Every era has a name that is irrevocably linked with it. When it comes to fashion in the 1960s, Mary Quant is that name. Compared to the golden age of couture that went before, her work was not created in salons filled with lab coat wearing couturiers, painstakingly and expertly hand stitching exquisite ballgowns and tailored suits. Quant was part of the new generation of designers busting onto the scene with youthful, colourful, simple styles which captured the hearts of young people.
Reading her autobiography from the late 1960s, what comes across is not the desire to consciously rebel in a shocking way, but the wish to make clothes that she and her friends wanted to buy. A similar approach to that of Chanel. Whereas Chanel wanted chic and sophistication, Mary loved the young, bold and free approach. Though she clearly enjoyed the shocks that came with her fashion shows as well!
"Trend-setting demands confidence as well as perseverance. But, more than anything else, it demands a flair for choosing a look that will catch on despite all initial opposition."
From a dressmaker’s point of view, I was fascinated to recreate some of Quant’s designs. She worked with a real mix of traditional and new artificial fabrics, with varied success. She was not a cutter like Balenciaga, folding and shaping fabric in new and exciting ways, or changing and sculpting the woman underneath to show off his designs. Quant was not a surface designer like Jean Patou, adding exquisite beading and embroidery to every piece. In fact, a lot of her clothes, particularly at the beginning, were not very skilfully made. But they were new, bold, fast and trendsetting. And that’s what counted to her customers.
Originally made in her flat above the shop, there was no room or time to waste on hours of tailoring if she was to meet the demand of her eager, youthful clients. Her designs embraced this with a bold simplicity which could be made relatively quickly in comparison to others. Though speed of production was important to Quant, it wasn’t the driving force. Certainly, it wasn’t a decision made based on profit. Rather, it was a reaction to the success of her designs and the demand for more.
Construction soon moved from her flat to workshops. Quant started to take into account mass production when designing to ensure her designs were not watered down from the catwalk to the high street. It brought in a few changes, such as the number of buttons, whether it was lined or part-lined, etc. It was important to Quant that all her customers have the opportunity to wear her designs, but also to keep momentum and not look back.
“Dress design is not only the most significant and speediest of the decorative arts, it is also the most important because it is so personal. Clothes are not only necessary for warmth and decency but are also an essential factor in the delicate art of putting oneself across … socially, professionally and commercially.”
Personally, I’d have loved to have worn Quant. I love the style. In some sources her clothes are referred to as cheap for the younger generation. This may be so for some, but her clothes were expensive compared to other high-street brands (more Jigsaw than Topshop in today’s terms). But she was a lot more affordable than other designer brands and a must-have for the fashion forward in and beyond London.
I also love the fact she, like some other designers of the time, teamed up with sewing pattern producers to bring out paper patterns for those who loved her designs but couldn’t afford the price tag. Everyone could have a piece of Mary Quant, one way or another.
The patterns themselves were still more expensive than the regular brands, but worth splashing out on if you wanted a taste of Quant. Some even came with sew-in Mary Quant labels. The great benefit women had in the sixties over what we have now is a good, inexpensive supply of fabrics with haberdasheries, market stalls and shops all over the country stocking a wide range of modern designs. This made the homemade option cheap and easy to access if you, or someone you knew, was handy with a sewing machine.
“The dress should attract attention across a room but, close to, no one should be distracted from the person by the dress.”
In the next article, I explore how I went about recreating vintage designs in a contemporary context.
Meridith Towne is a costume historian and historic dressmaker who works with museums to complement exhibitions, enhance visitor experience and facilitate learning with dress-up boxes.
Our Mary Quant exhibition is now closed. You can still enjoy videos and stories relating to the exhibition here.