Mary Quant

The designer who launched a fashion revolution

A retrospective exhibition on trailblazing 1960s designer Mary Quant was due to go live at V&A Dundee this month but was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Gayle Ritchie investigates why Quant is as relevant today as ever and explores the designer’s enduring influence

With her bright, playful designs, thigh-skimming hemlines and unstructured style, Mary Quant shook the fashion world and revolutionised the way women dress.

The most iconic designer of the 1960s, Quant has gone down in history for popularising the mini-skirt and making women’s clothes fun, irreverent, and affordable.

Her exuberant fashion catered to young women’s new sense of freedom and inspired them to rebel against the traditional, stuffy clothing worn by their mothers and grandmothers, dressing instead in youthful designs that captured the Swinging Sixties.

Fashion lovers looking forward to exploring Quant’s legacy were disappointed when V&A Dundee’s retrospective on the designer, due to launch this month, was postponed until later in the year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

First shown at sister museum V&A South Kensington in London, it was to feature some of Quant’s most iconic designs, including wet-look PVC macs, bright jersey shifts, groovy A-line dresses, schoolgirlish pinafores, micro-miniskirts, matching knickers, and all the vibrant, daisy-logoed makeup that followed.

Here, we look back at the story of Quant’s rise from shy art school student to global force

Who is Mary Quant?

Mary Quant was born on February 11, 1930, in Blackheath, London, to Welsh teachers Jack and Mary Quant.

The young Mary was always obsessed with clothes, cutting up bedspreads to make dresses as a child.

Quant went to Blackheath High School before studying illustration at Goldsmiths College. After achieving a diploma in art education from Goldsmiths, she became an apprentice couture milliner, and began designing and manufacturing clothes.

It was at Goldsmiths that she met future husband and business partner Alexander Plunket-Greene, describing him as “a great wit and a dish: a 6ft 2in prototype for Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney rolled into one”.

Together, they opened their first boutique, Bazaar, on the King’s Road in the Chelsea district of London in 1955, which would become the beating heart of Swinging London.

Bazaar sold clothes and accessories, and its basement restaurant became a meeting point for hip young people and artists.

The iconic Mary Quant look – short skirt, flat shoes, tights and cropped Vidal Sassoon haircut – was created in her own image.

Quant rocked the world with her miniskirt revolution, at a time when the baring of so much leg was seen as an outrageous statement, often banned by parents of would-be wearers.

She raised the hemline well above the knee, creating short dresses and skirts with simple shapes and strong colours that she described as “arrogant, aggressive and sexy”.

She explored geometric designs, polka dots and contrasting colours, and experimented with new fabrics, including PVC, to achieve a modern and playful look.

Her models were showcased in extravagant and provocative window displays overlooking King’s Road, which became a mini-skirt catwalk and drew photographers from across the globe.

“City gents in bowler hats beat on our shop window with their umbrellas shouting ‘immoral!’ and ‘disgusting!’ at the sight of our mini-skirts over the tights, but customers poured in to buy,” she recalled in her 1966 book, Quant by Quant.

The designer is also widely quoted as saying that: “It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini...I wore them very short and the customers would say, ‘shorter, shorter’.

Remembering the mood of the time, Quant said: “The miniskirt was a symbol of the growing confidence of the young of that time as they broke away from the rules and inhibitions of the post-war period.

“Rejecting clothing previously worn by their mothers, they wanted freedom and fun – and the shorter skirts enabled much more movement, whether running for a bus or going straight from work to dance at a club, just perhaps changing the accessories.”

The era’s most high-profile model, Twiggy, popularised the mini-skirt abroad, and with business booming, Quant opened a second shop in London in 1957 – the same year she married Alexander.

She entered the American market in the early 1960s, collaborating with department store JC Penney. She also created the cheaper Ginger Group line and launched into cosmetics  and fragrances (including products for men), all her designs featuring her trademark daisy logo.

Quant also scandalised British society with her views on sex, making headlines when she famously said she had shaved her pubic hair into the shape of a heart and dyed it green.

However, she always liked to keep a woman’s upper half demure: think Peter Pan collars, rollnecks, zip-ups – there were never any cleavages on display. The models were all legs and attitude with teasing hemlines. It was more about being fun, free and flirty than salacious.

For Quant, there was another new fashion creation integral to the rise of the miniskirt – coloured tights.

These were comfortable, could match or contrast with the bold colours of her dresses, and enabled hot pants and the mini to climb even higher.

Hugely innovative, Quant also designed makeup, household interiors, the Daisy Doll, and the interior of a special edition Mini car.

