Mary Quant brought fun to fashion during the postwar era, a time when clothing rationing had just ended and Christian Dior was strangling women’s waistlines. Quant’s shop Bazaar was the headquarters of the Swinging Sixties, where one could buy miniskirts, neon tights, and psychedelic blouses. She wanted women to have fun again; her miniskirts liberated legs and allowed for dancing and her waterproof mascara held up in a walk through the rain. The V&A’s retrospective of Quant’s work takes viewers chronologically through her career, starting with her unassuming, yet innovative designs of the late 1950s and ending with a showcase of her global brand which produced cosmetics, lingerie, accessories. Although somewhat lacking in imagination, the exhibition proves that Quant’s designs allowed all kinds of women, not just wealthy ones, to incorporate imaginative designs into their wardrobes.
When you enter the exhibition, it’s not a blatantly colorful exhibition about the 1960s mod culture, but it is rather a slow burn that lingers on Quant’s somewhat conservative early designs. Meandering through a display of glass cases, we see that Quant slowly deconstructed fashion rules that existed in the 1950s. Quant did this carefully, as innocent wool pinafores and thick coat jackets with bright patterns dominate the first half of the exhibition. She started to create revolutionary designs by incorporating masculine traits into her fashions. Her use of ties and more shockingly trousers, are a signal of her journey into a completely new style.
The second floor more clearly conveys the fun and light-heartedness one might expect of Quant’s mod designs. Set in a brightly-lit, white arena, Quant’s brightly colored designs pop and are strikingly contemporary. Glittering tartans, pinstriped raincoats, and crocheted frocks prove not only Quant’s talent in working with many fabrics and techniques, but also her seemingly endless creativity. I found myself making a mental-shopping list of what items I would happily wear on a daily basis (a pink sailor dress and monochrome PVC clutch, please). I could hear people of all ages around me doing something similar, proving Quant’s ability to make her clothes universally attractive by combining comfortability and bold patterns.
There is a clear attempt throughout the show to breathe life into these clothes, many of which are paralyzed by rigid mannequins. The majority of outfits had an accompanying text panel that explained who owned the garment, why they chose it, and how they wore it. There were also numerous photographs behind the outfits, showing how models or regular women moved and posed in Quant’s clothes. These curatorial efforts suggest that these clothes were not designed to be shown on stiff mannequins, but were designed for walking, skipping, and dancing. Some mannequins strike outlandish poses, but there is an overall dullness that hangs over the exhibition, particularly on the dimly-lit first floor of the two-story exhibition. Quant’s shop Bazaar on King’s Road was known for creating psychedelic, dreamlike tableaus, but this kind of eccentric experimentation and creativity seems absent from the exhibition design. Perhaps I was too optimistic in hoping to see a recreation of one these infamous store front designs behind one of the many glass cases.
The focus on the exhibition is not an experiential recreation of the quirkiness of the 1960s, but a focus on how actual women wore Quant’s designs. At the center of the upstairs display is a giant rounded screen that scrolls through pictures from the 1960s and 1970s of women wearing Quant’s designs. Quotes from these women describe how they wore their Quant pieces and how much they treasure them. In fact, a large portion of clothes in the exhibition were collected from regular women all over the world. The home photos show mothers, working women, brides, and young girls wearing Quant’s clothes and giving them life. This curatorial decision embraces the sacred relationship between designer and customer with the clothing as a bridge between them. Ultimately, this show is really about how Quant democratized the postwar London fashion scene, allowing middle-class women to take part in the exciting and eccentric innovations of mod culture.