By Gillian Butcher
Arguably the world’s first fashion influencer, British designer Mary Quant defined a generation of young women in the 1960s with her radically alternative approach to style, hemlines, and the shopping experience. Her design and retail legacy form the core of Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary, and I was lucky enough to catch this exhibition at the Bendigo Art Gallery in between lockdowns in July, before it closed.
Quant’s reputation and undeniable success are in the spotlight in this world-first retrospective, which starts with the dress she wore to receive an OBE in 1966. The creamy, soft wool jersey immediately captures your attention. It has three-quarter sleeves, bell-shaped cuffs, and a mid-thigh hem length, with a navy collar and ring-pull neck zipper. At first glance it seems oddly simple, especially for the grand occasion it was designed for. But, the garment encapsulates everything that Mary Quant became – accessible, affordable, comfortable, but stylishly different.
The exhibition, on exclusive loan from the V&A in London, focuses on the peak years of Mary Quant, 1955-1975. The clothing, shoes and accessories on display are accompanied by photographs, catalogues, magazines, advertising and video footage, and present the rapid success of a pioneering businesswoman who simultaneously captured and created the youthful spirit of the ‘Swinging Sixties’.
Appetited wetted, bright orange walls quickly enfold you into the buzz of Mary Quant. Snippets of high-energy 60s music can be heard from a wall projection of a raving party (it’s an advertising video selling Quant’s designs to the US), and huge poster-like images of models and rock-stars wearing Quant tower over the s-shaped entryway. For a moment it feels like ultra-trendy department store, but the winding thoroughfare gives way to a large white gallery room and Quant’s designs, dressed on white mannequins and positioned on plinths or behind clear Perspex, come into focus.
It’s the bespoke items first: early examples of the one-of-a-kind items that Quant made and sold in her boutique Bazaar. Some are bold and daring, others could be taken right off display and worn home. One dark purple dress catches my eye. It has long-sleeves and a high neck, with a pussy-bow and an calf-length, dropped-waist skirt. It doesn’t scream Quant, thought. It’s actually, dare I say… a little dowdy? This isn’t helped by the dim light of the room – it may be safer for the fabric, but it’s not doing the colour any favours.
Searching for answers, I look down to see a photograph of a woman wearing the dress. She’s mid-twirl at a house party looking vibrant. The exhibition label tells me that this is Angela Bailey in 1973, and Angela tells me what a pleasure it was to wear this dress. I can see the flare of the skirt in the photo and the confidence of the woman wearing it, and suddenly I’m looking at the real-life garment with renewed interest.
Angela’s dress is one of a large number that emerged as part of #WeWantQuant – the V&A’s callout for items and stories from people who wore Mary Quant. Dug out of attics and closets, more than half of the exhibited items were loaned or donated as a result of the campaign, and are accompanied by this personal connection. The stories of parties, graduations, promotions and celebrations give a voice to the clothes and a tangibility to the influence and legacy of the brand on display.
From the excited chatter I overhear, it appears that the Bendigo Art Gallery might have missed an opportunity to extend the campaign. Australia is mentioned several times in the exhibition, often to illustrate the international success of the brand, and there’s footage of some fantastic frivolity on a catwalk for Australian department store buyers. But, one lady’s gleeful recollection of buying Mary Quant eye crayons from the Sports Girl on Bourke St has me briefly wondering what other Quant gems might be hiding in the back of Australian wardrobes and minds.
This kind of local insight would have only added to this sensationally relatable celebration of Quant. The campaign is an example of successful, community-centric exhibition making and, notwithstanding a selection of additional photographs and stories in an ill-timed, scrolling view that was poorly positioned near the exit, the memory-infused object perspective is a fresh approach to the dress fashion exhibition trend. It appears that very few of the Australia audience didn’t already know Mary Quant or believe in her era-defining qualities and the exhibition doesn’t stray far from their expectation. Focusing almost exclusively on the success of the brand’s name, Quant’s curatorial significance is made in part by the #WeWantQuant contributors and the audience themselves.
Taking center stage in a corridor resembling a cat-walk are items from the Ginger Group collection. With colours like putty and prune, this range of interchangeable separates is an early example of the mass-produced techniques that enabled Quant to sell in department stores around the world. She later trademarked her iconic daisy logo, and forged licencing agreements for everything from intimates and make up (for men and women) to shoes, patterns, and even a line of dolls, making the brand as accessible to as many people as possible.
Examples of all of this and more are on display, as the scale of Quant’s enterprise reaches its peak in the largest, brightest room of the exhibition. There are stretch-wool jersey dresses (à la OBE outfit) in every colour housed in an room-length, u-shaped Perspex cabinet, alongside some of Quant’s most iconic 1970s designs. This cabinet allows for a 360 degree, but a hanging screen in the centre of the room and the outward orientation of the garments keeps the crowd on the perimeter which is noticeably tight for a post lockdown crowd.
Having not lived through the era (putting me in a minority demographic in the exhibition), the extent of the brand’s outreach was a surprise. It is noted, but only in passing, that Mary Quant played a role in reviving fabric manufacture in the UK, and that her partnership with Alligator Rainwear – allowing her PVC wet-look designs to be mass-produced– turned the heritage brand around. But any questions I have about this, or the relationship between Quant and her equally shrewd business partners (one of whom she was married to) are sidelined by the exhibition’s audience-focused lens. There is also footage of Mary heralding the development of mass-manufacturing. Lacking a contemporary interpretation, this errs on the side of uncomfortable as it recalls the birth of a practice that lead, in part, to the current fast-fashion crisis.
A short distance away, a black, polka dot party dress is on display. It’s on loan from a family where three generations and counting have worn it, and this is a familiar story across the exhibition. In that moment, with the line between art appreciation and window shopping blurring, I grapple with the idea that Quant might represent an historical moment where items were mass produced in a way that could be considered sustainable today. But, perhaps the celebratory space of a retrospective exhibition isn’t the place for that kind of conversation. I ponder these questions in the café afterwards, and on the long drive home.
Overall, Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary is like having rummage in the back of the closet and spending an afternoon dressing up. It steps back in time to a period of great energy and optimism, especially for women, which is reflected in the exhibition’s design and reception. It’s also a joyful dose of colour and fun that many of us need of right now. And even though I was slightly disappointed I couldn’t immediately exercise my urge to clothes shop in the museum store, I left feeling revived, eager to ditch my lockdown trackies, and dig out something bold from my wardrobe to embody the spirit of Mary Quant.
Gillian Butcher is a Masters student in the CHMS program at Deakin University. All photos by Gillian Butcher 2021.