Although her heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, Quant’s legacy can still be seen on the high-street today.

In recognition of her pioneering work, she received an Honorary Doctorate from Heriot-Watt University in 2006 and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to British fashion.

“She was the godmother of the youth movement in fashion, the first to realise that how women dressed needed to change,” says Jenny Lister, curator of textiles and fashion at the V&A.

Modelling Quant’s clothes

The way Quant’s clothes were sold to press and buyers was refreshing, with petite, inky-lashed models leaping and dancing through shows and promotional materials.

Quant was very particular about the women she worked with, though Jean Shrimpton was an obvious fit, as was fellow model Jill Kennington and Roxy Music cover girl Kari-Ann Moller.

And at 5 6” and six-and-a-half stone, Twiggy was perfect for Quant’s little dresses and also had the perfect face for the doll-like look her makeup effected.

Swinging Sixties

It was the decade that moved on from the austerity of post-war Britain and embraced youth with its flirty fashion, revolutionary designers, edgy photographers and quirky models.

Leading lights from the period alongside Quant included photographer David Bailey and hairdresser Vidal Sassoon. They came from ordinary backgrounds and were all in their early twenties as they set the 60s alight with their inspiration.

Quant’s designer

Heather Tilbury Phillips worked for 15 years with Quant as a director – she was part of the fashion and culture revolution herself.

It’s fitting, then, that Heather, 77, who lives in Suffolk, helped put the V&A exhibition together.

“Initially I approached the V&A with a view to them producing a book,” she says.

“I felt Mary had been sidelined, if not marginalised, both by the industry and the media.

“That’s possibly because Mary herself has been so painfully shy and wasn’t prepared to give interviews. But I did feel it was important that her very far-reaching legacy shouldn’t be forgotten.

“Jenny Lister, the curator of the exhibition, agreed and sent me off to do some research. I went back and said, hey, this can’t just be a book, it’s got to be an exhibition, and she agreed to work towards that.”

The V&A came up with a slogan – We Want Quant – that invited members of the public to either send in details of garments they owned, or photographs of Quant garments they wore back in the heady days of the 60s and 70s.

“I loved being incognito at the Quant exhibition in V&A London last year,” says Heather.

“It was fantastic hearing the older generation recalling garments they’d worn, but also the younger generation saying, ‘I want to wear that now!’.

“It was a great example of how far-sighted and how enduring Mary’s designs are.

“To see it at V&A Dundee, whenever that may be now, will be absolutely breathtaking – people will be bewitched by it in that marvellous space.”

Freedom to move

Heather says Mary’s original incentive was to make and sell clothing that she and her friends, in their early 20s, wanted to wear and couldn’t find.

“She started making her own things that had the essence of being easy to wear – relatively inexpensive garments.

“Until that point, it was haute couture that was considered most fashionable.

“Her shop was mobbed with people rushing to look at the completely innovative window displays and garments Mary was designing.”

What captured people’s imagination? Heather reasons that Quant’s designs were “hugely different” from anything else available.

“There was still that feeling of post-war austerity. Mary was all about colour and new fabrics. She was using black and white stripes – men’s suiting – for womenswear. It was a complete shock, really, to girls of that age.

“Mary understood they wanted something different to what their mothers wore. They wanted the freedom to be able to move.

“Mary herself wore her skirts quite short, although not perhaps the fanny pelmets they became, but the miniskirt evolved thanks to her customers demanding shorter lengths.”

Heather also feels Mary doesn’t get sufficient recognition for the “invention” of tights.

“She realised if people were going to wear mini-skirts, they couldn’t wear stockings and suspenders and so she persuaded hosiery manufacturers who were mainly making tights for theatrical use to make brightly coloured opaque designs that would match, contrast or even clash with her designs so that actually, girls could be respectable,” she says.

Electric atmosphere

Heather reasons the Quant brand became so successful as a result of a small team working in an exciting, energetic environment.

“Mary had a creative side, Alexander, who became her husband in 1957, had this enormous flare for what we subsequently thought of as marketing and PR (he knew everybody; he knew all the fashion editors and that made an enormous difference to the early promotion) and Archie McNab trained as a lawyer, and had the business, cashflow sense to make sure that the company expanded in the right direction and was financially sound,” she explains.

A wild, exciting atmosphere fostered creativity, and Heather professes she found it “incredibly empowering” to have her ideas nurtured.

“We were based in a tiny back street former concertina factory with interconnecting offices, and Mary would wander in and say: “what d’you think about this’” recalls Heather.

