SEX AND THE SWINGING CITY
How Mother of the Miniskirt Mary Quant Changed the World
From a single boutique to a world style, one woman shook up her own country and then built an empire.
LONDON—She threw out everything that was chaste in a woman’s wardrobe. She raised hemlines above the knee and so created the miniskirt. More than any other fashion designer before or since, she caught the zeitgeist of her time, and of her country as it threw out the constraints of the past.
Finally, Mary Quant is getting the accolade her life merits, in a scintillating show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a temple of good taste as perceived, collected and exhibited in works dating from ancient Greece to the present.
Quant came softly into American awareness with a story in Life magazine in December, 1960, headlined “A British Couple’s Kooky Styles”. The headline itself is loaded with the contradiction, to American eyes of the time, that anything “kooky” might emanate from a realm so uptight as Britain.
The photographer carefully places a frisky, skipping Quant in Park Avenue with a backdrop of Lever House, itself a revolutionary architectural force. She wears a two-piece suit in the bright yellow and red MacLeod tartan with a hemline just floating above the knee. Unremarkable now, it signaled real cheek then, when most American skirts fell to mid-calf.
Many things sometimes conspire to create the tone of an age and this was true of the ’60s, ranging from the “can-do” technical hubris of the moonshot to the surrender of the Hollywood studio system to a generation of radical movie directors. But at street level, and particularly in the lives of women, the agitation for independence and liberation came to be expressed as much in wardrobe as in rhetoric.
Quant instinctively picked up on this in a way that no other designer had. From a small boutique in London’s Chelsea she grew to be a truly seismic challenge to the whole fashion industry and specifically to the French idea of “couture” as the arbiter of how “well-bred” women should conform to the male idea of elegance. For one thing, Quant’s models were brazenly sexy as she bared legs and limbs and, by doing so, released an athletic energy.
From my perspective as an editor in 1960s London, first at a newspaper and then of magazines, there was barely a strand of the city’s creative life that did not reflect the sudden influence of a new wave of artists and designers like Quant. This broader context does not really get traced in the V&A show.
Quant was part of a generation of visually talented Brits who benefited from the democratization of the entry system of the best London art colleges as part of a more general opening up of educational opportunities. Along with other contemporary art college graduates like David Hockney and Ridley Scott, she was able to assert a highly personal and transformative influence on her chosen field.
And in a strange way all the visual arts–painting, movies, fashion, graphics, photography–were interwoven into a radical new revision of British style that was set to the music of an equally insolent new British music. It’s not an accident that an early group portrait of the Rolling Stones features a “bird” in a slinky sheath shaped by Quant.
However, it would be misleading to see Quant as an avatar of a risen working class. Her parents were middle-class meritocrats from Wales, both school teachers devoted to their work who instilled a similar work ethic in her. And her career might never have taken off without the suave young toff from a world of privilege she married, Alexander Plunket Greene, who had a flair for publicity and moved in a flash social set with the connections to help create a buzz. They included the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones and his new wife, Princess Margaret, who were real swingers.
Plunket Greene’s genius was to see his wife not just as a gifted designer but as a brand—she physically embodied his idea of a new British woman as precisely as Roger Vadim had crafted Brigitte Bardot to be French cinema’s idea of the new impishly nubile French woman. But where Bardot was a well-endowed, pouty seductress there was more than a whiff of the androgynous in Quant, and especially in the models chosen to wear her clothes, a line of willowy beauties that ended in the most androgynous of them all, a fragile-looking waif who went by the name of Twiggy.
The trademark Quant face was framed in the trademark Quant hair style, closely cropped in the shape of an inverted bowl by the young London hairdresser who himself became a world brand, Vidal Sassoon. It was as though women’s heads had suddenly become streamlined, the hair almost seeming like a helmet shorn of all the bird’s nest confections of the 1950s—a sort of purity that was echoed by the Beatles in their own branding that was deliberately counter to the wild, leonine locks of the Rolling Stones.
The Quant effect was not only cultural but geographical: Bazaar, her first boutique, opened in 1960 in the King’s Road, Chelsea. Until that point Chelsea generated little tourist traffic. It was mostly a mix of working and middle class homes with a small bohemian enclave of artists and writers.
Largely as a result of Quant, the King’s Road became the coolest street in the Swinging London of the 1960s. Coffee bars, Italian restaurants and bistros were part of a British passeggiata where any young woman not in a miniskirt felt out of place. For visitors this long street presented an astonishing carnival, and particularly a rejection of the European view of British women’s fashion as something confined to conservative tweeds and flowery hats.
