Stylist speaks to Jenny Lister, co-curator of the V&A’s new Mary Quant retrospective, about the impact the designer had on women’s lives.
In 1955, a young woman named Mary Quant opened a boutique on the King’s Road in Chelsea. She couldn’t know it at the time, but she would go on to become one of the most significant figures in fashion history. Quant, who is widely credited with helping popularise the miniskirt (contrary to popular belief, she never claimed to have invented it wholesale), is the subject of a major new exhibition at the V&A, which takes a look back at the extraordinary impact her designs had on fashion and society.
Today, the miniskirt is such a foundational part of most women’s wardrobes that it feels like an almost entirely neutral piece. But when Quant began selling short skirts in the early Sixties, she sparked outrage. Quant recalls men banging on the windows of her boutique, decrying her as a purveyor of the obscene; Coco Chanel described the miniskirt as “just awful”. For a generation of young women shaking off the dourness of post-war life and embracing the burgeoning feminist movement, though, the miniskirt captured the spirit of the time. During a period when women were pushing for the right to work and party like men – as well as embracing the freedom brought about by the introduction of the contraceptive pill – the miniskirt represented a newfound sense of fun and liberation.
Ahead of the opening of the V&A’s Mary Quant retrospective, Stylist caught up with exhibition co-curator Jenny Lister to talk fashion, freedom and feminism.
Why did you feel like now was the right time for a Mary Quant retrospective?
Well, it had been a very long time since there had been an exhibition or a book about her. She had a mid-career retrospective in 1973, and no one’s had a long detailed look at her career and what she achieved and what it means to people [since then].
I’ve been researching Mary’s work on and off for a few years, and the exhibition has just come to fruition at the perfect time. Right now, people are thinking more about the role of women and what has changed for us, but also about what still needs to change – so that fits in brilliantly [with the themes of the exhibition]. But really the main reason we wanted to do the exhibition is that Mary made this huge contribution to fashion, and it’s long overdue that we recognise it.
When did you first become interested in her work?
Anyone who is interested in fashion knows her name, but for me personally it goes back to being four or five. [Paper] fashion dolls were my favorite thing – you could colour them in and cut them out. Mary created a fashion doll in 1973 called Daisy, and she was so appealing and easy because it cost about 30p to buy a dress.
But then throughout my career I’ve worked at places like the Museum of London, where they had a fantastic collection of her things. Since I’ve been at the V&A, I’ve had opportunities to acquire more Mary Quant pieces: I did an exhibition on the Sixties in 2006, and made great connections with people in that Sixties fashion world, including Mary herself. So it’s been a slow-burning project that I always wanted to do.
Mary was a very visible and successful female business owner at a time when that wasn’t so common. Do you think that made her inspiring to other women?
Obviously there had always been women in fashion, and you had names like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli on the couture side. But Mary changed everything by showing that fashion could also be about mass-produced clothes and things you could buy on the high street. From the early Sixties, she was photographed so much wearing her own clothes that she became intrinsically linked in people’s minds with the attitude and the lifestyle and the look of the time. She had this innate style that people wanted to emulate.
But also, she was incredibly interested in factories and manufacturers and textiles and new developments [in the fashion industry]. That comes across really strongly when you look at footage and documentaries of her at the time: how engaged she was in this very male-dominated world. She worked extremely hard to persuade traditional manufacturers to make raincoats up in Stockport, or encourage tights manufacturers to be more creative.
What’s also quite shocking is the disparaging way men would write about her in the media – you know, look at what this little doll-like person has managed to achieve! She was really striving in this man’s world, where men were extremely patronising towards women in terms of daily interactions.
I think she blazed a trail for women as a professional role model, but also in terms of how they dressed. You know, her clothes were fun, and – most importantly – they were a woman’s idea of being sexy. Her first designs were these summer school dresses and brightly coloured tweeds or drop-waists inspired by the Twenties. She wasn’t designing to suit a male stereotype of what was attractive – it went back to the woman’s body and this sense of having freedom of movement, looking natural and sexy and not artificial.
Last year, you launched a callout to track down Mary Quant garments that people might have had tucked away in their wardrobes or attics. Do you have any favourite pieces that came to the exhibition in that way?
Oh, so many. The best thing about the callout was being able to speak to people who had worn Mary’s clothes, and hear them explain why they’d kept them and what they meant to them. It really helped transform the narrative of the exhibition into being about the customers and the people who had this great loyalty to Mary’s brand. Each of those dresses has a story behind it, and we’ve been able to bring all that context into the exhibition.
For example, there’s a fabulous white mini dress that looks almost like a child’s romper suit. It’s got this really playful Peter Pan collar and it’s in Mod colours – red, blue and white – and it looks so fresh and new. Deborah Cherry, who donated it to the museum, told us that the dress showed her that young people could look different to old people, and walk tall with their own sense of style. That really shows the liberating effect that Mary’s clothes had.
The Mary Quant exhibition opens at the V&A on Saturday 6 April 2019. For more information and tickets, see vam.ac.uk
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for length and clarity.