Mary Quant retrospective at the V&A

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.

Mary Quant at her apartment in Draycott Place, Chelsea, London, about 1965. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

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.

Three patterned ensembles, Mary Quant, 1964 – 1971, London ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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

Further information


The Kahlo Cult: ‘Frida Kahlo – Making Herself Up’ at the V&A

That the V&A’s Frida Kahlo exhibition is fully booked until the end of August says a lot about her iconic status today – and it’s not her paintings that people flock to see but the “iconography” of Frida: her clothes, her painted plaster corsets, her jewellery and her ephemera. Her striking countenance with its distinctive “mono brow” is as recognisable today as the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

She was of course a remarkable woman. Strong and courageous, passionate, independent and talented, she refused to allow her physical limitations and disabilities – the result of childhood polio compounded by a horrific road accident when she was a young woman – hold her back. She started painting, from her bed, when she was recuperating from the accident and continued to paint throughout her life. Her art is honest, sometimes painfully so, compelling, vibrant and defiant. She celebrates Mexico’s culture and landscape in her paintings and uses the self-portrait to comment on her personal situation – emotionally and physically. She was married to A Great Artist, Diego Rivera, living in a house which enabled them to work in their own personal creative spaces and yet come together for all the little rituals of daily life and love, and she sought to create her own artistic identity that was separate from Rivera’s. Today she is better known than he is as an artist – and more highly revered.

The V&A’s exhibition seeks to celebrate the life of Frida Kahlo through a remarkable collection of personal artefacts, intimate belongings and clothing. Locked away for 50 years after her death, on her instructions, this collection has never before been exhibited outside Mexico. There is very little art in this show – only a handful of paintings and drawings which are directly related to the artefacts on display. This exhibition is about Frida the woman rather than Frida the artist and her remarkable creativity feels sidelined.

Photographs line the walls of the exhibition, including the beautiful iconic portraits of Frida by Nicholas Murray (with whom she had an affair) and Imogen Cunningham, which now grace tote bags and scarves galore in gallery gift shops and beyond, while the rest of the exhibition space is taken up with glass cabinets of Frida’s possessions. There is a touching display of her make up and perfume bottles, but I could have done without another cabinet full of empty medicine phials and details of the drugs she took for pain relief. In another her prosthetic leg is displayed with all the reverence of a holy relic – and her plaster corsets and body braces, which she had to wear to support her fragile spine, are given equal veneration, almost ghoulishly so. Visitors crowd around these highly intimate items, speaking in hushed tones…

The highlight of the exhibition is the display of her colourful clothes. She favoured the traditional clothing of the indigenous people of Mexico, in particular the long flounced dresses of the Tehuana women. This was not because she was making some kind of deliberate Grayson Perry type statement about her identity (as suggested by the exhibition’s tag line – “Making Herself Up“), but for more practical and prosaic reasons: the long, flounced skirts covered her legs, one of which was thinner than the other due to polio, and could be worn comfortably when she was forced to use a wheelchair; while the square-cut tunic (Huipil) fit loosely over the special orthopaedic corsets and back braces she had to wear.

Throughout her life, Frida Kahlo wanted to be recognised as an artist in her own right, not as the wife of Diego Rivera. She did not seek to create her own personal “brand” or iconography through her clothes, shawls, jewellery and hair decorations; nor did she capitalise on her suffering to draw attention to herself and her art. Yet the V&A exhibition dwells inordinately on her pain, including the use of a strange febrile soundtrack – a claustrophobic, migraine inducing single-note hum – which plays continuously throughout the galleries (must everything be accompanied by a soundtrack these days?). With her art relegated to second place, this exhibition presents Frida Kahlo as fashion icon first and foremost, and as such I found it cultish and subjective.

Needless to say, the exhibition gift shop is stuffed with Frida memorabilia and spin offs, from tasseled earrings to tin votives, and more…. The cult status of Frida shows no sign of diminishing.


Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 4 November 2018.


(Header image: Frida Kahlo photographed by Nicholas Murray)

Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains – an immersive audio-visual experience

If an exhibition can illicit a Proustian Rush then the new homage to the legendary rock band Pink Floyd at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum did it for me. The opening bars of Wish You Were Here, a simple guitar riff, were enough to send me right back to my black beret-wearing teens, lying on my bedroom floor immersed in the Floyd’s long-form tracks.

