Mary Quant: 'I dreaded having to be grown-up because it meant one was going to wear very inhibiting clothes'

Mary Quant
Mary Quant pictured at her home in 1965 Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

By Nicky Maitlis

“I didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib,” Dame Mary Quant said famously in 1973 about the way she revolutionised fashion for women. Her radical style was less about “the shock of the new”, and more about “the shock of the knee” according to a new retrospective, Mary Quant, which opens on Saturday at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Quant is now 89 and no longer gives interviews. But in 1991, I interviewed her at home in Surrey and was invited to stay on to lunch. We ate gravadlax, wonderful salads and baked potatoes, washed down with champagne and Chablis. Mary, defying convention as always, insisted that we ate on the terrace of her house wrapped up in blankets even though it was November. Her four and half year old Briard dog, Jellicoe, (named after Lord Jellicoe, a guest of honour one speech day at her son’s school) barked happily in the background. Dressed in her own-label jodhpurs, Equipment silk shirt and riding boots, Mary reminisced.

Perhaps best known for popularising the miniskirt (but not inventing it) she explained: “The British do have good legs, don’t they? I think it was the reason the miniskirt “took” so successfully.” Her refusal to dress like the older generation played a large part in her desire to change the status quo. “I didn’t like grown-ups’ clothes, and I dreaded having to be grown-up because it meant one was going to wear very inhibiting clothes! I liked short skirts and flatter shoes because I liked to be able to move fast, to dance and run!”

With the opening of her shop Bazaar in 1955 on the King’s Rd in Chelsea, Quant stocked a “bouillabaisse of clothes and accessories ...and peculiar odds and ends.” Women loved her clothes and they flew off the shelves. Caroline Hooper, who was a research scientist in the 1950s explains in the V&A Quant exhibition how one shop assistant at Bazaar complained she had only just finished dressing the window with the blouse that Hooper wanted to buy.

Mary Quant, pictured sitting on the floor, and models launching her footwear collection 'Quant Afoot' in 1967 Credit: PA

And this is what makes this retrospective at the V&A so appealing: the personal stories, photos and clothes from members of the public who responded to the V&A’s call out to the public in 2018 to track down rare Quant garments (#WeWantQuant). From 1000 responses the V&A received, 35 objects (out of the 120 garments) are now on display, alongside accompanying photos of the owners wearing the items and their reminiscences. A playsuit originally bought in Montreal, Canada, had been worn by two women in different cities and different decades: Brenda Lowe wore it first in the 1960s, then her niece wore it in the late 1980s.

Quant’s vision and her range is what is so admirable: with only basic dressmaking skills, supplemented by evening classes, she adapted Butterick paper dress patterns to her own designs. “From the beginning, what I wanted to do was not couture; I wanted to make for people things that were absolutely real for life, not for very one-off situations, which they could put together in various ways.”

Quant surrounded by sketches in 1965, wearing one of her miniskirts Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

She invented the skinny rib jumper and hot pants and anticipated the punk look by a decade with her giant safety pin belt fastening on her rainwear in 1965. She used historic textile prints in the 1960s and '70s such as William Morris’s “Marigold” furnishing fabric for a skirt and suit and a masculine pin stripe on a worsted pinafore dress which she named the “Alexander stripe” after her husband. “I’ve always enjoyed using men’s city suiting, herringbone, flannels and making them female and very sexy. I like that twist.”

Quant was taken aback when the American manufacturers caught up with her in the late 1950s. “I didn’t think about success. For me, making clothes was an obsession. I was outraged when they said 'we’ll take this back and mass produce it'. It wasn’t what I intended, I thought it was a small Chelsea thing.” This “small Chelsea thing” went on to make fashion history, not only defining a new approach to fashion but to life. With the launch in 1963 of Ginger, her ready-to-wear label, Quant made fashion more affordable and more accessible. Not only could women move more easily in Mary’s clothes but her long jersey dresses could take the wearer from work, out to dinner and then even on to a disco. “One never need turn anything down because one hasn’t got the right 'rig',”explained Mary. “It’s how women’s lives are.”

Quant, pictured with mannequins, in 1964 Credit: Rex

The V&A retrospective covers the years 1955-75, but Mary also spoke to me about the 1980s when clothes stayed black for a very long time. “I love wearing black, but I didn’t love everyone else wearing black!” She laughed. "After that, there was such a feeling for colour, it was pure daring.” Colours were Mary’s great passion and 28 years on, I have never forgotten her advice on that subject. I explained to her that however hard I tried, I could not wear mustard; it just didn’t suit me. She politely contradicted me: “It’s probably untrue to eliminate a whole colour from your wardrobe and say ‘that colour is never for me’. I feel I look ill if I wear certain sorts of grey. But I love wearing greenish greys. It’s all about the tone of that colour.”

Quant gets her iconic, signature haircut from famous hairdresser Vidal Sassoon Credit: Ronald Dumont/Getty Images

A trailblazer when it came to using new materials, Quant was the first designer to use PVC creating “wetlook” clothes. She loved using Lycra too. “With Lycra the fabrics I tried to get achieved in the '60s suddenly became very possible. I loved putting an element of a very new fibre into natural, delicious-to-look-at old fabrics to achieve several qualities at the same time – looking one thing and moving in another way, that was thrilling.”

Quant’s constant challenging of the norms (“Clash? Let’s try!”) and playful, inventive approach to fashion means she continues to be an icon for our times with her determination and refusal to be put off by the impossible. “Clothes are there to be enjoyed, they are fun. Then when you put them on, you always wear them as if they were old jeans and forget about them. That’s the style I like. Even if it’s evening dress and terribly formal, I think you wear it as though you’ve forgotten it."