“She wanted input from everybody. She really encouraged everyone to put their suggestions forward. It was a terribly exciting, electric atmosphere.

“It could be very challenging and stressful, but it was a wonderful, open curiosity about what could be achieved. It was always about pushing the barrier.”

Heather’s role included media relations, briefing Quant before interviews, and accompanying her to functions, events and fashion shows across the world.

“I was working with Kangol who in 1967 acquired the licence for Mary Quant berets, so that’s when I first met her,” she recalls.

“Then asked me to work directly for the company, which I did from 1970 until the beginning of the 80s.”

Heather keeps in contact with Quant but admits the designer is now “quite frail”.

“It’s funny but most people think she’s younger than she actually is. We celebrated her 90th birthday in February.

“She chopped four years off her age when she and Alexander got together...because he was younger than her. In those days, that sort of thing mattered.”

Scotland’s fashion experts on Quant

Fashion director, stylist and writer Wendy Rigg says there’s no doubt the British high street fashion would not be what it is today with the influence of Mary Quant.

Fife-born Wendy says: “Quant was a gamechanger. She can be credited with inventing young street style.

“Prior to Quant, your mum made your clothes for you, and fashion was just for rich older women. Her youthful designs were synonymous with swinging London – miniskirts, hot pants, Twiggy, The Beatles and Carnaby Street.”

Wendy Rigg 

Wendy Rigg 

Wendy, who lives in Blackheath in London, which is coincidentally where Quant was born and brought up, says Quant can be credited with pushing the design world into a new era with the latest developments in fabric technology, including cotton jersey and PVC.

“In 1963 she went wild for futuristic fabric PVC and created her Wet Collection of rainwear.

“She created groundbreaking designs with this space age shiny man-made fabric in a vivid array of bright colours. The fashion press loved it.

“Her bold revolutionary designs were featured on the front cover of Vogue, and celebrities such as Cynthia Lennon wore the label.”

Wendy says Quant created the first global lifestyle brand, with her instantly recognisable daisy motif.

“As teenagers we all wanted to buy into Quant’s modern world,” she says.

“The power of the Quant daisy even reached the tiny village of Dairsie, near St Andrews, where I grew up.

“I remember sending off for a pair of stripy over-the-knee socks, and being so excited when they arrived in Fife, encased in plastic packaging emblazoned with that famous daisy.”

Wendy says the clothes were a “bit out” of the average teenager’s price range, and not readily available in Fife, but it was possible to buy into the brand via cosmetics.

“Again Quant’s innovative approach to colour grabbed the attention and the pocket money of the nation’s youth,” she reflects.

“She took inspiration from unlikely sources and gave products cool names – a natural foundation was called Starkers, and a blush-rouge was Cheeky.

“Jeepers Peepers were powder eye shadows, and shades had enticing names like Ginger Pop, or Cherry Pie.”

“No self-respecting teenage girl was without her Quant nail polishes in the signature round bottle proudly displayed on the dressing table.

“I had a bewitching shade called Evil Emerald from the Naughty Nails collection, brought out in 1973.”

When Wendy visited the Quant exhibition at the V&A in London last year, she was transported back “to the hot summer of 1973 and me, lying on the grass in our garden, with a transistor radio glued to my ear, listening to Bowie’s Life On Mars wearing those MQ Quant socks.”

Claire Adholla, a design and craft lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, says Quant’s legacy is about shifting attitudes.

“She changed the way people thought about clothes, and brought fashion into a place that was much more fun and expressive, allowing people to say something about the times they were living in,” she says.

Mary McGowne, founder of the Scottish Style Awards, says Quant put the fun into fashion and shook up the British high street with her rebellious designs and kaleidoscopic colours that captured the “Youthquake” energy of the Swinging Sixties.

“She took the excitement of fashion and made it accessible to the masses,” says Glasgow-based Mary. 

“Quant’s most iconic designs of the time; the mini skirt and hotpants, were anchors of the Mary Quant ‘brand’ and reflected the cultural freedom of the era.

“Equally as notable as her groundbreaking apparel was Quant’s trailblazing success in ‘brand building’.

“This was a new concept which epitomised the modern age and one which Mary Quant seized and capitalised on with ranges of affordable handbags, hosiery, footwear and the entry point for most young girls into the world of Quant, cosmetics.

“There are few designers whose legacy has endured and still with such huge popularity as Mary Quant’s. From the runway to the high street, not a season passes where her influence cannot be seen.

“The V&A exhibition – when it appears in Dundee – will be a fitting homage to her genius.”