Immersion is what this new exhibition is all about – visual and aural immersion. Strip away all the carefully-designed AV tech and you have a simple, but vibrantly-designed walk-through of the history of Pink Floyd, one of the most iconic prog rock bands of the twentieth century, from their beginnings in Cambridge in the mid-60s to their last ever live performance (presented as a completely immersive audio-visual experience using Sennheiser’s ground-breaking AMBEO 3D audio tech). It’s a straightforward chronology presented through album covers, notebooks of lyrics, scores, sketches, gig posters, handbills and all the other myriad ephemera (some never before displayed) of a band whose creativity was in a constant state of flux – and made them all the better for it. In addition, there is a whole room devoted to the band’s instruments and technology, heaven for the rock tech geek and a reminder of how their pioneering use of technology in the 1970s and 80s shaped Pink Floyd’s distinctive sound as much as their musical vision. There’s a mini Moog synthesiser and a veritable treasure trove of effects pedals, hand-painted drum heads, echo chambers (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) and much more. It’s all beautifully, thoughtfully laid out, with mirror floors, light shows and even a hologram of the iconic Dark Side of the Moon album artwork – but it’s also very dark, so watch your step as you walk around…..

Album artwork for ‘Animals’

Later on, recreations of The Wall and Battersea Power Station (which features on the album cover of ‘Animals’) and giant custom-made props (built by Stufish) from the stage shows of The Wall and later albums illustrate the band’s use of dramatic visual imagery to create their grandiose, uber-theatrical live concerts which were the epitome of “stadium rock”. The work of the many engineers, producers, designers, architects and artists who worked alongside the band are celebrated in drawings, blueprints, notebooks and video interviews (including one with Gerald Scarfe who drew the illustrations for The Wall’s album artwork and the subsequent film of the album).

If you, like me, felt the band was never the same after Roger Waters left (after The Final Cut album of 1983), there is plenty to engage the visitor in the early part of the exhibition. In fact, this is probably the best part and the very earliest displays focus on Syd Barrett’s unique contribution to the band’s original artistic vision and earliest songs (whose lyrics were drawn from children’s literature, fantasy and folk lore). In the 1970s, the band became more preoccupied with the larger exigencies of human existence – politics, conservation, capitalism and the oppressive class structures in Britain at the time – and the exhibition explores how the political and musical landscape of Britain changed, heralding the emergence of Punk, on first sight the polar opposite of Pink Floyd’s conceptual, complex music created by “filthy rich, tastefully bearded” educated people. Yet the two genres had more in common than first appearances as both railed against an increasingly divided class system in Britain and beyond.

The band members remained largely enigmatic, hidden from the public gaze unlike their near contemporaries The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, and today the remaining band members, such as lead guitarist David Gilmour, live in comfortable secluded retirement in the home counties. The exhibition reflects this – only the first room which focuses on the contribution of Syd Barrett offers a real sense of a personality behind the music and the lyrics. Barrett’s absence – he left the band after a disagreement about their creative direction and with concerns about his increasingly erratic, drug-fuelled behaviour – was sorely felt and later albums, most notably ‘Wish You Were Here’ pay tribute to his role in shaping the band.

The early rooms are all psychedelic swirls and trippy lighting effects, while the latter part of the exhibition attempts to convey the vast scale and drama of the band’s live shows. It’s pretty convincing and all fabulously, beautifully presented. But don’t forget to pick up your special audio headset on arrival – without it, the exhibition can seem rather lacking, despite the fancy lighting effects, groovy artwork and giant models. Only the last room, the band’s valedictory performance of Comfortably Numb (from ‘The Wall’) in 2005, delivered in extraordinary Sennheiser surround sound, can be experienced without the special audio headset – and what a room it is. It’s incredible, placing you right in the centre of a truly great piece of music, replete with stunning light shows. Wish You Were Here? Well, get yourself to the exhibition which runs until early October 2017.

It was my loss to view the exhibition first without the interactive headset. I refused it initially because I thought it would be a straightforward audio guide, something I usually find very distracting when most exhibitions are all about visual impact. But you really do need it: thanks to Sennheiser’s bluetooth technology, you are treated to a stunning, ever-changing soundtrack as you move around the exhibition, with songs interspersed with interviews with band members, and many others who contributed to the creation and appreciation of Pink Floyd the legend.

The exhibition marks 50 years since the 1967 release of their first album ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ and debut single Arnold Layne, and is co-curated by Victoria Broackes, who was also responsible for last year’s So You Want A Revolution? and the exceptional David Bowie exhibition.

I cannot claim to be an avid Pink Floyd fan. I liked their music – especially the long-form nature of it and its preocccupation with more profound or philosophical topics, rather than the usual love songs of pop – and I still hold that Wish You Were Here is the best thing they did, but I really enjoyed the exhibition, not least for the rush of nostalgia it provoked. It will appeal to hard-core Floyd fans and the culturally curious. My hip-hop loving son might even go and see it……


The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains, 13 May – 1 October 2017

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

FW (reviewed 9 May 2017)