Mary Quant was born in London on 11 February 1934. A self-taught designer, she cut up bedspreads to make clothes when she was only six; as a teenager, she restyled and shortened her gingham school dresses.
She recalled admiring the appearance of a child at a tapdancing class who wore a black "skinny" sweater, pleated skirt, and pantyhose with white ankle socks and black patent shoes (Quant: 1966, p. 16). From the mid-1950s she transformed styles like these into amusing and sexy clothes for young women, and paved the way for London to become a center of irreverent youth-oriented fashion.
Quant's parents would not accept her attending a school of fashion design, but compromised by allowing her to go to art school. She met Alexander Plunkett Greene while she was studying illustration at Goldsmith's College of the University of London. Plunkett Greene later became her business partner and husband. After leaving art school, Quant was apprenticed to Erik of Brook Street, a Danish milliner working in London. In 1955 Quant's husband purchased Markham House in London's King's Road to start a shop named Bazaar, and open a restaurant called Alexander's in the basement. Mary was responsible for buying the stock for Bazaar, Alexander for sales and marketing, while Archie McNair, an exsolicitor who ran a photography business, handled the legal and commercial side of the business. Quant designed a black five-petaled daisy logo during this period; it eventually became her worldwide trademark.
Quant sourced innovative jewelry from art students and bought clothes from various wholesalers to stock the boutique. One of the items designed for Bazaar's opening was a pair of "mad" house-pajamas, which were featured in Harper's Bazaar and purchased by an American manufacturer to copy. Encouraged by her success as well as dissatisfied with the styles on the market, Quant decided to design her own stock. After attending a few evening classes on cutting, she adjusted some Butterick patterns to achieve the look she wanted. Quant was designing for Butterick by 1964; some of her pattern designs sold over 70,000 copies. Each day's sales at Bazaar paid for the cloth made up that evening into the next day's stock. As business took off, Quant employed a dressmaker to help her, and then another, and another, and so on.
Quant brought a groundbreaking approach to fashion retailing by providing an informal shopping experience. In contrast to traditional fashion retail outlets, which ranged from high-class couturiers through staid town-center department stores and chain stores such as C and A Modes to High Street dress shops, Bazaar set out to make shopping for clothes enjoyable: loud music played, wine flowed, and the boutique stayed open until late in the evening. Most importantly, the stock was constantly replenished with new and highly desirable designs. "The clothes were very simple. Basically tunic dresses, and very easy to wear, unlike the couturier clothes which were very structured. And put together with other things—tights and knickers in ginger and prune and a grapey colour, that people weren't used to" (Harris, 1994). Quant persuaded theatrical costume manufacturers to make the tights she sold, as there were no panty-hose in the color that Quant required on the market. While Quant's prices were reasonable in comparison to those of the traditional fashion houses, her clothes were made to a high standard—many were silk-lined—and were not cheap.
Quant was probably the first designer to acknowledge the influence of youth subcultures, and she credits the Mods as an important source of inspiration. Mods were a sub-cultural youth group characterized by their immaculate dress—their 'sharp' tailoring and love of Italian sportswear, and the parka coat that they wore to protect their clothes whilst traveling by scooter. One of her most successful early designs was a white plastic collar to be added to a sweater or dress. One of Quant's trademark innovations was the mini skirt: by 1960 her hemlines were above the knee and crept up the leg to reach thigh level by the mid-1960s. She also derived inspiration from school uniforms and menswear, especially traditional country clothes—knickerbockers, Norfolk jackets, "granddaddy" tab-collared shirts, Liberty bodices or combinations (one-piece garments), and traditional children's underwear. Quant undertook much of her research at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. She bought her fabrics, notably Prince of Wales checks and herringbone weaves, from Harrod's, and persuaded knitwear manufacturers to make their men's cardigans 25 centimeters longer so that they could be worn as dresses. Whereas fashion designers had traditionally looked to Paris for stylistic guidance, Quant and her husband watched youth programs on television and attended fashionable London nightspots to identify new trends.
