Review: Mary Quant at the V&A

This exhibition runs until February 2020 at the V&A in London for £12 (but £10 for student concessions).

Mary Quant is the pinnacle of 60s youth culture, revolutionising fashion and culture in a decade known for change. The V&A’s current exhibition honouring her both acts as a frozen capsule and transcends linear time. The exhibition’s historicism plays out through transporting you to her original BAZAAR shop in Knightsbridge, gazing into its shop window. The mannequins have playful poses, with some lying on the floor and jumping through the air, and hold eccentric props that Quant used herself – most notably a red lobster attached to a gold chain. This encouraged the exhibition’s engagement with visitors, replicating Quant’s vital and innovative interaction with the customer.

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The sense of community in this fashion revolution most vehemently appears through how around 30% of what is on show is from the general public. Through the successful social media campaign of #WeWantQuant, people who had kept garments for over half a century donated their prized possessions to the exhibition. The clothes weren’t then detached from their origins and placed on the cold shoulders of a mannequin though but instead were displayed alongside photographs and stories of the donators to celebrate how these women cherished and contributed to the fashion ‘youthquake’.

One of my particularly favourite pieces was a donated dress made as a result of Quant’s purchasable sewing patterns, costing little more than a copy of Vogue at the time, where customers could create their own Mary Quant garments with materials within their budget. This perfectly exemplified the accessibility so integral to the designer’s work ethic whereby, “The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone”. The exhibition resolutely communicates subtle reclamations of space and power for women over their bodies with Quant acting as an enabler, such as realising how the introduction of statement tights allowed for shorter skirts and that waterproof mascara could promote crying as an empowering rebranding of feminine hysteria.

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However, some of the exhibition’s interaction with politics seemed slightly absurd, namely when the sexual energy permitted through miniskirts seemed directly linked to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 through an accompanying display description. I would hesitate to give Quant that much credit, nevertheless, I would not deny the explicit politics in her work.

Politics weaves into such sections as the Ginger Group collection, boasting a political term for a pressure group and aiming to reach a wider clientele through separates that could be bought sporadically. Quant’s melding of menswear (pinstripes, trousers, dungarees) also disrupted social norms as many women were banned from wearing such outfits in formal settings such as restaurants. These pieces were also named with tongue-in-cheek nods to masculinity such as ‘Bank of England’ – ironic seeing as women couldn’t even open a bank account at the time without written permission from a male relative. How the exhibition handled this was admirable, creating displays that were stunning to see, but also educational in descriptions that added a fascinating layer of sociopolitical context.

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In short, Jenny Lister did an amazing job with curating. Details, such as the walls around the window displaying the PVC raincoats being made of the same material, and legs adorning sparkly stockings kicking up in the air in a lit-up cabinet, all made the experience so much more special. The exhibition’s multi-media choices only seemed right considering what was on display. Quant would host catwalks that obliterated the traditions of couture silently gliding down corridors, instead having models dance across stages to jazz music as they lifted their skirts to show the guests their pants. Exhibition visitors could then watch footage of these shows with isolated speakers to fully witness the movement and freedom that was so integral to Quant’s work.

The variety from plain glass cabinets also allowed for engagement with the woman herself, who was just as iconic as her designs. Visitors saw interviews with the legend projected onto the walls, talking about creating collections and how important youth culture and femininity were. This was something that merely whetted my appetite though, and sadly revealed a pitfall in the exhibition. The showcase stops abruptly during the 1970s and we’re left with no conclusion, what happened to Mary Quant next? She’s still alive now, but the exhibition fails to have a departing message. On the same note, while the displays rightly recognise the impact and legacy of her work, some opportunities for a richer understanding of the designer were left dormant.

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Details of Quant’s childhood during the Second World War would have added depth to the significance of her work later in life, as would illustrating the bohemian, eccentric, and outright camp relationship she had with her husband and business partner Alexander Plunket-Greene. The exhibition helped me to understand how her defining branding of a daisy represented playful youthfulness yet also sexuality and empowerment. However, I later learnt that the daisy was also significant in that, when she was young, Quant flippantly wished death upon a woman called Daisy with whom her boyfriend was having an affair. The next day Daisy dropped dead. This further enriches the emblem of the daisy in her work with layers of emotion and trauma that the exhibition ignored. I found out these facts for myself in her memoir, Quant by Quant which I devoured in two days. Understandably though, these gaps in the exhibition are inevitable when a card beside a mannequin can only tell so much of the woman with an iconic bob. Plus, I’m grateful that the V&A had left me wanting to find out even more about the designer long after I had left the museum.

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This is undeniably one of the greatest curated exhibitions I have been to. As my eyes widened at the sight of the Raspberry Ripple Coat and I awed at zipped pinafore dresses lined up on a clothing rail, all I wanted was to reach out and grab the garments, to wear one on the tube home and treasure it as the people who had donated the pieces did in the first place. That urge demonstrates how the V&A captured the ever-lasting legacy of Mary Quant so perfectly.

Charlotte ‘Fozz’ ForresterPrint Editor / Co-President

All images are the writer’s own originals.

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