herself diversified into childrenswear, interiors and (increasingly) make-up. The three branches of Bazaar closed, Ginger Group wound up in 1975, and the Quant brand was later bought by a Japanese company.

But in celebrating the golden age of Quant, its practical and technical innovations, the irreverence and fun of its presentation, and the ways in which it changed how women dress, the show is full of energy, colour and, yes, fun.

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