One example of Quant's work from 1956/57 was a dress in black-and-white checked wool cut in a sleeveless balloon style and teamed with a skinny-rib black sweater. For the winter of 1957/58 Quant designed an ensemble comprised of a rust-red Norfolk-style jacket, Harris tweed knickerbockers—she favored knickerbockers—, and a pinafore dress. Another pinafore of the same year, made of striped menswear suiting, featured two bold pockets at the bust. Her popular hipster pants were based on the styles that her husband had the fashionable tailor Dougie Hayward make for him. Quant was the first designer to use Polu-Vinyl-Chloride (PVC) in fashion; the first to introduce pantyhose in stunning colors to match her knitwear; and the first to introduce "fashion" lingerie—her seamless brassieres were called "booby traps," and her uplifting brassieres "bacon savers."
Quant also exerted a profound influence upon the representation of fashion by designing and commissioning young-looking animated mannequins and staging witty window displays. In her 1966 autobiography, she recalled one display in which "we had all the figures in bathing suits made of Banlon stretch fabric with madly wide coloured stripes like rugger sweat shirts. … The models were sprayed completely white with bald heads" (p. 8). In 1957 the trio (Mary, Alexander, and Archie) opened a second branch of Bazaar, designed by their friend Terence Conran, in London's Knightsbridge
neighborhood. At the launch party, Quant's models danced to loud jazz music with glasses of champagne in their hands, "and floated around as if they had been to the wildest party or looking dreamily intellectual with a copy of Karl Marx or Engels in the other hand. … No one had ever used this style of showing. … At the end, the place just exploded!" (Quant, 1966, p. 95).
In 1962 Quant entered into a lucrative design contract with J. C. Penney, which had 1,700 retail outlets across the United States; and in 1963 she launched her own cheaper diffusion line, called the Ginger Group. Her talent was acknowledged that same year by the Sunday Times, which gave her its International Award for "jolting England out of its conventional attitude towards clothes" (Quant, 1966, p. 96). In 1966 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire and in 1967 she won the Annual Design Medal of the Royal Society of Arts. In the same year she opened her third shop, designed by Jon Bannenberg, in London's New Bond Street. Quant was awarded the Hall of Fame Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Fashion by the British Fashion Council in 1969.
Quant remained in fashion's vanguard throughout the first half of the 1970s. In 1971 she designed a spotted summer playsuit in cotton jersey called "Babygro," named after the ubiquitous babies' romper suits, and a long flared skirt printed with dots and daisies called "Sauce," which was teamed with a matching "Radish" bra-top. Summer evening dresses with plunging necklines, puffed sleeves, and ruffled skirts were made in pretty Liberty floral prints—once again borrowed from childrenswear—and glamorous striped Lurex. Quant's sporty styles for 1975 included brightly colored and striped jumpsuits, many with drawstring waists and ankle ties, and sailor-inspired slit-sided tunic dresses worn over pants. In 1978 she introduced her own range of childrenswear. She has also designed furnishings and bed linens since the 1980s, and won numerous awards for her carpet designs.
Mary Quant always wanted to create a total fashion look—her own geometric hairstyle, cut by Vidal Sassoon, was widely copied. As an art student she had used Caran d'Ache crayons and a box of watercolors for her own makeup. In 1966 she startled the cosmetics industry by offering makeup in a staggering choice of wild colors as well as a more natural palette. The range was advertised using top model Penelope Tree, and photographed by Richard Avedon. Her book Colour by Quant was published in 1984, followed by Quant on Make-Up in 1986, and the Classic Make-Up and Beauty Book in 1996.
In 1990 Quant was awarded the British Council's Award for Contribution to British Industry, and in 1993 she became a Fellow of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers. Her cosmetics business is thriving as of the early 2000s; she has over 200 shops in Japan as well as outlets in London, Paris, and New York City.
Harris, Martin, Interviewer. "Quantum Leap Back to the Street." Daily Telegraph, 22 June 1994.
Morris, Brian. Mary Quant's London. Museum of London, London, 1973. Extensively illustrated with an introduction by Ernestine Carter.
