Mary Quant, British Fashion Revolutionary, Dies At 93

By Penelope Green
New York Times
Mary Quant standing near her shop, Bazaar, in London. Photo / Getty Images

Known as the mother of the miniskirt, clad in her signature play clothes and boots, with huge painted eyes, fake freckles and a bob, she epitomised London’s Swinging Sixties.

Mary Quant, the British designer who revolutionised fashion and epitomised the style of the Swinging Sixties — a playful, youthful ethos

Known as the mother of the miniskirt, she was 93. Her family announced the death in a statement. England was emerging from its postwar privations when, in 1955, Quant and her aristocratic boyfriend, Alexander Plunket Greene, both just out of art school, opened a boutique called Bazaar on London’s King’s Road, in the heart of Chelsea.

Quant filled it with the outfits that she and her bohemian friends were wearing, “bouillabaisse of clothes and accessories,” as she wrote in an autobiography, Quant on Quant (1966) — short flared skirts and pinafores, knee socks and tights, funky jewellery and berets in all colours. Young women at the time were turning their backs on the corseted shapes of their mothers, with their nipped waists and ship’s-prow chests — the shape of Dior, which had dominated since 1947.

They disdained the uniform of the establishment — the signifiers of class and age telegraphed by the lacquered helmets of hair, the twin sets and heels, and the matchy-matchy accessories — the model for which was typically in her 30s, not a young gamine like Quant.

When she couldn’t find the pieces she wanted, Quant made them herself, buying fabric at retail from Harrods, the luxury department store, and stitching them in her bed-sit, where her siamese cats had a habit of eating the Butterick patterns she worked from.

Mary Quant Kangol beret advertisement, 1967. Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives. Photo / Supplied
Mary Quant Kangol beret advertisement, 1967. Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives. Photo / Supplied

Profits were elusive in those early years, but the boutique was a hit from the get-go, with young women stripping the place bare on a near-daily basis, sometimes grabbing new clothing from Quant’s arms as she headed into the store.

She and Plunket Greene ran it like the coffee bars they frequented: as a hangout and a party at all hours, with a background of jazz. And they made their window displays a performance, too, with mannequins designed by a friend to look like the young women who were shopping there — “the birds,” in Quant’s words, using the parlance of the times — figures with sharp cheekbones, mod haircuts and coltish legs, sometimes turned upside down or sprayed white, some with bald heads and round sunglasses, clad in striped bathing suits and strumming guitars.

Amateurs at accounting, along with everything else, the couple stashed their bills in piles, paying from the top down. Vendors were often paid twice, or not at all, depending on their place in the pile.

A decade later, Mary Quant was a global brand, with licenses all over the world — she was named an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1966 for her contribution to British exports — and sales that would soon reach $20 million.

When she toured the United States with a new collection, she was greeted like a fifth Beatle; at one point she required police protection. Newspapers eagerly printed her declarations: “Quant Expects Higher Hem,” The Associated Press declared in the winter of 1966, adding that Quant had “predicted today that the miniskirt was here to stay.”

There was a Mary Quant line at J.C. Penney and boutiques in New York department stores. There was Mary Quant makeup — for women and men — packaged in paint boxes, eyelashes you could buy by the yard, and lingerie, tights, shoes, outerwear and furs. By the 1970s, there were bedsheets, stationery, paint, housewares and a Mary Quant doll, Daisy, named for Quant’s signature daisy logo.

“The celebrity designer is an accepted part of the modern fashion system today, but Mary was rare in the 60s as a brand ambassador for her own clothes and brand,” Jenny Lister, a co-curator of a 2019 retrospective of Quant’s work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, told The New York Times. “She didn’t just sell quirky British cool; she actually was quirky British cool, and the ultimate Chelsea girl.”

“I grew up not wanting to grow up,” Quant once said. “Growing up seemed terrible. To me, it was awful. Children were free and sane, and grown-ups were hideous.”

Barbara Mary Quant was born on Feb. 11, 1930, in Blackheath, southeast London. Her parents, John and Mildred (Jones) Quant, were Welsh teachers who came from mining families and were determined that their two children, Mary and Tony, should follow conventional career paths. But Mary wanted to study fashion. When she received a scholarship to the arts-focused Goldsmiths College (now Goldsmiths, University of London), her parents made a compromise: She could attend if she took her degree in art education (she studied illustration).

