Advertisement

  1. ITV Report

How 1960s fashion icon Mary Quant's revolutionary clothes liberated women

A new major exhibition celebrating iconic fashion designer Dame Mary Quant looks at how she revolutionised the way women dressed, reflecting a new age of feminism and liberating them from "dressing like their mothers".

The retrospective at London's Victoria and Albert Museum explores the years between 1955 and 1975 when Quant tore up the fashion rule book, creating youthful, more affordable clothes that helped defined a dawning era of freedom.

After studying illustration and art education at Goldsmiths College, Quant opened her first shop, Bazaar, on King's Road, Chelsea, an area that she would help personify as the spirit of mod culture and the Swinging 60s.

Mary Quant and models at the Quant Afoot footwear collection launch, 1967. Credit: PA

While Paris designers, led by Christian Dior's New Look, dominated the fashion scene, these luxury labels were affordable largely only to rich, older women and out of reach to most people in a post-war era marked by rationing and austerity.

Quant's designs, in contrast, were less exclusive and, although not cheap, accessible to a new generation - who would save for months to buy one of her dresses - allowing her influence to penetrate beyond the high-end fashion crowd and stamp its mark on a burgeoning youth culture.

Receiving her OBE at Buckingham Palace in one of her own designs. Credit: PA

Quant's colourful, energetic and rebellious designs shook up a silted fashion scene where young women dressed like their mothers and grandmothers.

Her designs were "anti-establishment and anti-traditionalist" according to the exhibition's co-curator Jenny Lister and were inspired by London's growing creative scene.

"She wanted women to keep the freedom of childhood," Jenny says of Quant's designs, which were often based on schoolgirl pinafores.

She also played with masculine tailoring, including men's cardigans worn as dresses and fabrics such as tweeds, using ties and waistcoats to create a "new sexiness" that was, Jenny says, "more comfortable, easy to run around" in than traditional women's clothes of the time.

But it is the miniskirt that defined Quant's career - and an era.

The miniskirt was as much about liberating woman as it was a fashion statement - Quant famously said she wanted a skirt she could run for the bus in - and ushered in a generation shaking off the constraints of the one before them.

Model Kellie Wilson wearing tie dress by Mary Quant’s Ginger Group. Credit: Gunnar Larsen

While the claim that she invented it is disputed, the miniskirt and Quant have become synonymous. The designer herself credited rising hemlines to the "girls on the King's Road".

Speaking in 2009, she said: "I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move, in which you could run and jump and we would make them the length the customer wanted. I wore them very short and the customers would say, 'Shorter, shorter'."

The miniskirt was named, not after the length of its hemline, but that other Sixties icon the Mini car and Quant's legacy stretches beyond this piece of fashion history.

Mary Quant with Vidal Sassoon. Credit: Ronald Dumont Stringer/Getty Images

Jenny Lister said Quant "turned fashion on its head" and her designs set the tone for London fashion, establishing the capital's rebellious, risk-taking style reputation that is known for today, and paving the way for other groundbreaking British designers, like Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, who followed in her art school footsteps.

Her savvy business sense and how she used marketing have also left their mark on the modern day fashion world, where, thanks to social media, visual marketing is increasingly important, Jenny says.

"She had a strong, distinctive style of her own. Women wanted to look like her - she was relatable and authentic."

"And she used her own look, and her logo to connect with people - she used the logo like a kind of badge."

Such is Quant's influence on fashion, it is easy to take her innovative looks for guaranteed, but Jenny says her designs were "more provocative than punk" for the time.

Model holding a Bazaar bag c.1959. Credit: Mary Quant Archive

"It was not about Paris and expensive couture, it was about normal working women," Jenny says.

"She dressed the liberated woman, freed from rules and regulations, and from dressing like their mothers."

Quant is credited with inventing the coloured and patterned tights, often worn with miniskirts and dresses, and in the 1960s she popularised hotpants.

Quant was awarded an OBE 1966, accepting the award at Buckingham Palace in one of her own designs, a cream wool jersey mini dress with blue facings.

As the decade rolled on, Quant's influence stretched beyond the UK and by 1963, the Mary Quant brand had hit the United States, going into mass-production to keep up with the demand.

Mary Quant at work in London, 1963. Credit: AP

Now in her eighties, Quant's place in fashion history is celebrated in the V&A exhibition that includes dresses lent by the public after a call-out by the museum. There are also 60 images sent in by woman wearing their Mary Quant dresses, each one accompanied by a note on why the piece means so much to them and what they were doing at the time they were wearing them, each one a personal love letter to a designer whose clothes go beyond fashion.