Quant, Mary. Classic Make-Up and Beauty. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1996.
——. Quant by Quant. London: Cassell and Company, Ltd., 1966. An entertaining and informative autobiographical insight into London's postwar youth scene and the rise of Quant's fashion empire.
——. Make 'Up' by Mary Quant. New York: Harper Collins, 1987.
Quant, Mary, and Felicity Green. Colour by Quant. London: Octopus Books, 1984.
Amy de la Haye
With her introduction of the miniskirt and new "mod" look, Mary Quant (born 1934) began a fashion revolution. Although her designs eventually faded in popularity, Quant's business expanded to include everything from carpet to swimsuits to toys.
Mary Quant was born February 11, 1934 in London, England to Welsh teachers. Her childhood was disrupted and colored by World War II-for the better, she later recalled in her 1966 autobiography Quant by Quant. "Almost my first clear memory is the day we were evacuated from Blackheath to a village in Kent," she wrote. That village, on the east coast of England, placed the family directly beneath the path of enemy planes flying over the coast on their way to bomb London. "Because we had no understanding of the grim tragedies of war," she remembered, "this was tremendous fun." She would run with her brother, Tony, and friends to investigate and ransack crashed planes, taking everything they could carry. "Our prize possession was some poor pilot's thumb which had been shot off and which we carefully preserved in vinegar in an airtight bottle," she gleefully noted.
Quant's schooling was random as her parents moved the family around the countryside, seeking teaching jobs and safety. At one point, Quant's parents sent her away to a "very proper, very correct, absolutely heartless" boarding school near Tunbridge Wells. Normally, however, she was near her family, finding all manner of mischief with Tony. While living on the coast one summer, Quant and her brother formed a business teaching rich visitors to sail. When the weather didn't allow boating, Quant wrote in Quant by Quant, she stayed home and sewed. "I think I always knew that what I wanted to do most of all was to make clothes … clothes that would be fun to wear. As a very small child, I had idolized a little girl we knew who took tap dancing lessons and wore very skinny black sweaters, short black pleated skirts and long black tights, white ankle socks and black patent ankle strap shoes," Quant recalled. "How I envied her!" Her artistic expression was flavored with the same measure of mischief found in her other pursuits. "When I was about six and in bed with measles," she wrote, "I spent one night cutting up the bedspread with nail scissors. Even at that age I could see that the wild color of the bedspread would make a super dress."
After completing her primary education in 1951, Quant's parents encouraged her to begin pursuing a career. "It was made absolutely clear to both of us from the start that we would have to earn our own livings," she wrote. "My parents never even considered the possibility that marriage might be a way out for girls. I was made terribly aware that it was entirely my own responsibility to make a success of my life."
Enrolled in Art School
Unfortunately, Quant's idea of a career path didn't quite match her parents' expectations. They wanted her to choose a sturdy, practical vocation. "It was only with the greatest difficulty that I ever persuaded them to allow me to go to art school," she related in Quant by Quant. "It was only when I managed to win a scholarship to Goldsmiths' that I was able to persuade them to agree to a compromise … if they would allow me to go to Goldsmiths', I would take the Art Teachers' Diploma."
With her parents' qualified permission, Quant enrolled at Goldsmiths' College of Art in London. Almost immediately she met Alexander Plunket Greene, who became her business partner and, later, husband. Her classmates, including Greene, were an education unto themselves, she wrote. "It was only when I went to Goldsmiths' that, for the first time in my life, I realized that there are people who give their lives to the pursuit of pleasure and indulgence of every kind in preference to work," Quant marveled. "At first it was a shock even to me; to my parents, such a thing was incomprehensible." Quant spent several years reveling in the atmosphere of Goldsmiths', but left after failing to earn her Art Teachers' Diploma. She took a job working for a Danish milliner, earning such a tiny salary she ate only occasionally.