One of the smartest of Plunket Greene’s promotional ideas was to pose the saucy Quant models alongside groups that symbolized rigid British customs—for example, and much to their annoyance, soldiers in the rigid and unsmiling duty of guarding royal palaces.
In America the first people to spot the Quant phenomenon were the managers at the swank Fifth Avenue store Henri Bendel. It was Bendel’s decision to sell some of Quant’s designs that brought the spread in Life magazine.
But her real American break came from a very different kind of store: JC Penney. There a young sportswear buyer, Paul Young, who was a Brit, saw in Quant a chance to reboot the store’s conservative image.
In 1962 Young proposed a new youth fashion line called Chelsea Girl, and Quant was hired to design it. The British embassy in Washington recognized the value of this for selling British style in the U.S. and gave Quant a launch party. Quant was by nature shy and never comfortable living up to a public image as a Chelsea swinger but she consented to make personal appearances at Penney stores and the Chelsea Girl was a hit. The second collection was extended to 80 stores, and the deal with JC Penney lasted until 1971.
Her American experience transformed Quant and Plunket Greene’s business. They learned how to move from clothes designed for the limited demands of a boutique to mass production. They were also pathfinders of another trend, for department stores to introduce the work of young designers as a rejuvenating move for the whole store brand.
In fact, Quant’s name became a valuable ticket for any company with an interest in breaking into the young fashion market. An anachronism that jumps out from the V&A show is the wide use she made of synthetic fabrics.
Chemicals companies like DuPont in the U.S. and ICI in Britain that had pioneered the use of nylon, polyester, acrylic and spandex signed up Quant to use these “new miracle fabrics” that never wrinkled, were stain-resistant and light on laundering. Quant even came up with skirts in PVC that today look like cheap and nasty items from an S&M catalog, but were then regarded as extremely hip. In those days the makers of natural fabrics like wool and cotton had to fight a rearguard action against what were then believed to be the fabrics of the future.
A show with the dazzling impact achieved at the V&A can end up overstating the case for its subject. In truth, Quant was not the only breakaway fashion visionary of Swinging London. There were many others just as original. One who deserved at least a mention in this show but did not get it was Ossie Clark who, for a while, was known as the “King of the King’s Road.” Clark married Celia Birtwell, a textile designer and the two of them for a while were style rock stars, designing stage costumes for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and were the subjects of one of David Hockney’s greatest portraits, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.
But it was Quant who had the staying power because she had behind her shrewd business minds to sustain the brand well beyond the expected life cycle of a new wave in fashion. She did that by leaving behind the direct personal imprint on clothes and moving on into cosmetics, sunglasses and home furnishings, in effect industrializing her brand. When I reached the end of this show I had a sad sense that there were really two Mary Quants: the blazing talent that burst out of the King’s Road and the later business mogul who industrialized a 1960s design ethic and, in doing so, made it commonplace and, therefore, less exciting.
She is Dame Mary Quant now, anointed by the Queen in 2015 for services to British fashion. And it’s certainly true that she opened the path for British designers eventually to conquer even the French—like John Galliano, who headed both Givenchy and Christian Dior.
In 1966 Quant wrote: “Fashion is not frivolous; it is part of being alive today.” But by its very nature fashion is, of course, ephemeral and superficial. The bewitching surface of Swinging London was only surface. The King’s Road was not mainstream Britain—it wasn’t even mainstream London. The photographers and models who worked together to portray such a tempting visual coitus on the magazine pages and in the glossy ads were portraying a dream world. Some were themselves living the dream but millions in Britain were far from enjoying the same affluence.
By far the greatest agent for social change for women in 1960s Britain was the contraceptive pill. For the first time power was given to young women to decide with a high degree of independence and confidence between sex as pleasure and sex as procreation, a choice that remains today contested by men in many societies, including our own.
Other new British talents told a deeper story of the tensions of social disruption as the country changed its view of sex. For example, in movies the ravishing Julie Christie tries desperately to test sexual freedom within a background of domestic denial and repression in Darling; in Alfie Michael Caine plays the magnetic but careless philanderer encouraged by the sudden promise of the miniskirt.
But there’s nothing shocking about a miniskirt anymore. And, apparently as a result of the V&A show, hemlines in London have been visibly rising. The simple, clean Quant style has not dated much. It’s a global look now, and that is probably the greatest tribute that could be paid to it.