Mary Quant

Sandra Westbrooke enjoys the V&A’s retrospective about the iconic fashion designer

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mary Quant, whose creations shaped the swinging 60s, was born in 1930 in south-east London and grew up with austerity and clothes rationing. After studying art at Goldsmiths College, not far from the family home, she went on to work for a couture milliner in Mayfair. “London was a bombsite”, she later recalled, “and the only thing that thrived was the buddleia.”

But things were starting to change. A new generation of independent, confident young women were starting to forge their own paths, wanting clothes that weren’t just copies of what their mothers and grandmothers were wearing. Mary was among them. Passionate about fashion, she had met her future husband, Alexander Plunket Greene at Goldsmiths, and when in 1955 he and a friend opened a restaurant in London’s Kings Road, they included a boutique that became her first store, Bazaar.

Her quirky stock sold out rapidly, and when she couldn’t source enough of the youthful designs she wanted, she toiled through the night in her bedsit, adapting commercial dress patterns to create outfits from the material she’d bought from Harrods that morning. Her creations, often simple shifts and pinafore dresses in stretchy fabrics and vibrant colours, gave her and her customers the freedom to dance, work, relax or run for a bus. They were designer clothes, yes, but affordable, so not just for the privileged few.

Soon crowds were flocking to King’s Road to discover what was new, and London became the centre of style. By the sixties, Bazaar’s trendy clothes, modelled by the likes of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, were getting shorter and shorter. The mini, forever associated with Mary, was born.

The exhibition is spread across two floors, the first laid out like a series of shop windows, cataloguing milestones in her career, while the upstairs showcases the total Quant look, from dresses to tights, cosmetics and her much-loved Daisy doll, a rival to Barbie.

A major contribution comes from some of the women who bought her designs. The curators appealed on social media for women to share their Quant memories. More than 1000 responded, and many of their reminiscences are captured on a carousel of videos and photos at the centre of the second floor.

Thirty-five of the garments and accessories on show come from this initiative. Among them is a smart flannel dress worn by Angela Mackay for a job interview in 1962, a pink cotton blouse donated by Caroline Hopper, who bought it from Bazaar to impress a geologist boyfriend just back from Antarctica, and a check tweed coat-dress chosen by Venetia Pollock for a ceremony to launch a refurbished ship owned by her husband. There’s also the cream dress worn by Mary herself when she went to Buckingham Palace in 1966 to receive her OBE from the Queen for her contribution to the fashion industry. The dress was selected with press photographers in mind – its pale colour stood out in the crowd. She used the opportunity to promote the Quant brand: her hat, gloves, tights, shoes and makeup were all her own creations.

Mary had a knack of injecting new life into stalwart products like rainwear and dressmaking patterns (remember her PVC coats and patterns for Butterick?) and became a symbol of the confidence and optimism of the 60s. She took her designs to America, and was electrified by the scale, pace and organisation of the ready-to-wear market there. Her ranges were seen as the epitome of British cool and were soon available through chain stores and mail order companies. Ahead of her time in marketing and promotion, she trademarked the daisy emblem, which became an instantly recognisable badge. She also negotiated licensing deals with specialist manufacturers, from tights to cosmetics, becoming the first life-style brand. “I wanted to provide fashion for everyone,” she says in her autobiography.

And that she surely did. It’s estimated that at least 7 million women owned at least one of her designs, with many more buying items from her popular cosmetics range, which is still in production. In 2015 she was made a Dame, and this exhibition is a long-overdue tribute to her genius. Today, Quant’s legacy is clear. Looking round at the outfits on display, it’s amazing how many of them could grace catwalks even now. Half a century on, the freedom and fun she brought to fashion is still with us.

Mary Quant, sponsored by King’s Road, is at the V&A until 16 February 2020. Tickets £12