The V&A’s current Mary Quant retrospective tells the story of how one female designer heralded a mini revolution in women’s liberation. Last June, over 1,000 women responded to the V&A’s public call out for their old Quant garments after the hashtag #WeWantQuant went viral: “We were overwhelmed,” the show’s co-curator, Jenny Lister, recalls: “We had more than a thousand emails from women – some friends of Quant’s and members of the bohemian circle to which she belonged – but most were ordinary women. Former students, teachers and nurses – some got in touch with us from as far afield as San Francisco and Australia.” 30 individuals were eventually selected to feature in the exhibition and share the personal stories behind their beloved Quant pieces.
But why do these diminutive garments hold such nostalgia for a generation of women? Quant’s iconic designs were at the centre of a social revolution, the Swinging Sixties. Once seen as provocative and rebellious, the miniskirt symbolised a growing female independence as women broke away from traditional gender rules, and rejected the clothing previously worn by their mothers. Super-high hemlines accommodated this newfound freedom and enabled much more movement—whether running for a bus or heading straight from work to a nightclub.
But the allure of Mary Quant extends far beyond practical clothing, she was ultimately a purveyor of fun and freedom. Away from the bleak shadow of post-war London, she offered women an optimistic, exciting vision of the world. The designer’s close proximity in age to her customers gave her an acute understanding of modern femininity; she knew what women wanted. Quant’s first boutique—Bazaar on the Kings Road which opened in 1955—was like a sorority with loud music, a club-like atmosphere, free drinks, and extended opening hours creating an electric scene that kept going late into the evening. She later revealed that it was this very atmosphere that gave life to the mini-skirt: “It was the girls on the King's Road who invented the mini.” Originally, she was designing clothes that were made to move in but when it came to fitting the hem lengths for her customers it was the women demanding “Shorter, shorter.” Through this decisive call for shorter hemlines, Quant’s fashion became synonymous with women’s self-expression. The look was quickly adopted by the current wave of androgynous models—Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy et al—whose gamine style was a perfect match for Quant’s leggy designs.
A new sense of female rebellion and confidence had taken over Britain— but not everyone was pleased. Middle-age businessmen were moved to beat on the window and scream “It’s obscene, it’s disgusting” upon seeing a mini-skirted woman strolling down the street. Ultimately Quant’s popularisation of super-high hemlines became allied to the second-wave feminist movement. Quant had a prescient awareness of the shifting gender climate, and she proclaimed in 1969: ‘Now that there is the pill, women are the sex in charge. … She's standing there defiantly with her legs apart saying “I'm very sexy, I feel provocative, but you're going to have a job to get me … you've got to be jolly marvellous to attract me.”’ Since the 1960s, mini skirts have existed as a symbol of women's liberation with activists like Gloria Steinem sporting them during political rallies. At one point, mini skirts became so politicised that when Dior failed to show them in their collection a group of women calling themselves the ‘British Society for the Protection of Mini Skirts’ protested outside of the show wielding signs reading ‘Mini skirts forever’.
But how has our view of the mini skirt, and its role in female emancipation, changed over recent years? Just consider Mary Quant’s work under the microscope of the #MeToo movement—which has completely reshaped attitudes towards women, sex, and power. The idea of ‘provocative’ dressing has become part of this debate, with many critics suggesting clothes like the miniskirt are akin to consent or an invitation for upskirting. This of course is absurd. The protagonist of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s bestselling novel Daisy Jones & The Six articulates this viewpoint brilliantly, arguing that women should be able to dress as they please without becoming objectified by others. Turning up to the recording studio in Mary Quant-style hot pants, Daisy claims “I run hot and I always have. I’m not going to sit around sweating my ass off just so men can feel more comfortable. It’s not my responsibility to not turn them on. It’s their responsibility to not be an asshole”. Touché.
However, the British journalist and author, Petronella Wyatt recently outraged the public with her claims that those who wear miniskirts “should expect harassment” because it sends a “signal” to men. She continued “I've seen women researchers in Westminster running around in micro miniskirts getting paralytic drunk. What kind of signal do you think that sends? When I wear a micro miniskirt it is to show off my figure.”
Undeniably, the miniskirt remains a political issue— as we saw only recently when activist Gina Martin fought tirelessly to make upskirting illegal. Earlier this year the government finally approved a ban on this type of sexual harassment, but even still from a young age girls are taught that high hemlines should be policed and placed under surveillance by those in “authority”. In an article for Refinery29, Gina wrote: “I remember, as a 13-year-old, my teachers checking the length of my skirt. As girls, we were made to wear skirts, and I was largely OK with it apart from the fact that I desperately wanted to run and roll around at lunchtime just like the boys did. Skirts were to be worn modestly or 'decent'… it was up to me to alter my clothes in order to not be sexualised by someone else.” Even half a century later, it seems Mary Quant’s legacy is more relevant than ever as women and girls continue to fight for their freedom and right to express themselves away from the male gaze.
But aside from Mary Quant’s role in igniting a social revolution, as a designer she also redefined the British high street. In adopting new mass production techniques, Quant was the first to make fashion accessible and affordable for a new generation of working women. She once explained to Vogue “snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dresses.” With Quant at the helm, more women than ever were able to access stylish, avant-garde fashions—it was no longer the preserve of royalty or the upper classes—and this transformed the direction of the textiles industry. In 1968, Mary Quant and her team rocked up at a textile printing factory in Chinley, Derbyshire to inspect the printing for her signature daisy patterned sheets. At the time Robert Hampson was a laboratory supervisor with responsibility for quality control and colour matching. “The purpose of the visit was for her to check the pattern, colour and quality of the printing”, he tells me, “she arrived with a large entourage of flunkies, and we were very impressed and relieved when she approved what we were doing”. Quant had grown her business into a global brand—her name was internationally renowned which enabled her to expand into kitchenware, stationery and make-up. By 1969 it was estimated that more than 7 million people owned at least one item bearing the designer's daisy logo.
In 1966 Quant received an OBE for her contribution to the fashion industry— arriving at Buckingham Palace to accept the honour in a miniskirt paired with cut-away gloves— what else!
The first international retrospective of her work in almost half a century (the last one was in 1973 at Kensington Palace) brings together over 200 garments, accessories and cosmetics, plus sketches and never-before-seen pieces from the designer’s personal archive. It’s on now until Sunday, 16 February 2020. Find more information here.