Home Economics Mary Quant launched the clothes that rocked the 1960s

Mary Quant launched the clothes that rocked the 1960s

Mary Quant launched the clothes that rocked the 1960s

Tunics were at the back. Once you perused the immense Butterick pattern catalog, past pages of pastel A-line dresses or tight skirt suits, the look suddenly changed. It became rectangular, simple, sleek and very short, and if you were a teenager in the early 1960s, that’s what you wanted. Your parents would never buy you such clothes, but if you were determined, you would make them yourself. On the lounge floor you spread the cloth, a shock of scarlet, orange or electric blue, and in a few days you too would be wearing Mary Quant.

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Wearing it, over a turtleneck and contrasting tights (oh, what a joy to get rid of that clumsy suspender belt!), made you feel different. You weren’t your mother’s version anymore. You were modern. Especially if you’ve plastered your hair with spray, framed your eyes with kohl, and piled on the mascara. Tall boots, if you had them, completed the look. Now you could walk.

Mary Quant also spent hours pinning and cutting on the floor of her bedroom early in her career. She worked nights to replenish her first shop, Bazaar, on King’s Road in Chelsea with a bouillabaisse of racy clothes. By evening the rails would be nearly stripped and she hurried to Harrods to get fabrics for the next day. She made aprons from men’s suits, from tweed or gray flannel; striped shirt was cut into dresses. She wore culottes, knickerbockers and lounge pajamas and sported foot-wide waistbands, wide stripes and huge dots. Her best seller was a white plastic Peter Pan collar, to add understated girlishness to any dazzling ensemble.

She also sold miniskirts. They spread like wildfire, getting shorter and shorter as her leggy Chelsea clients demanded them. She designed them long before André Courrèges made them decent at his Paris show in 1964. They were not respectable with her. Unfortunately, they teased men, as did her long cardigans worn as very short dresses, and in 1966 her mini-pants hugging her crutches. Appalled City types in bowler hats passed Bazaar, with its open door blaring jazz and its display of frolicking mannequins, shouting “Disgusting!” as they banged their umbrellas on the glass.

But inside, widows competed with middle-class girls to buy Quant by the armful, and the haut monde of the day—Tony Armstrong-Jones, David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton, Brigitte Bardot, an odd Beatle or Rolling Stone—would come along to the running cocktail party. She was her own best advertisement, grumpy and frisky, especially when Vidal Sassoon, the hairdresser of the moment, cut her hair in a bob, and when Terence Donovan, the hot photographer, cut her hair (like here). She and her equally pioneering business partner husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, loved to hear people mock “God! Modern youth!”. Swinging London was their new world, and they dressed it up.

This was also serious business for her. She was shy, and always had been, but clothes allowed her to express herself. By the age of six, she was already making her own dresses from bedspreads. At school she changed her uniform. The Quant look came from a tap dancer in her childhood ballet class wearing a long black sweater, black tights, white socks, and no skirt worth mentioning; she always liked lean, vibrant black and white. At Goldsmiths College, she decided to ignore what was happening in Paris and make clothes solely for herself and her friends. In search of fashion, she was constantly looking for the next, best thing: a color or fabric that had been forgotten, a shirt that could be tied like a scarf, a natural pattern that she could blow up big. As she walked, she might have picked up a conker, leaves, a brass hook, bits of ribbon, and gauze from factory floors. Even a rubber doorstop would put her mind to work.

Fashion also gave her a living, surprisingly. Her parents, Welsh teachers who had moved to London, found it an unpredictable and unreliable business. Neither she nor Alexander had much idea of ​​money, and it was only his aristocratic income that enabled them to found Bazaar in 1955 with the help of another helpful friend, ex-attorney Archie McNair. But within ten days the original stock was sold out and in the first week the store made £500. Two more stores soon opened in London and in 1962 a deal was made with JC Penney to join 1,765 stores in America. By 1963, the Quant brand was global, with a turnover of £14 million; in 2000, her make-up arm was bought by a Japanese company, in a country where her look was also worshiped. Wisely, she started mass production and discounts early on. Talking about money embarrassed her, but she and Alexander — with no furniture except for a bed and recliners when they married in 1957 — had certainly risen quickly in the world.

That love affair, too, was made by fashion, when Alexander walked into Goldsmiths classes in his mother’s gold silk pajamas. For both, eccentric clothing was a powerful tool to get through life. It could be a disguise, and her range of cosmetics, with colors as vibrant as her clothes, were actually pots of theatrical paint made small for a handbag. Or it could be a bold announcement of things to come. When she founded Bazaar in a drab Britain, short of rationing, a place of bombings and pea soup fog, her store immediately looked vibrant, with music and colors that celebrated the world to come. Fashion changed first.

It also changed women once the new look took hold. Not only because they could imitate men in a playful way, by borrowing men’s clothes and their cardigans, but mainly because mini-dresses freed them to move. She designed them, she said, to live in. More importantly, high hemlines, paired with opaque tights, make girls run for the bus to go to work. You could never run to the bus in a Dior dress. In Quant, women felt they could leave home and take on another life.

But when people credited her with that revolution, she objected. Times came to a boil and she happened to be there to give women more of what they already wanted. Her clients were the real revolutionaries; she, and the teenage girls who cut out and embroidered her designs on the parlor floor across the country, eyes glittering, kohlom-rimmed, eager to step outside.

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