The Victoria & Albert Museum always excels in its presentation of fashion – from the memorable Vivien Westwood exhibition back in 2004 to Balenciaga (2017) and the current blockbuster Dior show. Smaller in scale than the lavish Dior exhibition, but no less significant, this is the first international retrospective of iconic fashion designer Mary Quant, who, like Dior before her, shaped fashion and social mores for a new generation. Her colourful, witty clothes challenged conventions, encouraging women to abandon the traditional, ultra-feminine and often restrictive clothing of their mothers and grandmothers, and liberated them, literally and metaphorically, at a time when feminism and gender identity were of huge significance to many women (and men too) and social commentators. And by making her clothes accessible and affordable, she democratised fashion, prompting a retail revolution on the high street that has had a lasting impact today.
Quant herself personified the energy and fun of swinging London in the 1960s and as a successful designer and businesswoman, with a keen eye for promotion and the creation of a distinct corporate identity, she continually responded to and reflected the zeitgeist. She herself was the greatest ambassador for her brand, with her chic Vidal Sassoon haircut which matched the playful simplicity of her clothes.
The exhibition is organised chronolgically, beginning in post-war London and the opening in 1955 of Quant’s experimental shop Bazaar on the King’s Road. School girl pinafores and masculine tailoring, wittily “repurposed” for the female body, brought an entertaining and playful slant to fashion, at a time when dreary wartime utility clothing and clothes rationing were an all too recent memory. From these modest beginnings, Quant’s empire grew quickly into a wholesale brand available in department stores across the UK – the antithesis of couture and the beginning of mass-market fashion. With the widening of her empire into the US market, Quant’s clothing was accessible to a new generation of eager fashionistas.
In addition to the fashion displays, with many items drawn from the V&A’s own Mary Quant archive, there are photographs, films and other ephemera which set the clothing and the brand in context. Many of the outfits are displayed with a note about who owned and wore then, further connecting them to a real people rather than the couturier’s poker-faced mannequin. There are also displays of Quant’s make up range, with her iconic daisy logo, and the Daisy doll, her rival to Barbie, who wore doll-sized versions of some of Quant’s most recognisable clothes, from mini skirts and hot pants to baby doll dresses or full-length boho gowns.
It’s an enjoyable and uplifting show, and refreshing to note that few of the outfits on display appear dated; many of the shapes and styles, fabrics and tailoring are found in today’s fashion – especially fast-fashion – proof of both the enduring nature of “good” , democratic fashion, and Quant’s forward-looking artistic and business vision.
Until 16 February 2020, Victoria & Albert Museum, London