The story of Mary Quant make-up

Produced as part of Mary Quant

On now until Sunday, 16 February 2020

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In this edited extract from the Mary Quant exhibition book, Beatrice Behlen explores why Quant's make-up range was as revolutionary as her clothing.

In 1968, Quant summarised why she had got involved 'with the make-up bit': "now that the clothes were different the face was wrong". Fashion had changed dramatically, but make-up had been left behind. This applied not only to the kind of products available, but also to the colours, packaging, advertising and the way in which cosmetics were sold. She recalled:

Nobody had considered a colour other than red, pink or vaguely orange for lipstick or that there was colour other than blue and green and possibly purple for eye-shadow, so there was no flexibility and no fun with make-up.

Mary Quant, 2004

Quant signed a contract with Stanley Picker, the American owner and chairman of Gala Cosmetics, part of the Myram Picker Group. The Quant make-up launch was preceded by 18 months of development, which the designer later remembered as 'the most thrilling time':

I had no doubts at all about my concept of the colours and products, as to me the need of the new was so glaringly obvious, but when the packaging and testing also went so smoothly and looked so terrific, it was the one time in my life I had total, total confidence in a venture's success.

Mary Quant, 2004
© Museum of London

Quant was influenced by her own experiments with make-up – she claimed to have used artists' materials such as paint brushes, water-colour paint boxes and crayons, foreshadowing later products and their names. She wanted to streamline cosmetics, so that products worked well together, women spent less time applying them and had fewer items to carry around. In fashion, Quant had aimed to create a 'total look', built of interchangeable components that enhanced each other but allowed individual permutations. She had persuaded manufacturers to make knitwear and tights in complementing colours and she now applied this formula to cosmetics:

Everything co-ordinated out in the colours I wanted: the Colman's mustard and, you know, this prune-colour and putty, a putty-beige or an equivalent with a green in it and black and white. [...] I brought in those colours to the nail polish which, of course nobody had ever seen nail polish in colours like that. And lipstick and eye shadows, and so the colours worked with all that.

Mary Quant, 2004

The journalists, buyers and sales representatives who attended the first launch on 28 March 1966, or the second a week later at Mary Quant's home, witnessed a make-up revolution: an entirely new packaging concept. In the mid-1960s, many, albeit not all, beauty products were sold in plastic containers designed to imitate more valuable materials such as horn or were 'all pale pink quilting and bogus gold', as Quant remarked. Declaring her love of the humble material – including its smell – Quant announced that her packaging was to be honest, 'hundred karat good plastic'. Reflecting Quant's desire for honesty and efficiency, lipsticks were sheathed in a brushed metal tube. Quant wanted something "you could pull out of your pocket, or your bag without it looking as though it belonged in a boudoir. I thought, why can't lipsticks look like a cigarette lighter?"

Cry, baby. Advertisement for Mary Quant tearproof mascara, 1967

The products' tongue-in-cheek but matter-of-fact names hinted at their intended effect or purpose. There was 'Starkers' – abroad it was explained that this was 'British slang for naked' – a foundation available in fair, medium and dark. 'To appear natural' was the desired effect for 'the new type of woman' and to get away from the masks created by pancake foundation. Journalist Margaret Allen writing in 1981 called this 'pale unmade-up look on the face and lips with all the focus on the eyes', the 'British' or 'London' look, which soon spread across the world.

Joy Ingram, consultant supervisor and Mary Quant at one of the first make-up promotions at Rackham's department store, Birmingham, 1966. Image courtesy of Joy Debenham-Burton

After the launch, reps and sales girls embarked on a promotional tour taking in several UK cities. At pop-up counters in department stores, customers were introduced to the new products by having half their face made-up by a consultant who would finish with dotting a small daisy (Quant's brand identity) near one eye. To help make sense of the new line, how and in which order it should be applied, a cartoon strip was developed, printed on fine paper so it could fold up into a small rectangle – a brilliant marketing tool.

'Mary’s great idea', point of sale leaflet, about 1967. Illustration by Jan Parker

Possibly the most spectacular means of driving sales abroad was the Quant beauty bus: a bright red Routemaster, one of the distinctive London double-deckers which was internally stripped and custom fitted with long make-up tables, mirrors and swivel stools for make-up training and makeovers. Between 1970 and 1975, the original bus and its white successor toured around Europe, Canada, America and Venezuela.

The Mary Quant Beauty Bus, 1971 © INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

The names and packaging of Quant cosmetic products continued to amuse and delight: 'Cheeky' was a liquid 'non-greasy blush-rouge' and 'Blushbaby' a powder-based blusher, while 'Jeepers Peepers' referred to powder eyeshadows. Initially, colours were designated by numbers but soon these were replaced by names such as 'Ginger Pop', 'Cherry Pop' and 'Banana Shine' (1972) and the four shades of the 'Naughty Nails' polishes brought out in 1973: 'Sultry Sapphire', 'Evil Emerald', 'Forever Amber' and 'Tempting Turquoise'. The colours remained one of the brand's most memorable and outstanding features. Singer Toyah Willcox was only eight years old and living in Birmingham when Quant's cosmetics hit the market. Unsurprisingly she was't allowed to wear make-up, but her older sister:

would bring home beautiful round Mary Quant bottles of nail varnish in amazing colours such as canary yellow, shimmery green and night time black. I could stare at these beautiful bottles for hours, the design was one of the best things I have ever seen. Mary Quant celebrated colour in all its spectrum and this had a huge influence on how I saw make up as an instrument of self-discovery and self-expression.

Toyah Willcox, 2018

Adapted from an essay by Beatrice Behlen in the V&A book, Mary Quant, accompanying the exhibition.

Background image: courtesy of Joy Debenham-Burton