“Mary Quant ‘and a bunch of other pretty Chelsea Birds’ have revolutionised fashion.”

John Crosby, Daily Telegraph, April 30, 1965

The V&A Dundee has reopened this week with a new show celebrating the work of 1960s fashion designer Mary Quant. Quant, born in Blackheath, London, became a household name in the 1960s, as part of the youthquake that revitalised British culture in music, fashion and film.

She may not have been the first designer to take hemlines above the knee (the French couturier Andre Courreges also has a claim), but the very short skirt and shift dresses, more often than not modelled by Twiggy, became Quant’s trademark. Her bobbed hair, designed by Vidal Sassoon, also added to Quant’s recognition factor. She was also responsible for the skinny rib sweater and hot pants.

Quant’s designs grew out of her desire for a new look and new ideas of what it might be to be female. “I grew up not wanting to grow up,” she once said. “Growing up seemed terrible. It meant having candy-floss hair, stiletto heels, girdles and great boobs. To me it was awful; children were free and sane and grown-ups were hideous.”

HeraldScotland:

Her notions chimed with the times and as a result she did much to shape how the 1960s looked, in the streets of Chelsea and the fashion magazines and weekend newspaper supplements of the time at least.

Quant met her future husband Alexander Plunket Greene while studying illustration at Goldsmith’s. He was from old money, but very much a Soho bohemian. In 1950s London the couple were part of the much-vaunted Chelsea Set. “Our friends and acquaintances were painters, photographers, architects, writers, socialites, actors, con-men, and superior tarts,” Quant said in her 1966 memoir Quant on Quant.

In 1955 the couple, along with business partner Archie McNair, bought 138a King’s Road with plans to open it as a boutique, with Plunket Greene’s bistro downstairs.

Originally, the boutique, called Bazaar, sold clothes Quant sourced herself from art school students, jewellers and milliners, very much a reflection of her own taste. When that proved successful and stock dwindled, she took to buying fabric from Harrods and made up her own designs with her friends in her bedsit overnight to sell in the shop the next morning.

Quant’s clothes were informal, often in bold colours, and she had an eye for reinventing traditional details. She also had a taste for new materials including PVC, using it to create wet-look clothes. Her designs could be androgynous, taking familiar material, designs and ideas from menswear and using them to her own ends.

HeraldScotland:

Kellie Wilson modelling satin shirt and matching shorts from Mary Quant's intimate apparel range, 1966

“All the way through life women had to dress…the way the man in her life saw her,” Quant pointed out. “She was never allowed to dress the part of being her. I wanted to design clothes for real people.”

In 1962 she signed a deal with the American store chain JC Penney and a year later she launched a new, cheaper diffusion line, Ginger Group. By the end of the decade she was the country’s most recognisable fashion designer and it was estimated that up to seven million women in the UK owned at least one of her products.

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She diversified into cosmetics (the Daisy range) and in the 1970s interior designs, including carpets, bed linen and wallpaper, for manufacturer ICI.

“Clothes are a statement about oneself or what one wants to be,” Quant believed. It was an idea that she put into practice for herself.

Mary Quant at V&A Dundee runs until January 17, 2021. For more information visit vam.ac.uk/Dundee/maryquant