Mary Quant: Exhibition Review

Rating: 5

By Robin Dutt

I once bought a pair of Mary Quant tights. Let me explain myself. There they were, strangled in an unopened plastic packet found in a vintage clothing shop, with the familiar daisy motif on the paper label. It was the daisy that drew me – and knowing I was holding a piece of fashion history in my hands. 

Quant’s daisy still magnetises, simple as it is, but insistent and almost a target. She and the Mods had much in common but whereas the target was for them, the flower was for her.

This is a superb exhibition, a travel through revolutionary modern fashion history taking in more than 200 outfits and accessories on two strategically-lit levels. What exactly was it about the 1960s that made that decade so special? Those ten years were a cauldron of so much: music, art, theatre, film and, of course, fashion, and Mary Quant was one of the labels and faces which were iconic even then, when the King’s Road bristled with boutiques, not high street familiarity. 

On display is a plethora of sporty, functional, smart and casual clothes. Quant (as Sir Hardy Amies once told me, in his opinion) was rude about couture. But Quant wanted to democratise and revolutionise the way people thought about fashion and make it as accessible to as many as possible, whether from the internationally renowned shop Bazaar or from any outlet carrying the Mary Quant label.

The beautiful, basic shift that the designer favoured with its cheeky pockets and sexy zips still has appeal. Some of the placing of those zips suggest the sexy ease of pulling them down. And the colours chosen are fresh and zingy, even now: lime green, lemon yellow and strawberry. They scream of unabashed youth. Indeed, the word ‘youthquake’ is synonymous with Quant.

All materials were fair game and chosen for their functionality and aesthetics, and mannequin after mannequin trumpet the glory of Chelsea, 60 years ago. And the fact that this look, the London Look, was truly original.

But did Quant really ‘invent’ the miniskirt? Ask any Roman soldier or female gymnast of the ancient world, if you could, to see that fashion can never be totally new but another time makes it so.

The fabulous accompanying videos of Quant busying herself with cloths, sketching and being interviewed adds much to the exhibit. She was preparing people then for the future. She knew so well what she was doing – almost trying to erase the past for its cumbersome aesthetics.  

Something worth doing on your visit is to immediately view the V&A’s permanent collection hard by, which provides a brilliant opposition. For Quant, that daisy motif is akin to a pointe finale. Oh, and those tights? They remain in their wrapper. Of course.

Victoria & Albert Museum, SW7 2RL; until February 2020: 020-7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk

 

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