Meanwhile, Greene and Quant had paired up with a friend named Archie McNair. When Greene inherited 5,000 pounds on his 21st birthday, the three decided to go into business together. They rented Markham House, a three-story building on King's Road in London's artist district, Chelsea. In Markham House, they opened a boutique on the first floor and a restaurant in the basement. They called the boutique Bazaar. Its owners knew little about the business beyond Quant's fashion philosophy: "I can't bear over-accessorization … a white hat worn with white gloves, white shoes and a white umbrella," she declared in Quant by Quant. "Rules are invented for lazy people who don't want to think for themselves."
True to her philosophy, Quant searched for the clothes she herself wanted to wear, selling miniskirts, funky dresses, bright tights and bras called Booby Traps to young people. The shop capitalized on the buying power of baby boomers, those born during the sharp increase in birthrate following the end of World War II, who were beginning to grow into teenagers.
Naive about the mechanics of running a retail business, Quant and her partners sold their wares with a markup much smaller than any nearby store, without realizing they were actually taking a loss on many items. "It was no wonder we did such a roaring trade the moment we opened," she later wrote. "The shop was constantly stripped bare-sometimes we hardly had enough to dress the window-because we never bought enough of anything."
Quant quickly discovered that manufacturers weren't making the kinds of clothes she wanted to sell, so she set up her own manufacturing outfit in her apartment, hiring a dressmaker to come during the day and help. Quant herself sewed dresses at night to sell the next day in the shop. "I had to sell one day's output before I had the money to go out and buy more material," she recalled, noting that at first, "I didn't think of myself as a designer. I just knew that I wanted to concentrate on finding the right clothes for the young to wear and the right accessories to go with them."
Struggling to make ends meet and suffering ridicule from the press and some passers-by, Quant persevered. In less than ten years, her clothing designs was world famous, selling in 150 shops in Britain, 320 stores in the United States, and throughout the world: France, Italy, Switzerland, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and more.
In 1957, Quant and her business partner, Alexander Plunket Greene, were married. In 1970, they had a son, Orlando. "We had an awful wedding," she recounted in Quant by Quant. "The Registrar, or whoever it was, put on a sanctified Dearly Beloved voice; he treated us in an impossibly pompous manner and went purple in the face with the effort."
Shortly thereafter, they decided to take another plunge, and opened a second shop, this one in the more swank Knightsbridge neighborhood. Soon, their production shifted into even higher gear when, in 1963, Quant was approached to design a line for J.C. Penney, at that time the biggest retail chain in the United States. Quant was selected to give the stores a more up-to-date image, with her bright, geometric printed dresses. "It was the first time ever that the clothes of a named British designer had been promoted throughout a large chain of stores across the States," Quant recalled. "It was exciting but worrying too."
Mod Look is Worldwide Phenomenon
She needen't have worried. Suddenly available on a mass scale, the "mod" look took the fashion world by storm. "I really believe that when the whole thing had first been planned, it had been looked upon purely as a promotional idea," she disclosed in Quant by Quant. The store's managers decided to stick with Quant as they watched sales soar.
With the flood of Quant designs came a change in the way women dress. "Fashion had always been dictated from above, by Parisian couturiers and other authorities," wrote William L. O'Neill in Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s. Fashion "was a monopoly of the rich. But in the sixties it was the young, and relatively unknown designers like Quant and Gernreich who catered to them, who set the pace.… Not since the 1920s had women's clothing changed so radically. No one could remember when the flow of fashion had been reversed on such a scale." Quant herself, in her autobiography, echoed the same sentiment. "There was a time when clothes were a sure sign of a woman's social position and income group. Not now," she wrote in 1966. "Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dress."
Even as she was changing the look of women worldwide, Quant was getting a crash course in the fashion business. "We were not the first to find out it doesn't always pay to be first in the field," she wrote. "The pioneer is the one who makes the mistakes, discovers the snags and prepares the ground for those who more cautiously follow after." Case in point was Quant's foray into clothing made from PVC, a vinyl material. She designed a line in PVC and orders piled up, but Quant's manufacturers' machines couldn't sew the material.
