Having recently attended the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A, I was shocked when discussing it to realise that people had little idea who she was. She was a pioneer of fashion in the 1960s and her mark on the industry is ever-present, though her name may be forgotten by some. This made this exhibition feel almost necessary. There is also a certain beauty to it coinciding with the Dior exhibition, a designer that Quant’s career actively pushed back against. Though not high art and couture, Quant created accessible but stylish clothing for the modern working woman in the 60s.
There was, as I love with all V&A exhibitions, a lot of clothing on show. The museum actually has the largest collection of Quant clothing in the world. For the exhibition however, they had a nationwide call-out for more pieces owned by regular women using the hashtag #WeWantQuant. 35 pieces were chosen that were worn by these women in the 60s and 70s, and this certainly gave a unique personal touch to the exhibition. It also actively proved that regular people were able to buy and wear Quant. It wasn’t ‘cheap’ clothing, but it wasn’t couture, and a month’s salary could buy the average working woman a dress to treasure for a lifetime.
Quant was of course the pioneer of the mini-skirt, and it certainly showed in the dress she chose to wear when accepting her OBE.
Throw yourself back to the 60s, when women weren’t allowed to wear trousers in most places and they were still just a few years on from rationing, and you can imagine why this caused quite the stir. It’s a short dress my modern standards – what an icon!
There were also some absolutely beautiful pieces that would feel fresh and modern even today. There is the ‘Ginger Group’ collection of 1963, named using the political term for a pressure group looking to pep things up, and some of that collection is stunning. Take ‘Snob’ for example –
This youthful pinafore dress, available originally in 6 colours, is well-made, simple but chic, and perfectly styled here with a white cowl neck and matching hat. I could see a youthful up-and-coming blogger wearing that at PFW this season!
Quant also produced some iconic makeup, and really brought the Twiggy cut crease and big lash look to the forefront.
I was surprised as to how extensive her makeup collection was, with everything from fake lashes to full on face palettes. Covered in her iconic daisy logo, though the shade range was obviously trash, it didn’t look like bad makeup! It also made me slightly embarrassed as to the innovation of modern makeup, as it seems a lot of what we have now isn’t all so different from the 60s (apart from new formulations of course).
There was also an interesting instructional board that demonstrated how people learnt to do their makeup before the time of Youtube and Instagram. Following what is a basically a flow-chart, Quant showed how her makeup was versatile and easily could accommodate a natural day-look, or a full-on Twiggy look.
There were also some gendered but effective ad campaigns. I learnt that Quant can be thanked for the dawn of waterproof mascara, so people you can thank her for all your lashes falling out.
It is gendered and stereotypical as hell, but I can imagine it being one effective advertisement back in the 60s. And given the success of the makeup brand, and the plague of waterproof mascara since, it probably did work.
Overall it’s clear I enjoyed the exhibition, but that wasn’t necessarily thanks to it’s curation. She was clearly a pioneer and one can’t help but feel that when surrounded by her clothes and innovation. However, I felt that the museum itself didn’t accommodate her majesty all that well. Unlike the loud colours of her clothing, everything around it felt very dull. Clothes were presented as if they were in store windows, which is a good idea, but is not actually conducive to really seeing them. (Though look at one of her store windows with a lobster this is simultaneously so confusing and so genius)…
David Foster Wallace would be proud, though I am sure as confused as the rest of us as to why this woman is walking a lobster…
I felt like there was a lot more we could have been told about Quant, herself as a person, how she really changed the industry. There was such a story to be told, and I don’t really feel like this exhibition really took the time to tell it. Were it not to have been for Quant’s own phenomenal designs, it all would have fallen rather flat in my opinion.
Nonetheless, it is certainly worth catching this exhibition before it closes in February. Perhaps you can work out why a mannequin is walking a lobster?
“Fashion, as we knew it, is over; people wear now exactly what they feel like wearing.”