Lorraine Wilson

Fashion has long been a barometer of social change. It’s not only one of its most obvious expressions at the time, but also one of its greatest lasting legacies. This is true in the case of Mary Quant, a designer who is best known for creating fashion that reflected a changing Britain. It’s rare to see a sentence that doesn’t include the term “swinging 60s” when her work is appraised.

Quant’s influence extends far beyond the garments. She was at the forefront of something we think of as a modern concept, that of brand-building, and was also an important part of a 1960s movement that created a more democratic approach to fashion. All this is explored in Mary Quant at the V&A, which opens in Dundee on April 4, following its transfer from London. At the South Kensington museum, it had more than 400,000 visitors making it the third most visited exhibition in the V&A’s history.

The exhibition has had a long gestation in the mind of Jenny Lister, curator of fashion and textiles at the V&A in London. It has presented many outstanding fashion exhibitions, but with the likes of Dior and McQueen or even Yamamoto there is an element of pressing the nose up against the sweet shop window. There won’t be too many people saying, “My mum had one of those.”

With Mary Quant, Jenny and co-curator Stephanie Wood could create an exhibition where people could see themselves reflected in the pieces. “I’ve been working on the exhibition on and off for the best part of a decade,” says Jenny. Talking with her colleagues, there was the fear that in the reverie around haute couture, “Quant was definitely being sidelined. She hadn't been celebrated or even critically examined at all.

“When we got the go-ahead, Steph joined me as co-curator and we could really get to work. It was fantastic that we already had a huge Quant collection in our stores, but there were definite gaps, particularly from the 1950s and in trousers, which were important to include.

Jenny and Steph made a massive step forward when they were given access to Mary Quant’s personal collection, but they also had to step into the unknown and appeal to the public, to ask if anyone had any Quant gems in the attic. As the exhibition covers the period 1955 to 1975 that would cover a good swathe of the population, as well as any holding heirlooms. “We didn’t know if it would be a limp response, but we were absolutely overwhelmed. It’s always sad that we can’t take everything, but it needed to fill the gaps we had, and it also needed to be in good condition. Our conservators did some amazing work on restoring important pieces.”

The mini skirt, that great cultural behemoth assigned to Mary Quant, is one small part of the gradual change in Quant’s work across two decades. Whether it was a symbol of freedom or horror, it was an item of clothing that made its way into the cultural psyche in a way that few have since, with jokes made everywhere, from sitcoms to Sunday Post cartoons. Jings!

“That mini-skirt symbolised its time in a really simple way,” says Jenny Lister. “Supposedly she was in the inventor of the mini-skirt, but of course no-one really invented it. Mary definitely had this knack of wearing it in photos and on screen, and it went around the world.”

Quant credited the girls on the King’s Road in London for inventing the mini-skirt and pointed to the invention of affordable tights as the catalyst for hemlines getting higher.

She was something of a reluctant media figure, and had to be convinced of the power of public appearances but with the boom in magazines and the tabloids’ growing fascination with celebrity in the 1960s, Mary was as much of an interest as the design world she was creating.

With items from around the country, and some from further afield, Jenny and Steph could not only showcase the garments from Quant’s line, which at the time would have been too expensive for the average working woman (it’s said that an average Quant dress would probably retail for around £200 at today’s prices) but also the diffusion Ginger Group line, which was launched in 1963 to mass-produce her designs and bring the Quant style to the masses.

The signature monochrome daisy logo was soon adorning hosiery, handbags, footwear and what became most young girls’ entry into Quant world, cosmetics.

One of the most interesting parts of the exhibition covers the early years when, in 1955, she opened Bazaar, a boutique on the King’s Road, along with Archie McNair and her future husband Alexander Plunkett-Greene. It was here that she began to make clothes to sell. From the beginning she was already breaking fashion rules, using traditionally chunky menswear fabrics such as tweed to make day dresses.

Jenny agrees that the impact of Quant goes far beyond rising hemlines and sharp bobs. In fact, it goes beyond fashion. “It's that whole attitude to appearance and lifestyle, and I think a lot of it is about class structures breaking down and having more of an opportunity to express yourself. Until then working people hadn’t had much of a chance to do that.”

With the move to Dundee, Jenny Lister is delighted to see the exhibition take on a new life, with the added input of curators such as Meredith More. The team at Dundee have taken their inspiration for events surrounding the exhibition from the geographical distance that Dundee had from swinging London.

There were shops in Scotland where the signature Mary Quant lines were stocked, and later the Ginger Group. In Edinburgh, hipsters could head along to Darling’s or, going into the 1970s, John Lewis. House of Fraser stocked the Ginger Group from its launch in 1963, and Jenny believes they might have stocked Mary Quant before that. “I think there was a great upswing in interest when the colour supplements appeared and brought Quant into homes that might not have bought fashion magazines.”

An early name on the stockist list was Ash Fashions of Giffnock and in Dundee itself a boutique called Lilian’s in Whitehall Crescent, practically within view of the V&A, was the place to find Quant. “The first thing we have to think about is how our exhibition space differs from the one in London,” says Meredith More, curator at the V&A Dundee and one of the team assembling the exhibition in the museum’s vast and impressive temporary exhibition area.

“We have the opportunity to present it in a way that feels more relevant to the building but also to the local area. That has meant calling out to the community to find the local connections to Quant and whether she transformed the lives of women outside of the metropolis.”

The team has decided to focus heavily on Mary’s Butterick patterns for a project called #SewQuant. The patterns were available for the same price as a magazine and so many more people were handy with a sewing machine then. For the price of the pattern, fabric, and a few hours of their time, they could have their own piece of designer fashion. They could tailor the fabric choices and any customisation to their own budget – and imagination.

