Mary Quant at V&A: playful designer who launched a fashion revolution

Collection is a testament to the designer’s ability to challenge gender rules

Mary Quant, the latest major retrospective from the V&A, which opens on Saturday, does not begin and end with the miniskirt. In fact, curators are at pains to point out that Quant did not “invent” the miniskirt – that honour goes to French designer André Courrèges – although she certainly helped popularise it. Instead, the Quant exhibition takes a broader view, charting the first 20 years of the designer’s career from 1955, when she opened her famous Bazaar boutique on King’s Road, to 1975, when she had established a global fashion empire.

“We’re focusing on the social and historical context of that time,” says Stephanie Wood, who co-curated the exhibition alongside Jenny Lister. “[Quant] opened up her shop one year after rationing ended and, in many ways, her playful and colourful designs are a reaction against the austerity and drabness of postwar London.”

Circa 1965: Fashion guru and designer Mary Quant at her home
Fashion guru and designer Mary Quant at her home circa 1965. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

Mary Quant follows the success of several high-profile fashion exhibitions at the V&A, including the critically acclaimed Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion in 2017, as well as Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, which received a seven-week extension after selling out earlier this year.

The museum’s collection of more than 120 Quant garments is also a testament to the designer’s ability to challenge fashion and gender rules with her clothes. “I think visitors will be surprised to find that trousers are such a big part of the story,” says Wood. “Quant was one of the earliest designers to promote trousers for sexy fashionable womenswear, at a time when trousers just tended to be worn by women for informal occasions and at home.”

Elsewhere, there are examples of how tailoring cloth intended for men’s suits or military uniforms were repurposed by Quant – who famously “didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib” – to create fun and relaxed garments for women.

Mary Quant
Mary Quant’s playful designs were a reaction against the drabness of postwar London Photograph: © Duffy Archive

That said, the first pieces visitors encounter are not immediately recognisable as the work of the now-legendary fashion designer, featuring below-the-knee dresses with pleats and polka-dot pyjamas. But turn a corner and the exhibition starts to look a lot more “Quant”, with a selection of minidresses and pinafores from her Ginger Group collection of 1963, which prided itself on having a lower price point, as well as mix-and-match potential.

“She was the godmother of accessible, affordable fashion,” says Wood. “Her Bazaar boutique was so progressive in terms of transforming the retail experience: she would serve drinks, open late in the evening and have lots of music playing. It was like the original Topshop.”

Spanning across two floors, Mary Quant’s basement level is a series of boxed-in showcase spaces symbolising a row of high street shops but, upstairs, free-standing glass cases have been reconfigured to represent the five petals of Quant’s iconic daisy logo. The space explores Quant’s diverse legacy, as she expanded her brand into underwear, cosmetics, home furnishings and even Daisy doll toys, while pioneering marketing techniques far ahead of her time.

Mary Quant expanded her brand into underwear, cosmetics, and even Daisy doll toys
Mary Quant expanded her brand into underwear, cosmetics, and even Daisy doll toys. Photograph: Nicky J Sims/Getty Images

Last June, the V&A sought to track down rare items of Quant clothing from members of the public, with a call out receiving more than 1,000 responses. Taking centre stage upstairs there is also a digital “carousel” of images and memories from those who got in touch.

“Within the museum world, there’s always been more of a focus on couture,” says Wood. “This is very different as there’s a huge focus on the women who wore these designs. Mary Quant complements the Dior exhibition [at the V&A] in that it’s the flipside to the same period in terms of fashion history. Quant is very much about egalitarian and democratic fashion; it’s an accessible, relatable story.”

Mary Quant runs from 6 April 2019 – 16 February 2020.


Leah Harper

The GuardianTramp

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