Before I knew who Mary Quant was, I’d seen her face. The cat eyeliner and the flapper-girl hair leaves a lasting memory of Quant, London’s (and the world’s) post-war fashion revolutionary. She built on what Warhol had been doing across the Atlantic, but made it applicable to young, British adults. She de-Americanised, and democratised, the ‘it’ look of the 1960s. I had a chat with Dr. Sophie Mattheisson, the curator behind the Mary Quant exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery Toi ō Tāmaki about the Quant effect.
Quant was a WWII evacuee, growing up in a time when her country, and the world, were in peril. Her life, and other children’s lives, were very much “shaped by the war”, Mattheisson made clear. The fashion and architecture of the time were also shaped by the war as much as she’d been, with Mattheisson pinpointing this drab, dull, dutiful existence as the catalyst for what would become Quant’s brand of fun, colourful fashion. In the Second World War, luxuries were few and far between, with clothing existing for a purpose, to protect oneself and to provide warmth. Quant worked out pretty quickly that there was far more to clothing than what she’d seen during the War, and, as Mattheisson points out, began making clothes “for her own pleasure”. The exhibition itself highlights this, as it became the crux of Quant’s brand, and her image, around the world.
Quant was a London, post-war creative, in every sense of the word. The exhibition highlights that, inserting her playfulness and Londonian sense into every inch. Whether it be the triangular arrangement of the dresses, the addition of the Daisy Dolls, or the colourful, irreverent style of the clothes themselves, this exhibition is an ode to the ordinary woman having fun with her clothing. These are clothes to wear to get a drink in, to go out in, and most importantly, to live in. Quant’s movement into cosmetics helped increase the fun-ness of her line, but also, as Mattheisson points out, solidified her place as a woman in business. Quant’s line existed for everyday women, women who wanted a touch of luxury, whether that be in the dresses they buy, the patterns they use to make dresses, or the lipstick they chose to wear. This exhibition encompasses all of that, and then some.
The exhibition itself is arranged in a fairly linear format: you walk in, and the first thing you see is Quant’s initial dip into the fashion world. As you progress through, her dolls, cosmetics, and dressmaking patterns make their appearance too. Throughout the process, you’re seeing Quant doing video interviews, a snapshot of London in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. All the while, you’re getting the message that Quant wanted to create clothes that women could quite simply exist in. Whether that existence is going to work, or going to the bar with the girls, there’s something for every occasion. Mattheisson makes sure to highlight the entrepreneurial side of Quant, too. Her initial vision was, yes, to create clothing and makeup that gives off the ‘hot without trying’ look, but she saw wide-ranging business potential in it, too.
Mattheisson and I spent a while talking about Quant’s movement overseas, into the J.C Penneys of the world, and Quant’s move into true brand-builder: whether that comes through learning the tricks of the rag trade, or capitalising on what women needed in the post-war gloom, you have to admit, it worked out alright for her. Quant’s movement to the USA, her forging of useful relationships with big American department stores, her collaboration with businesses and her marketing all added up to create what we can simply call the Quant empire. This empire got so impressive that it made its way to Australian Women’s Weekly, and to New Zealand Vogue. Both of these antipodean magazines frequently showed Quant advertisements, and pushed the classically ‘60s ‘mod’ look into the Southern Pacific ether. This amount of reach that Quant had hugely benefited the exhibition itself. The exhibition was almost entirely crowdsourced, and most of the clothing items, most of the makeup, and most of the entire exhibition had another life in someone’s wardrobe, waiting to be worn to the next social dance night, or to just, simply, be worn.
Mattheisson quotes Quant as “audaciously free-spirited, animated, (and) fun”, and I can’t think of a better way to sum up both Quant herself, and the exhibition. The line challenges the elitism of the older Paris fashion houses, and paved a new way for women’s clothing of the day: these, while they were pieces of wearable art, were made to be worn, and were made to fit into someone’s life. Quant allowed women living in post-war England a chance to have fun, and a chance to begin to enjoy how they looked again. That, I think, hasn’t changed at all.
Image: Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2021.