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July 2019, No. 1396 – Vol 161

Swinging London: A LifestyleRevolution / Terence Conran – Mary Quant. Fashion and Textile Museum, London; and Mary Quant. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Exhibition Review

Swinging London: A LifestyleRevolution / Terence Conran – Mary Quant. Fashion and Textile Museum, London; and Mary Quant. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is the first retrospective of the fashion designer Mary Quant (b.1934) since 1973 when the Museum of London mounted Mary Quant’s London.1 The museum has drawn on Quant’s archive as well as on its own extensive holdings, the largest public collection of her work. With over 120 garments as well as accessories, cosmetics and photographs, the exhibition is an excellent example of how a great museum can involve the public in the reconstruction of the past. Interesting loans and donations of important material related to Quant enliven the exhibition, reminding us that fashion history and fashion exhibitions are unusually dependent on fashion’s creative consumers. For instance, Elizabeth Gibbons, the wife of an architect based in Kuala Lumpur, bought, among many purchases, Quant’s striking Stampede (1962), an asymmetrical linen dress with large buttons. She kept all her Quant dresses, emblematic of a private liberation. They and their associated receipts, together with an unlikely survivor, a paper bag stamped BAZAAR (Quant’s retail boutique) were donated to the V. & A. in 2013.

In advance of this exhibition, its curators, Jenny Lister and Stephanie Wood, launched a call-out through the press and social media under the rubric #WeWantQuant, which resulted in around one thousand responses and the acquisition of some forty Quant garments for the museum’s collections, together with photographs and fascinating written and oral testimony. The #WeWantQuant campaign made it possible to incorporate further personal stories into the excellent labelling in the show, with details of prices paid, translated into today’s value. The research scientist Caroline Hooper was able to buy an early pink and white Quant blouse (which she wore punting in Cambridge). In 1964 Alison Smithson bought ‘Topless’ (Fig.22), an ingeniously structured minimalist pinafore made of jute: it now seems entirely appropriate garb for a radical architect.

Early Quant clothes were much cheaper than couture fashion but far more expensive than current mass-market clothing. Thus we learn that an elegant Chanel-inspired grey wool jacket and skirt, ‘Tutti Frutti’, cost 24 guineas in 1962, which would be £528 in today’s money. When Quant launched Ginger Group as a separate wholesale label in 1963 she was able to reach a lower income market and it was then that Jennifer Opie, a student at Chelsea School of Art, London (and later a gifted curator at the V. & A.), was able to buy a treasured jersey pinafore dress included in the show. We learn that slightly earlier, in 1960, Carola Zogolovitch relied on her parents, Hugh and Margaret Casson, an architect and a designer respectively, to buy her a relatively expensive striped belted worsted dress with a playful miniaturised patch pocket.

Zogolovitch’s dress was designed to be versatile. The book of the show includes publicity photographs showing Suzie Leggatt modelling the dress as daywear with a sweater, and as evening wear with high heels and her hair up, pictured with Quant’s husband, Alexander Plunket Greene (1932–90). His name reminds us that blurring class boundaries played an important part in the appeal of Quant’s fashion youthquake, as it developed through the mid-1950s and into the 1960s. Quant was an indirect beneficiary of her teacher parents’ grammar school education and was brought up with a strong work ethic. At Goldsmith’s College she met the privately educated Plunket Greene and they subsequently went into partnership, joined by Archie McNair (1919–2015), who had shaken off a career as a solicitor to work as a photographer and had opened a fashionable coffee bar on the King’s Road in Chelsea.

McNair had a good legal and business brain while Plunket Greene had colourful social connections combined with great wit and charm. Quant herself – having been taught drawing by Sam Rabin and millinery by Constance Howard at Goldsmiths – had an uncanny instinct for future fashion that deserted her only in the 1970s – by which time she had diversified, profitably, into Butterick dressmaking patterns, cosmetics, home furnishing and unexpected sidelines such as the Daisy doll, a cheaper variant of the Cindy doll. It was McNair who advised Quant to close her Bazaar shops in 1969 to focus on the lucrative licencing trade. Profits of £1,500 in 1955 had reached £6.75 million by 1967.

