The peaceful death of Mary Quant at the age of 93 should also be an opportunity to celebrate her dynamic life as a great British fashion designer who transformed the look of women, turning London into the beating heart of the Swinging Sixties.
But Quant’s story began before then, as she was a style visionary whose instinctive talent popularized everything from miniskirts and hot pants to skinny ribbed sweaters and vibrant tights.
Many of Quant’s iconic creations still look as attractive today as they did when she started out as a designer in the 1950s.
She herself identified the origins of the inimitable Quant style in her pre-war London youth. In her autobiography, published in 2012, Quant described seeing another little girl, about her age (eight or nine years old) at a dance class they both attended: “A girl with bobbed hair, wearing a black thin ribbed sweater, three inch black pleated skirt, black pantyhose under white ankle socks and black patent leather shoes.’ It was this youthful ‘vision of chic’ that would inspire her future designs.
However, her parents, educators in Wales, would not allow her to study fashion; instead, she took an illustration course at Goldsmiths, where she met Alexander Plunket Greene, a handsome young man who would become her husband and business partner. (“Alexander was a great womanizer,” she went on to write in her memoir, “and that makes life bumpy,” but she loved him and they remained together until his death in 1990.)
Pictured: Fashion designer Mary Quant, one of the leading figures in the British fashion scene in the 1960s, having her hair cut by another fashion icon, hairdresser Vidal Sassoon
Pictured: Mary Quant and husband Alexander Plenket Greene in her London flat
Quant graduated from college in a time of austerity when post-war rationing was still strictly enforced; when the realm of fashion was the privileged domain of a small minority of very wealthy clients who could afford to buy couture from Christian Dior in Paris or Norman Hartnell in Mayfair.
Her first job was on the edge of this enclave, when she took an apprenticeship with a first class milliner, Erik van Brook Street, next door to Claridge’s.
But instead of going from there to a traditional couture house, Quant created a new way of doing business when she opened her first shop in 1955, a boutique called Bazaar on King’s Road.
She and her husband were at the center of what was known as “the Chelsea Set” – a group of young artists, dancers, photographers, models and musicians who gathered at the restaurant Plunket Greene opened in the basement below the boutique.
At first, Quant planned to stock her store with clothes she bought from the wholesale market. But she quickly switched to her own more original designs and her talent was immediately showcased in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar.
As a former editor-in-chief of Bazaar, I like to think that Quant’s appreciation for the magazine was reflected in her choice of name for her boutique. Sure enough, Bazaar greeted the opening of the boutique in the September 1955 issue with a photo of one of Quant’s first outfits: a polka dot tunic and matching culottes.
Pictured right: Mary Quant poses for a 2009 portrait session in London
In 1957, she appeared again in Harper’s Bazaar sporting a signature haircut by young pioneering stylist Vidal Sassoon that would spawn countless imitations: a sharp, angular bob that embodied a whole new look,
Just as Coco Chanel had done with such panache in the 1920s, Mary Quant thus became her own best model, expressing a sense of youthful freedom, independence and liberation.
I must have been about the same age as those little girls in dance class long ago when I was first struck by the visual appeal of the Quant look. The daughter of a young, fashion-forward mother, I grew up in 1960s London, and some of my earliest memories date from that flamboyant era: the free Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park; the Beatles driving past our flat in Marylebone High Street in a psychedelic Rolls-Royce.
My sister and I had matching PVC jackets—miniature versions of the Quant designs modeled by Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton—and we wore black patent leather shoes and contrasting tights under our Pop-Art-patterned shift dresses, just like our mother’s. By the time I was 17, my favorite outfit was a black and white houndstooth mini dress—vintage Mary Quant—that would look as perfect on a teenager today as it did in the late 1970s, or even when he first appeared on the King’s Road six decades ago.
Mary Quant’s timeless legacy is true to Coco Chanel’s famous remark that “fashion passes, style remains.”
A model with Mary Quant designs in London, 1967 (file photo)
Her outstanding contribution to British fashion was recognized in 2015 when she became a Dame in the New Year Honors list. And she lived long enough to see a major retrospective of her work at the V&A in 2019, a show that revealed her enormous influence as a designer: By the late 1960s, an estimated seven million women had purchased at least one of her products, thanks to its mass market distribution line (Ginger Group) and a deal with US department store chain JC Penney.
The launch of a range of Mary Quant cosmetics – including the first waterproof mascara – expanded her reach even further, and in the 1970s she moved on to colour-coordinated bedding, wallpaper, paint and carpets.
I am pleased to say that the hugely successful V&A exhibition – which has already toured Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Japan – will open next month at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.
So, with luck, a new generation will be introduced to the woman who put the fun in fashion and who, with her irreverent humor and energy, completely reshaped the old rigid sartorial codes.
Dame Mary Quant deserves to be remembered as a genius – an overused description these days, but entirely appropriate for this true pioneer.