Reviews, News and Commentary

Mary Quant: The designer who changed fashion

Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2021.

Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary

Auckland Art Gallery

Until March 13, 2022

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

British fashion designer Mary Quant was at the centre of the Swinging Sixties, one of the most important eras in fashion history. It was a time of culture change and revolution in fashion, the arts, lifestyles, politics and women’s rights.

The new exhibition  “Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary” which has opened at the Auckland Art Gallery takes the viewer back to those times making them aware of the changes. The show brings together over 120 garments as well as accessories, cosmetics, sketches and photographs.

Mary Quant is credited with democratising fashion. Her distinctive PVC raincoats, alligator printed capes, colourful woollen jerseys and mini-dresses in colours such as “ginger”, “putty” and “bright apple green” brought flair initially to London and then  to the  world. She helped change the way that people felt about clothing from being purely utilitarian to be being expressive. Working women at the time  turned to a much more relaxed and easily accessible way of dressing. As she said  “Fashion is not frivolous. It is part of being alive today”

Quant’s use of colour, innovative fabrics and daring designs became not only her trademark, but also that of the era as well. Her designs played with scale and proportion and she  drew inspiration from previous styles, designing garments that replicated Victorian undergarments, the striped cotton drill of butcher’s aprons and she used the pinstriped materials of men’s traditional fashion and ties to create chic dresses. There are also examples of witty clothing such as the PVC raincoat secured with an outsized safety pin.

Her interest in ideas and cultures can be sensed in photographs of her in her home/studio where she is surrounded by an eclectic mix of classical and contemporary items and in the sequence where we see her drawing, she could be designing a dress, a piece of sculpture or a building.

In this openness to new ideas, she was one of the threads of the changing culture in Britain at the time with the transformation of the music industry led by The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones.

The art of the time was also changing with the work of  Bridget Riley, David Hockney and the sculptor Anthony Caro looking at new techniques, exploring new shapes and playing with colour.

The “Topless”

One of the interesting pictures in the exhibition shows Alison Smithson who bought a Quant “Topless”  dress in  1964. Smithson and her husband Peter were innovative architects of the period who helped democratise  architecture with their social housing projects designed with a utilitarian aesthetic – low cost, and easily available materials featuring geometric shapes, dramatic contrasts and exposed construction elements. The “Topless”  is an ingeniously structured minimalist pinafore made of jute, an appropriate garb for a radical architect which refers to the sculpted designs of the architect Eero Saarinen.

Architects in the twentieth century often used the mantra of form follow function and that is also something that can be applied to Quant’s designs with her clothes expressesing the structural elements as part of their design

Then there was Terence Conran who established British furniture retail chain Habitat in the 1960s, which popularising modern continental European design in the UK, including the first  flatpack furniture.

There are many aspects of Quant’s designs which have links to the designs and architecture of the period. Even Quant’s bobbed hairstyle is structurally simple compared with many other hairstyles of the period.

While she may not have invented the mini skirt she developed and embraced  it making it one of the most important fashion items of the twentieth century. and has remained a constant in fashion in one way or another every decade since.

Quant was not always the great fashion entrepreneur and when she first started, she was working hand to mouth selling her clothes during the day and using the profits to buy materials to make new clothes at night. Her shop Bazaar was also a totally different experience featuring loud music, free drinks and late opening hours. something that attracted many of the ‘Chelsea Set’ during the sixties.

While cloth, texture, colour and contrast were a major part of her designs she also used the body itself so arms, shoulders, necks backs and legs become part of the Quant look.

The exhibition was made possible through having  access to Dame Mary Quant’s Archive, as well as drawing on the Victoria and Albert’s extensive fashion holdings, which include the largest public collection of Quant garments in the world.


By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

One reply on “Mary Quant: The designer who changed fashion”

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