Sections of the display titled ‘The Death of the Debutante’, ‘Working Wardrobe’, ‘Subverting Menswear’ and ‘English Eccentrics’ encapsulate the liveliest parts of the Quant story, in which Quant herself visually embodied her own brand – hair cut by Vidal Sassoon, lightly made up, on the move with her models, photographed for Life magazine running down Fifth Avenue with a pinstriped Plunket Greene and an English sheepdog. The pair, who married in 1957, appeared to epitomise a new classless Britain, in which, as David Frost and Antony Jay’s 1967 best seller To England with Love proclaimed, ‘Carnaby Street usurps Savile Row; Liverpudlian pop stars weekend in ducal castles; dukes go out to work [. . .] The three great classes melt and mingle. And a new Britain is born’.2 This was part of the selling power of Quant when she finally broke into the North American mass market in collaboration with JCPenney, Steinbergs and Puritan Fashions Corporation.

This is an atmospheric exhibition. Subtle use is made of music, historic film footage and commissioned new interviews. We hear from the redoubtable editor Brigid Keenan, who in 1962 chose a Quant dress for the cover of the first Sunday Times colour supplement, modelled by Jean Shrimpton and photographed by David Bailey; and from the photographer and former model Jill Kennington, who recalled the gulf between the couture fashion shows of the 1950s and Quant’s zanier catwalk presentations, with her models dancing to live music. As Quant explained, ‘I knew I wanted the girls to move, to jump, to be alive’ (p.72).3 An early customer, Tereska Peppé, describes the impact in 1955 of the remarkable window displays in Bazaar.

The attraction of class opposites, an inspired contrariety, is well documented throughout the exhibition, beginning with a photograph of Quant after receiving her MBE in 1966. Flanked by Plunket Greene and McNair in immaculate dark suits, apparently the establishment personified, she is wearing a beret and one of her daringly short jersey dresses that came to epitomise radical informality by the late 1960s. In fashion terms Quant similarly exploited the irreconcilable, employing striped cotton drill used for butcher’s aprons and pinstriped wool twills associated with Savile Row tailoring to create chic dresses. At times she struck an almost surrealist note, adorning a PVC raincoat with an outsized safety pin in place of a belt buckle or designing an evening dress in red Welsh flannel trimmed with black lace.

Making inspired use of British textiles, Quant appeared to mount her very own ‘I’m backing Britain’ campaign before that short-lived patriotic movement of 1967.4 Her models were photographed by Norman Parkinson with British bobbies in 1963. A Ginger Group diffusion range was launched in 1966 in a photoshoot using puzzled-looking Chelsea Pensioners as a backdrop (Fig.23). This exhibition brings out the designer’s ability to play with tradition within a futuristic aesthetic. Her jersey dresses in saturated mannerist colours (Fig.24) had a stream-lined, space-age appeal which predated the erotic sciencefiction movie Barbarella (1968).

Quant’s remarkable career stands as a valorisation of a fully funded and generously taught art school education. She had an unerring visual eye for presentation and branding. The bold graphics of all Quant packaging, the Knightsbridge shop interior designed in 1958 by Plunket Greene’s Bryanston schoolfellow Terence Conran, with lights designed by Bernard Schottlander, and the unforgettable Daisy logo ran together seamlessly, as did Quant’s and Plunket Greene’s friendships, with the leading models of the day, with the best fashion editors, photographers and designers.

The early part of this more personal story is set out in Quant’s breathless but absorbing 1966 autobiography, Quant on Quant, republished last year by the V. & A. The exhibition was further complemented by the Fashion and Textile Museum’s exhibition Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution / Terence Conran – Mary Quant (closed 2nd June), which explored the wider connections, often based on friendship, of Quant’s most famous decade. This fascinating small show included the work of the Independent Group, Terence Conran’s development of Habitat, the tableware of the ceramic designer David Queensberry, the cookery books of Elizabeth David illustrated by John Minton and Renato Guttuso, and the urban ruralism of Bernard and Laura Ashley’s early experiments with textiles and, subsequently, fashion.

A well-illustrated book with the same title by Geoffrey Rayner and Richard Chamberlain gives a sense of the Fashion and Textile Museum exhibition. It can usefully be read alongside the V. & A.’s excellent but less evocative publication.

 

1 See E. Carter: exh. cat. Mary Quant’s London, London (London Museum) 1973–74, possibly inspired by the equally bold and innovative Fashion: An Anthology curated for the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1971 by Cecil Beaton; and J. Clark and A. de la Haye: Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971, New Haven and London 2014.

2 Quoted in R. Weight: Patriots: National Identity in Britain 1940–2000, London 2002, pp.381–82.

3 Catalogue: Mary Quant, by Jenny Lister. 256 pp. incl. 220 col. + b. & w. ills. (V&A Publishing, London, 2019), £25. ISBN 978–1–85177–995–6.

4 See Weight, op. cit. (note 2), p.403.