If the Beatles created the soundtrack to the Swinging Sixties, then Mary Quant designed its look. She was at the vanguard of a shift in fashion in the late 1950s and 1960s that placed youth centre stage, appealing to a generation of young working women with disposable income to spend on clothing.
Quant’s approach challenged social conventions, broke down social barriers – duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dress – and underscored a new youthful freedom. For the first time in history, young women had a true alternative to dressing like their mums, and a wardrobe that signalled liberation.
Sex, the pill, and rock and roll
Quant is perhaps incorrectly credited with inventing ‘the Mini Skirt’, the most era-defining look of the 1960s. André Courrèges featured short skirts in his couture collection in 1964, and others created them too. But then, as Quant said in her autobiography, “It was the girls on King’s Road [London] who invented the mini.”
Her garment was named after another British classic, the Mini car, heralding and reflecting cultural changes brought about by the feminist movement and other civil rights uprisings. It captured the spirit of an age that encompassed the emancipation of women, the birth control pill, rock and roll, and women taking greater control of their careers and lives.
Mary Quant was born on 11 February 1930 in Blackheath, London, the daughter of Jack Quant and Mildred Jones. Both came from Welsh mining families, her mother from Kidwelly and her father from Merthyr Tydfil. They grew up within the hardship and privation of mining communities but broke this cycle through scholarship.
Succeeding at their grammar schools and at Cardiff University, both gained first-class degrees. They moved to London to work as teachers, but Quant never forgot their Welsh roots, and spent childhood summer holidays with her aunt in Wales. She and her younger brother Tony would catch mackerel in a boat and cook them on board. Auntie Frances, a spiritualist and medium, predicted that Quant would design clothes, influence people, travel the world, “and end up colossally rich”.
“As far back as I can remember, I loved sewing. And I was always tremendously interested in what people wore.”
Stitches and strife
Quant learned to sew as a young girl, for economy, but sewing held greater significance for her. There was a seminal moment when the inimitable Quant style came into being. She saw another child, around eight or nine like her, at a tap-dancing class. “A girl with bobbed hair (with the sort of fringe later favoured by Vidal Sassoon), wearing a black skinny-rib sweater, a short black pleated skirt, long black tights and white ankle socks, and black patent ankle strap.”
When world war arrived again, the Quant children were evacuated to Kent then to Wales, where her parents helped coordinate evacuations. Later returning to London, and upon Mary leaving school, they were reluctant to let her study fashion. But they allowed her to take an illustration course at Goldsmiths. There she met Alexander Plunket Greene, who would become her business partner and husband. They had one son, Orlando, and a turbulent relationship, until his death in 1990.
“Life … began for me when I first saw Plunket,” she wrote. He strolled around long-haired in his mother’s pyjama top, a man about town and, in Quant’s words, “a hell of a womaniser”. Living in Chelsea, alone in a squalidly maintained house as his mother was convalescing in the countryside, he played jazz on a trumpet and put on the “wildest parties”.
It was an awakening for Quant, this stark contrast to her family’s lives. “I realised that there are people who give their lives to the pursuit of pleasure and indulgence of every kind in preference to work.” Her changed lifestyle impacted on her relationships with her parents. When she graduated from Goldsmiths in 1953, without an Art Teachers’ Diploma, she was determined never to become a teacher like her parents. Endless rows ensued until she left home.
Her first job was trainee assistant at Mayfair milliners Erik Braagaard. Plunket also left Goldsmiths, and toyed with a job in photography before working at Selfridges department store. They were tough times with very little money, and what little they had was poorly budgeted.
“There was never any money for food, and I spent nothing on clothes. I made all those myself,” Quant said. If not for the kindness of Jamaican people working in the kitchens of Claridge’s Hotel next door to Braagaard’s, who gave her leftovers, she might have starved. “It was terribly up or down. I was eating things like caviar and lobster or else nothing at all.”
Creating hats was Quant’s first introduction to fashion. The training she received in sculpture moulding influenced her approach to garment design. She decided to extend her skills at night school, learning dress-pattern cutting and how to put outfits together. She briefly worked for the Butterick pattern company.
Everything changed on Plunket’s 21st birthday, when he inherited £5,000. With financial advice from Archie McNair, later a partner, they took a property on the corner of Markham Street and King’s Road in Chelsea. Plunket wanted to open a nightclub in the basement but failed to get an alcohol licence, so they opened Alexander Restaurant, a bistro using Elizabeth David recipes.
Quant launched her shop Bazaar on the ground floor in 1955. It became a social meeting point, with music, and wine or scotch kept under the counter. Girls shed their garments onto the floor and opening times depended on whether the boutique had any stock. “The whole 1960s thing was a ten-year running party, which was lovely. It started at the end of the 1950s and sort of faded a bit when it became muddled with flower power. It was marvellous.”
Young and bright and full of fun
At first Quant stocked Bazaar with clothing sourced from wholesalers, but soon switched to her own designs. She bought fabric from Harrods and had to sell existing stock before she could buy new materials. “[C]ity gents were still carrying tightly furled umbrellas and wearing bowler hats. It was into this world that I launched my new ideas about fashion.” She didn’t “wait for couturiers to imitate what rich people wore in Paris”, but followed her own instincts.
A second Bazaar was opened in Knightsbridge in 1957. Quant’s designs were young and bright and full of fun. She was a walking advertisement for her own brand, her hair in an angular bob created by the equally era-defining Vidal Sassoon. It became known by the Chelsea set – young artists, dancers, photographers, and models – as the ‘dolly bird look’.
Quant’s innovations weren’t limited to the Mini. She created sleeveless shift dresses, shiny PVC raincoats, skinny rib jumpers, and brightly coloured tights. “I was making clothes which let you run for the bus and dance.” She entered mass-market fashion under the brand Ginger Group in 1961, and advised US retail giant JC Penney. A decade after the first Bazaar opened, Quant had become a global brand. By 1967, seven million women worldwide had Quant labels in their wardrobes.
Her daisy print was instantly recognisable, and adorned hot pants and other clothes made popular by models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Mary Quant cosmetics arrived in 1966, the same year she was awarded an OBE. She’d noticed how professional models painted their faces like canvasses, using brushes and theatrical grease paints. She commercialised this, and developed the first waterproof mascara.
The reach of the Quant look extended further in the 1970s. She embraced colour-coordinated bed linens, wallpaper, carpets, men’s ties, and even children’s fashion.
Her first retrospective exhibition, ‘Mary Quant’s London’, opened in 1973. What was most riveting about it was the inclusion of an austere 1950s ‘Gloom Room’. People could truly appreciate Quant’s revolutionary approach and innovative contributions to fashion, the use of colour, and the zeitgeist.
Quant resigned as a director of the company in 2000. She lost control of her name but stayed on as a consultant. In 2015 she was made a Dame and Companion of Honour, alongside many other honours.
When the V&A held a lifetime retrospective of her work, they asked the public to loan Quant clothes they’d kept. The response was overwhelming. The clothes and photographs it received told the stories of many who’d been part of the Swinging Sixties, and a fashion revolution pioneered by Quant that made modern style accessible and affordable to young women everywhere.
Dame Barbara Mary Quant died on 13 April this year at the age of 93. As the fashion journalist Ernestine Carter wrote: “It is given to a fortunate few to be born at the right time, in the right place, with the right talents. In recent fashion there are three: Chanel, Dior, and Mary Quant.”