The 21st Century has seen fashion turn into a global commercial phenomenon. Thanks to the internet, we can buy anything we want at any moment and have it the next day. Perhaps due to this endless access, our attention spans have narrowed over time, one week we like a certain style, the next we want something different. This world of fast fashion is so different to the world that existed 20-30 years ago. Going back even further to the 1950’s, the landscape was significantly different. In post-war Britain, only the richest had access to quality clothing and style. There was a significant gap in the fashion market for someone to make Fashion available to the masses. Channelling the energy of the youth, Mary Quant emerged to bridge this gap and across her long-standing career brought style to homes across the world, no matter your class or income.
Quant, a pioneer of womenswear, currently has an exhibition on at the Victoria and Albert Museum which showcases her revolutionary impact on the fashion world. When Quant first entered the industry in the early 1950s Women’s fashion was based around their daily tasks. Within 10 years she had become a worldwide phenomenon and her new, free-thinking style of womenswear became the mark of the future.
Before visiting the exhibition my knowledge of Quant’s work was limited, I knew of her work around the Mod movement in the sixties, however, the curation of the showcase perfectly showed the breadth of her career. Laid out in a timeline the viewer is taken on a journey through her career, from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s where Quant’s gradual transformation of women’s fashion is visually portrayed. By the end of the exhibition I was quite shocked that one person could modernise and remove the shackles that allowed women to truly express themselves.
The museum advertises the show with the following quote by the designer;
“The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes to everyone”
A statement that reflects her work perfectly, as her work grew in popularity Quant realised that the only way to keep up with demand was by mass producing her products, an idea that hadn’t been practised before in the fashion industry. This was a way of getting her work out to everyone worldwide whilst keeping the cost affordable to consumers, in some ways this was the first step to the extreme consumer culture of the 21st Century.
Whilst exploring her work I really did wonder if Quant had any idea at the time of her work what kind of impact she would have in the future. For the first time there was a designer that looked at womenswear with the intention of being ‘sexy’, not in the sense of attracting men but for self-appreciation. It was this new-found sense of fashion being an extension of yourself, suddenly style had become important.
The exhibit beyond everything else displayed the courage of Quant to go against cultural expectations of her time. Her redesign of dresses to incorporate a shorter, above the knee style invoked huge criticism as this was not expected of women during this period. She took material that was commonly used in working men’s uniform and re designed them into dungarees and dresses, again controversial. She also first adopted the use of PVC within fashion in 1963 with her ‘wet’ collection; a range of raincoats made from the material. The design secured her first Vogue front cover in October of the same year. The experimental nature of the material showed Quant’s eye for the future.
Extraordinarily, despite her success Quant remained very grounded which made her appeal to the working class even more so. No one appreciates arrogance and by using tongue in cheek slogans and names of her products she created a persona that was fun and relatable. Naming products made from men’s uniforms ‘Bank of England’ and ‘Byron’ as a play on masculinity was a perfect example of eccentricity.
She also ventured into the toy industry, creating quirky fashionable characters that again appealed to the younger generation. Quant also had a vital impact on the make up industry, through her frustration at the lack of options available, she created palettes of varying colours which finally gave women a choice. I was fascinated by her use of advertising alongside her make up line, using slogan’s that had often been used against women such as “cry baby” when advertising waterproof mascara, she turned the hurtful comment on its head, laughing at societies stigmas in the process.
The V&A museum have done a great job of putting this exhibition together that truly reflects Quant’s masterful work. For one person to make such progress for women is remarkable to me, she harnessed the energy of the youth to quell stigma around feminine style. Her focus on clothing being ‘sexy’ also showed her passion for women to feel good in clothing and free to display whoever they wanted to be. If you’re someone that loves fashion then this exhibition is something you really don’t want to miss, luckily you have until February to see it.