Quant by Mary Quant

V&A Publishing, 2018 (originally Cassell & Co, 1966)

I picked up this copy of Mary Quant’s autobiography – originally published in 1966 and reissued as part of the V&A’s brilliant Fashion Perspectives series – when I visited the exhibition Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture at the Fashion & Textiles Museum earlier this year.

Concentrating on the famous boutiques of west London such as Biba, Bazaar, Mr Fish and Granny Takes a Trip, a key take-away from the exhibition was that, contrary to perception in retrospect, much of the fashion revolution of the 1960s was confined to the monied classes, with many of these boutiques run by those with private incomes and making a loss.

But like all new trends, the movement espousing radical dress was emblematic of a wider mood, and therefore ripe for democratisation. It was Mary Quant – the daughter of very ordinary schoolteachers from mining families who moved their family from Wales to Blackheath – who was to effect this.

Quant attended Goldsmiths College of Art rather than fashion school, so had no background in what at the time as a rather formal, exclusive industry. Art college did however give her ample opportunity to explore her flamboyant personal style. Early on, she met the equally eccentric and extroverted Alexander Plunket Greene, cousin of the Duke of Bedford and Betrand Russell, and the two of them became inseparable, entering into a lifelong personal and business relationship.

Quant and Plunket Greene set up Bazaar on the King’s Road, Chelsea, in 1955 with their friend the lawyer and photographer Archie McNair, who provided much-needed business acumen in contrast with Quant and Plunket Greene’s Bohemian, hard-partying lifestyles. They soon added a basement restaurant to the enterprise, and thus created a destination for London’s and then the world’s most fashionable and famous. Management tended to be chaotic, but the boutique became a roaring success: quite simply, no-one had seen anything like it before.

Whilst other boutiques of the Sixties tended towards the esoteric, taking influence from everything from Romanticism to the Orient, Quant created democratic, forward-looking, day-to-evening styles for the modern woman of all income brackets. The designs were simultaneously simple and subversive, introducing gender-fluid elements as well as provocatively short skirts, thigh-high boots and patterned stockings. What came to be known internationally as the London Look celebrated the female form whilst at the same time defying conventional femininity in every way.

In line with post-war sentiment, the key to Quant’s success was that she herself was a young woman wanting to forge her own way, without making concessions to the fashion world which had preceded her.

Previously, fashions had been dictated by older generations, with the young emulating their elders’ dress on entering adulthood. As Quant puts it, it was “The Chelsea girl … who established that this latter half of the twentieth century belongs to Youth … they think for themselves. They are committed and involved. Prejudices no longer exist. They represent the whole new spirit that is present day Britain, a classless spirit that has grown out of the Second World War.”

And of course a similar trajectory was taking place in pop music, famously led by The Beatles. Around this culture grew a community of bars, clubs, restaurants, and magazines, all pioneered by the young. It could be said that a version of this had been happening in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that young people truly became the arbiters of culture; a trend which has only amplified through to the present day, culminating in so-called “influencer culture” which really means that young people are influenced first and foremost by their peers rather than brands owned by older generations - such that those brands must look to peers of their consumers to validate their message to their audience.

The second reason for Quant’s success was her holistic understanding of fashion and how it ties into the wider world: “Fashion amplifies public opinion. It doesn’t create it … Fashion is the product of a thousand and one different things. It is a whole host of elusive ideas, influences, cross-currents and economic factors….”

Again, this subverts the idea that fashion is in any way exclusive, dictated by arbiters of taste from on high. Rather, it is entirely democratic – the result of popular feeling: “fashion is an inherent thing and should not be something which depends solely on beautiful and expensive cloth and handwork. It should be mass produced.”

Which naturally leads to Quant’s third success factor: mass production. This was not without its logistical challenges, but it is ultimately what changed accessibility – and therefore mindsets – globally. Unsurprisingly, Quant had most success with mass production in the US, firstly with a collaboration with chain store Penney’s, and then with Puritan, a producer which ultimately got her clothes into stores nationwide.

The Americans’ ability to commercialise combined with the British sense of style proved to be a winning formula. As Quant says: “The only thing that counts to the Americans is sales… they are not interested in the young the way we are ... I began to feel rather like a Beatle!”

The American manufacturers were geniuses at getting styles to market quickly and in volume without comprising on quality, but what they hadn’t anticipated was the value of Quant herself as a style leader. Her story of showing in New Orleans is typical. The show got a cold reaction from the store buyers, but when word got out, she was besieged like a celebrity by the city’s young women: “They had never encountered fashion designers as relatable – they were used to clothes coming from faceless organisations who dictated what the young should wear.”

London led the way in changing the focus of fashion from the Establishment to the young – and away from Paris, a trend which started a good thirty years before the Cool Britannia of the late Nineties and which has continued to this day.

Above all, Mary Quant understood that fashion is not an art form which can stand in isolation, and neither can it lead trends. What we choose to wear is symbolic of how we choose to project ourselves; and how we choose to project ourselves is the act of setting ourselves in context - a visceral response to the political, economic, and social times in which we find ourselves to be actors.

This memoir, and a study of mid-twentieth-century culture generally, demonstrates an important understanding of the genesis of democratised style, showing that the advent of social media, culminating in TikTok influencers up there with the editors of Vogue on the front row, only served to amplify a fundamental shift in attitude which in fact began over sixty years ago.

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