Jenny Boyd, Sandy Moss and Sarah Dawson, before the Puritan Youthquake show, 1966. Photo / Mary Quant Archive
Jenny Boyd, Sandy Moss and Sarah Dawson, before the Puritan Youthquake show, 1966. Photo / Mary Quant Archive

There, she met Plunket Green, a well-born eccentric (philosopher Bertrand Russell was a cousin, as was the Duke of Bedford) who wore his mother’s gold shantung silk pajamas to class on the rare occasions he attended and played jazz on the trumpet — a character straight out of an Evelyn Waugh novel (Waugh was a family friend). They were both 16, and they became inseparable. They delighted in pranks and the attention they drew for their outfits; Plunket Greene once painted his bare chest to mimic the buttons on a dress shirt.

Passersby, Quant recalled in her memoir, sneered, “God, look at this Modern Youth!” a title the pair embraced: “Shall we be Modern Youth tonight?”

They soon met Archie McNair, a lawyer who had become a portrait photographer and who ran a coffee bar under his studio in Chelsea. The three decided to open a business together. Each man put up 5,000 pounds, and they bought a building at 138a King’s Road. Quant, who was working for a milliner, quit her job.

Thanks to Bazaar, King’s Road became the epicentre of British fashion, and London the epicentre of the so-called youthquake, as Vogue put it at the time. Quant was its avatar, garbed in her signature play clothes and boots, with huge painted eyes, a pale face dotted with fake freckles and a distinctive bob that would make its creator, Vidal Sassoon, as famous as she. His wash-and-wear cut was as much a death blow to the laborious bouffant as the miniskirt was to the twin set. “Vidal put the top on it,” Quant liked to say.

Early on, Quant embraced mass production and synthetic materials, and fast fashion that could be bought and discarded by the young women for whom it was designed. Captivated by PVC plastic-coated cotton, she made raincoats that seemed slick with water. She made molded plastic boots in bright colors with clear “ice cube” heels and tops that zipped off.

“Why can’t people see what a machine is capable of doing itself instead of making it copy what the hand does?” Quant told The New York Times Magazine in 1967. “What we should do is take the chemicals and make the fabric direct; we ought to blow clothes the way people blow glass. It’s ridiculous that fabric should be cut up to make a flat thing to go round a round person.”

She added: “It’s ridiculous, in this age of machines to continue to make clothes by hand. The most extreme fashion should be very, very cheap. First, because only the young are daring enough to wear it; second, because the young look better in it; and third, because if it’s extreme enough, it shouldn’t last.”

Quant and Plunket Greene married in 1957; he died in 1990. Quant is survived by their son, Orlando Plunket Greene; her brother, Tony Quant; and three grandchildren. In 2000, Quant stepped down as director of Mary Quant Ltd., having been bought out — or pushed out, as some reports claimed — by the company’s managing director.

Mary Quant, wearing pink buttoned vest and black shirt underneath, circa 1975. Photo / Getty Images
Mary Quant, wearing pink buttoned vest and black shirt underneath, circa 1975. Photo / Getty Images

In 2009, she was honoured by the Royal Mail with her own postage stamp, featuring a model wearing a black Mary Quant flared mini. In 2015, Quant was made a dame. The storefront once occupied by Bazaar is now a juice bar, above which a plaque now commemorates Dame Mary Quant.

In the spring of 2019, when the Victoria & Albert Museum showed its retrospective of her work, a vibrant exhibition of 120 pieces from her heyday, the curators included a montage of photographs and memories from the thousands of women who had answered their call to share their beloved Mary Quant pieces — along with tales of how they had worn them as liberated young women heading to job interviews and first dates, a powerful tribute to Quant’s legacy and the nascent feminism of her times.

“I forget all my clothes, but I still remember my first Mary Quants,” Joan Juliet Buck, an author and former editor of French Vogue who grew up in 60s-era London, said in an interview for this obituary in 2021.

“The pumpkin jumper and the aqua lamé miniskirt culottes and the falsely-little-girl beige crepe dress with puffed sleeves and pansies scattered below the smocked band under the breasts that drove men mad, while I had no idea. She locked into that woman-as-little-girl ethos that made the miniskirt inevitable, and indisputable.”

But did she invent it? André Courrèges, the space age French designer, long claimed credit for its creation, and it is true that he was steadily raising his hemlines in the early 60s. But Quant, as fashion historian Valerie Steele has pointed out, was slicing up her hems from the moment Bazaar opened back in 1955, mostly in response to her customers, who clamoured for ever shorter skirts.

“We were at the beginning of a tremendous renaissance in fashion,” Quant wrote in her 1966 autobiography. “It was not happening because of us. It was simply that, as things turned out, we were a part of it.

“Good designers — like clever newspapermen — know that to have any influence they must keep in step with public needs,” she wrote, “and that intangible ‘something in the air. I just happened to start when ‘that something in the air’ was coming to a boil.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Written by: Penelope Green


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