Meredith and the team saw this as the best way of exploring the local experience, where there would be few cases of women shopping on the King’s Road. “It was democratic and accessible and I think people think of Mary Quant more fondly because of it. It does resonate with the climate crisis and the need to reduce our consumption of fashion. There seems to be a movement back towards dressmaking and crafts so hopefully the #SewQuant part of the exhibition will inspire more people to think about making their own clothes.”

Meredith was amazed at the response, from women who shared their stories and sent photographs showing what they had made with the Quant Butterick patterns. Some of those will be on show.

The exhibition space at Dundee differs greatly from its sister museum but it’s important that the same cues are taken when designing the journey through the 20 years. Quant is London and London is Quant, so the streetscapes of the time are crucial as is that distinctive colour palette that she used – not only the clothes but accessories and cosmetics.

We’ve based the colour palette around the Caran d’Ache pencil pot that she always used for her sketches. We’ve also been thinking about her use of pattern, which was actually pared back and very minimal. We always jump to that initial idea of 60s swinging London, but she was more subdued in her use of pattern and colour.

“What has also been fun to explore is her love of jazz music. Her fashion shows and shops were essentially like parties.”

Meredith adds that the social history is just as important to communicating the history of Quant. There were symbiotic relationships between fashion and music, between fashion and the changing world of women, fashion and celebrity culture, and fashion and the burgeoning globalisation that was escalating through television and global media.

“My favourite part of the show is getting the sense of how much this meant to people,” adds Meredith. “It was much more than the clothes. It was about people feeling like they could be young, but they could be themselves and they didn’t have to conform in the way that perhaps their parents had to.”

Now 90, Mary is represented by her son Oliver Plunkett-Greene, but she was involved at the beginning of the process and has seen a film of the London exhibition. The most thrilling thing for her, Jenny Lister says, has been the public contributions.

“She has had as much of an input as her health will allow. It’s been great to have access to her own archive, particularly because it includes clothes that she wore herself. It's deeply personal for her of course. As curators you have to remember that behind all these things there is a real person. I think the way that her business was run was always friendly and personal and inclusive. I hope that spirit has been carried on in the exhibition.”

Mary Quant at V&A Dundee opens on Saturday, April 4, and runs until Sunday, September 6. Subject to change


Dublin graphic designer and DJ Janette Flood has finally seen her style guru receive recognition.

Around seven years ago, I contacted the V&A in London to ask for advice on how to preserve my Mary Quant collection. I had been collecting for years, but with materials like fur, suede, and some delicate fabrics, I wasn’t sure to look after them.

This was long before the exhibition was planned, but I struck up a relationship with Jenny Lister. At the time I didn’t realise that she was such an admirer of Mary. After a while she asked if she could come over to Dublin to catalogue my collection and look at what could be used in an exhibition.

I fell in love with Mary Quant in the 1980s. It was when Top Shop opened in Dublin. It was a different city then, pretty grim. So when this shiny shop opened and stocked Mary Quant tights and nail polish and make-up, it really brought some colour into my life.

My whole family were fashion-conscious. My mum was a hairdresser and my dad was a furrier. I had relatives who were dressmakers and tailors, so style was important to us all.

There were loads of fashion tribes around when I was growing up, and they always fascinated me – the mods and skinheads and bootboys. The mod girls were amazing. Big eyes and pale lips and monochrome clothing. It also gelled with my music taste, though it was a bit out of time. It was all firmly rooted in the 1960s and that was another reason why I was fascinated with that decade and the look. When I worked in London and New York I started collecting seriously and had some incredible finds in second-hand shops. That was the real start of my collection.

To me it’s not just about the clothes. It’s a whole life. The clothes are nothing without the hair, the music, even the furniture. It’s how I live my life.

It’s fantastic seeing how the V&A team have taken my pieces. The London show was amazing and I’m delighted to be DJing at the Dundee show with my long-time friend and occasional DJ partner Tosh Flood, a musician now living in Dundee.

The V&A has taken such care with her legacy and I’m delighted that Mary has seen a film of the show and realises what an impact she has had on so many lives.


The topless mini dress

I love the topless mini dress because it has such a fantastic local connection. We think that the jute it’s made from came from Don & Low in Dundee, so we can almost say the dress is coming home. Apart from the fact that it’s a wonderful dress that makes great use of the fabric, it makes an important point about how Mary Quant always supported British manufacturers – she bought her Crimplene from ICI for example. There was also Alligator, a heritage brand, which she worked with on a range of raincoats. She often chose those manufacturers that were struggling a little to adapt to the changing market. Anyone from Dundee knows that this was the case with jute.

The Miss Muffet dress

This is a great example of the Mary Quant Butterick pattern. The reason she chose to license her designs to Butterick was she started making her own clothes by using Butterick patterns, then customising them to her own design. For the home dressmaking movement in Scotland, it was incredibly important because we are so far away from the King’s Road, and at that time it would have felt even further. These patterns meant that people could access that London look from their own kitchen table with a sewing machine. It’s a really generous approach to fashion and it’s an important message today, when we do have to think about reducing our fashion consumption.

Mary Quant Crayons

It’s important to highlight these crayons that were inspired by the Caran d'Ache pencil pot that Mary favoured. It speaks about her decisive use of colour. There are colours that are always associated with her and that we’ve chosen to pick those out throughout the exhibition. They are so specific that’s it’s been a challenge to make sure that we’ve captured those accurately – there has been a lot of testing. More broadly it speaks to that notion that you could have Mary Quant anything – hats, tights, crayons, make-up, and these colours would be across everything.