At a time when it’s easy to feel gloomy, the V&A’s playful and punchy Mary Quant retrospective is a breath of fresh air, says Stylist’s Moya Crockett.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling a little flat recently. As a journalist, it’s my job to keep up with the news, but doing so often leaves me feeling drained and sad, angry and helpless. The clocks going forward has helped a little, the lighter, longer evenings bumping my spirits up a notch – but overall, I am significantly lacking in vim and vigour. The world as it currently is just doesn’t seem very exciting.
If you are suffering from a similar lack of joie de vivre at the moment, I can think of no better remedy than a trip to the V&A’s new Mary Quant retrospective. The exhibition, which features over 120 items of clothing, accessories, cosmetics and other paraphernalia created by the fashion designer between 1955 and 1975, is an uplifting blast of Swinging Sixties colour, energy and enthusiasm – and a happy reminder of what great fun it can be to be female.
The exhibition is spread across two floors, with the lower level designed to evoke a shopping street (like nearby King’s Road in Chelsea, where Quant opened her first boutique in 1955). Some of the outfits on display are over 60 years old, but it’s impossible not to be struck by how fresh and modern they look. There are thigh-skimming pinafore dresses layered over block colour turtlenecks, glossy patent trench coats, stylish comfy lingerie, high-neck polka dot playsuits, glittering tartan party frocks with ruffles down the front. The achingly cool mannequins – all bouncy Jean Shrimpton wigs and gangly limbs – add to the slightly surreal sense that you could be browsing in Topshop, rather than walking through a museum.
It’s also strikingly clear how Quant’s influence continues to shape women’s personal style, more than half a century since she first became a household name. You can easily imagine Michelle Williams in the 1962 puffball mini dress in deep plum satin, or Kate Moss jumping into a taxi wearing the thick cheetah print coat from 1965. A black crepe shift dress with long sleeves and dramatic organza ruffles from 1964 is pure Alexa Chung, and a graphic black and white outfit from 1961 – complete with patent black pillbox hat – wouldn’t look out of place on Janelle Monáe.
Quant’s designs are often linked to the increasing social liberation of women that occurred in the Sixties, but this exhibition doesn’t hammer home the feminist significance of the miniskirt in a worthy way. Rather, it shows – with a lovely lightness of touch – how Quant’s clothes empowered women by making them feel confident and independent. By creating affordable diffusion lines and selling patterns that allowed women to recreate her designs, Quant made it possible for normal women – teachers, secretaries and nurses, as well as models and actors – to feel like they were on the cutting edge of style, a privilege that had previously been reserved for those with money.
Many of the pieces on display here were actually donated by ordinary women, who have shared why these pieces were so special to them. For former model Claire Fiander, purchasing a Mary Quant Liberty-print cocktail dress in 1967 represented “my start in life”. One woman recalls how her mother, a nurse, saved for months to afford a pair of Mary Quant boots. As a cash-strapped art student in 1964, Sheila Hope used a Mary Quant pattern to make herself a dress for her 21st birthday – which she describes as her “prized possession”. These poignant stories form the backbone of the exhibition, and remind us of the important role clothes play in our personal histories.
The retrospective also underscores Quant’s status as a pioneering businesswoman, one with an expansive, inclusive outlook on the world and a hunger for the future. In a decade where there were hardly any prominent female entrepreneurs, she hired several women to help run her company and boutiques, and exported the Swinging London aesthetic around the world with blistering efficiency. One photo in the exhibition shows her tearing up the dancefloor at a New York nightclub with her husband Alexander Plunkett Greene in 1960, on a business trip promoting her brand. She looks modern, youthful and powerful – and most importantly, she looks like she’s having fun. At a time when the UK seems to be turning in on itself, becoming poisonously introspective and regressively nostalgic, Quant’s ethos of optimism and confidence feels more needed than ever.
When I leave the exhibition, I find that I’m walking a little faster, holding my head a little higher, feeling more energised and cheerful than I have in weeks. Sixty-four years after opening her first shop, Mary Quant still has the power to put spring into a woman’s step.
The Mary Quant exhibition opens at the V&A on Saturday 6 April 2019. For more information and tickets, see vam.ac.uk
Main image: Mary Quant with Vidal Sassoon, photographed by Ronald Dumont, 1964. Ronald Dumont/Stringer/Getty Images. All images courtesy of the V&A