By Madeleine Mamak
The V&A in London has put on many exhibitions of stunning pieces and beautiful artwork, all of which include such vibrant, lively and glowing items. The Mary Quant exhibition was no exception.
As I entered the doors, I felt as though I was getting a one-off insight into the streets of London in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where women were becoming more and more adventurous in the ways they expressed themselves. Don’t underestimate the power of design; Quant was not only designing clothes, but was establishing an outlet for young women to thrive and flourish in style. The more I read about Quant’s journey and the impact of her designs, the more it becomes clear: Quant’s ideas are still very much relevant today, and this was showcased so perfectly through the two-tiered gallery of garments.
The exhibition included 200 stunning items. Some of them never before seen, and I felt lucky to be able to watch the unravelling of a fashion revolution all in one room. The sketches on show were taken from Quant’s own personal archive. It was amazing to get an insight into how her mind worked, and how her fashion and ideas had evolved throughout her time.
Mary Quant was only young as she ventured into the realm of fashion design. Her age and brand went hand in hand, focussing on clothing which was affordable and appealing to the younger generation. She didn’t want to be elitist and exclusive; she wanted to be inclusive, standing for the kind of woman that she represented. Before Quant, young women blended in with their middle-aged mothers and aunts. No stylistic distinction was made. Girls went from children to adults with no opportunity for expression in their transition. Quant changed this. Quant allowed young women and adolescents to thrive, exploring their individuality.
The V&A exhibition epitomised this spirited outlook on fashion design. This was shown through the mini skirts on display of which Mary Quant championed the rise of, as well as hot pants. I particularly liked the pinafore style mini skirts, both plain and pinstripe. To me, these pieces emanated female empowerment. Styled with vibrant coloured tights, her skirts were mini but mighty.
I felt as though the exhibition was particularly meaningful as thirty-five of the items were donated from women’s wardrobes following the hashtag #WEWANTQUANT. These women volunteered to have their clothes displayed to exhibition visitors. This evidences how Quant influenced the style of so many and to such a degree, so much so that her designs are still being treasured today. The V&A also displayed statements from women who wore the clothes, which further added a personal touch to the garments themselves. It highlighted how important Quant’s impact was on the people that wore her clothes. This was especially significant, as Quant recognised that the customers were just as important as the pieces themselves. The young women who wore the clothes were walking ambassadors. Quant herself said that she did not invent the miniskirts, the girls that wore them did.
The V&A perfectly displayed how Quant built an empire. Walking through the room we explored the slideshows, posters, videos and behind the scenes photographs. These showed how Quant was not just a fashion designer, but a talented businesswoman. Quant saw power in claiming femininity and taking pride in caring about your aesthetic proving that you can be a businesswoman in a mini skirt and still secure the respect you rightly deserve. She was the face of her brand, and it was this element which allowed the business to thrive. Quant’s business minded approach was what led to her putting her designs in shop windows. She later went into the business with her husband, highlighting how she represents another layer of female empowerment; being able to work with a man who recognised her talent and was proud to assist her.
Quant’s designs appeared to be the antithesis to blending in. The bright, block colours of her clothes and posters made the exhibition room come to life. This can certainly be seen with her best selling products, which included a white plastic collar designed to brighten up any outfit.
My personal favourite items in the exhibition included platform mules, a halter neck monochrome maxi dress from 1970, and the circular sunglasses. (pictured below).
One element that I found really interesting were the dolls that were dotted around the exhibition room. These are Quant’s ‘Daisy Dolls’ and were designed for younger girls, with collectable items which mimicked Quant’s own designs. Girls could dress their dolls in these many, intricate outfits - mixing and matching looks which resonated with them. My mum, who visited the exhibition with me, recounted how she used to own some of these dolls and would dress them up. Thus emphasising the real-life impact that Quant had when it came to helping young women express themselves.
Walking down the iconic Kings Road later in the day, I came across a plaque above Joe & The Juice marking Mary Quant’s former shop. This showed the extent to which her mark has been made on fashion and wider society. She influenced not only fashion in terms of its aesthetics, but fashion in terms of its power.
I certainly left feeling inspired after seeing Mary Quant’s entire vision manifested under one roof. And although I was not around when Quant was designing, even in this day and age the clothes resonate with me and I can recognise their importance and place in today’s society. The V&A successfully showcased how Quant’s risks within fashion paid off and it’s evident that the message she wanted to present to young women is still very much alive today.