The V&A has announced its next blockbuster fashion exhibition, Mary Quant, the first international retrospective of the revolutionary designer in nearly 50 years. You may well have heard of Quant, who's often mentioned in the same breath as London's Swinging Sixties and the famed boutiques of Chelsea's King's Road, but contemporary fashion owes her so much more.
After studying illustration at Goldsmiths and becoming a milliner's apprentice, in 1955 Quant began designing and making clothes for her boutique, Bazaar, which was located above her partner Alexander Plunket Greene's restaurant on the King's Road. Starting out with vinyl Peter Pan collars, oversized men's cardigans designed to be worn as dresses, and brightly hued knitwear, the one-woman show soon grew into a team of machinists as Quant opened more branches across the city.
Quant was a cornerstone of the '60s 'youthquake' movement. Previously, teenagers dressed like their parents in grey, formal attire, but a new wave of designers and musicians encouraged them to express their individuality and creativity in unprecedented ways. Worn by lithe-limbed models like Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree, Quant's playful and subversive designs reached a generation ready to shun tradition and embrace its own subcultures and identities. When a new piece dropped at Bazaar, women would travel from across the city to queue for their latest fix – her boutique had the cult status of contemporary brands like Supreme.
The miniskirt has become synonymous with Quant and, whether or not she designed the first one – many argue it was French designer, André Courrèges – it's accepted that she popularised the era-defining skirt. But Quant did more than just liberate women from their twinsets and pearls. Inspired by the sharp tailoring of the Mods, plus the dancers and beatniks of Chelsea, she was among the first to dress women in trousers – a world away from the demure, calf-length pencil skirts of their mothers.
Fashion tights may have been seen on the catwalks of SS18, but back in the 1960s Quant was making vibrant hosiery in vivid yellows and pinks. Experimenting with materials, she was the first designer to use vinyl widely in her collections, creating PVC raincoats and boots like those seen on street stylers to this day. She became the face of Vidal Sassoon, the legendary hair stylist who paved the way for contemporary hairdressers like John Frieda and Trevor Sorbie. Sassoon gave Quant a geometric five-point bob, which added to the subversion of her design aesthetic and inspired women everywhere to shun 1950s rollered bouffants for something altogether more daring and disruptive.
Quant also created the hot pant, brought out diffusion lines and a makeup range – complete with collectable, kitsch packaging – and was the UK's highest profile designer of the time. Like we said: so much more than a miniskirt.
For the exhibition, the V&A has been granted unprecedented access to Mary Quant's archive. Excitingly, alongside 200 acquired pieces, Quant and the museum are calling for original designs bought by women in the '60s, to go on display during the show. Using the hashtag #WeWantQuant, curator Jenny Lister issued a nationwide callout: "We want to hear from women who wore Mary’s radical designs and experienced the appeal of the Mary Quant brand at first-hand. To help us tell these incredible stories, we are asking people to check attics, cupboards, as well as family photo albums, for the chance to feature in our exhibition."
Quant, 88, who became a dame in 2015, said: "The V&A is such a precious and iconic organisation for which I have the utmost admiration and respect, and it is a huge honour to be recognised by them with this dedicated exhibition and book. It was a wonderfully exciting time and despite the frenetic, hard work we had enormous fun. We didn’t necessarily realise that what we were creating was pioneering, we were simply too busy relishing all the opportunities and embracing the results before rushing on to the next challenge! Friends have been extremely generous in loaning, and in many cases, donating garments and accessories to the V&A which they have lovingly cherished for many years, so it will be fascinating to see what else will emerge! I am enormously grateful to have been involved with so many talented people whose contribution to that ground-breaking, revolutionary and memorable era will also be recognised."
Come April 2019, don your vinyl trench coat, miniskirt and go-go boots and join us in celebrating Quant, whose game-changing designs liberated women and, ultimately, made fashion fun.
Mary Quant runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 6th April 2019 – 8th March 2020. Tickets will go on sale in Autumn 2018.