Despite the setbacks, Quant won a prestigious Sunday Times Fashion Award, shocking an entire industry that had previously been ruled by couture houses selling expensive, made-to-order clothes by famous designers. Quant's place in fashion history was secured when the London Museum mounted its 1973 retrospective exhibit, "Mary Quant's London."
Quant Empire Grew
Although Quant's designs eventually faded in popularity, the business continued to expand to include everything from carpet to swimsuits to toys. In 1983, she launched "Mary Quant at Home," a line of household furnishings featuring wall paper and china, based around a chosen color scheme. Color, in the form of cosmetics, was her lasting passion. In Quant by Quant, she explained her entrance into the field: "In the fifties, there was no makeup around that I wanted to wear," she told Vogue's Gully Wells. "So I started experimenting with crayons. The best were Caran d'Ache colored pencils. … Then the models started using theatrical makeup to get the look they wanted, so finally I decided to start producing my own line in 1966." Quant ultimately focused her energy almost entirely on her cosmetics line, which sold worldwide but was most popular in Japan, where, by the mid-1990s, Quant had more than 200 stores. Besides her autobiography, she had penned two additional books: Colour by Quant, published in 1984, and Quant on Make-up, in 1986.
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Born: Kent, 11 February 1934. Education: Studied art and design at Goldsmith's College of Art, London University, 1952-55. Family: Married Alexander Plunket Greene, 1957 (died, 1990); children: Orlando. Career: Fashion designer, from 1955; established Bazaar boutique and Alexander's restaurant, London, 1955; founder/director, Mary Quant Ginger Group wholesale design and manufacturing firm, 1963, and Mary Quant, Ltd., 1963; cosmetics line introduced, 1966; launched hot pants, 1969; member, Design Council, London, from 1971; Mary Quant Japan franchise shops established, 1983; has designed for J.C. Penney, Puritan Fashions, Alligator Rainwear, Kangol, Dupont Europe, Staffordshire Potteries, and many more; authored several books; opened Mary Quant Colour Shops, 1990s; stepped down from firm bearing her name, 2000. Exhibitions: Mary Quant's London, Museum of London, 1973. Awards: Woman of the Year award, London, 1963; the Sunday Times International Fashion award, London, 1963; Bath Museum of Costume Dress of the Year award, 1963; Maison Blanche Rex award, New Orleans, 1964; Piavola d'Oro award, 1966; Chartered Society of Designers medal, 1966; Officer, Order of the British Empire, 1966; Fellow, Chartered Society of Designers, 1967; Royal Designer for Industry, Royal Society of Arts, 1969; British Fashion Council Hall of Fame award, 1990; Senior Fellow, Royal College of Art, London, 1991. Address: 3 Ives St., London SW3 2NE, England. Website: www.maryquant.com.
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The name Mary Quant is synonymous with 1960s fashion. Quant's designs initiated a look for the newly emerging teen-and-twenties market enabling young women to establish their own identity and put Britain on the international fashion map.
Quant did not study fashion; following parental advice she enrolled in an Art Teacher's Diploma course at Goldsmith's College, London University, but she was not committed to teaching. In the evenings she went to pattern cutting classes. Her fashion career began in 1955, in the workrooms of the London milliner, Erik, the same year she opened her boutique, Bazaar in King's Road, Chelsea, in partnership with her future husband, Alexander Plunket-Greene. The idea was to give the so-called Chelsea Set "a bouillabaisse of clothes and accessories." Quant was the buyer, but she soon found the kinds of clothes she wanted were not available. The solution was obvious, but not easy—21 years old, with little fashion experience, Quant started manufacturing from her home. Using revamped Butterick patterns and fabrics bought retail at Harrods, she created a look for the Chelsea girl. Her customers were hardly younger than herself and she knew what they wanted; her ideas took off in a big way, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Americans loved the London Look, so much so that in 1957 Quant signed a contract with J.C. Penney to create clothes and underwear for the wholesale market. American coordinates convinced her that separates were versatile and ideal for the young. To reach more of the British market in 1958 she launched the Ginger Group, a mass-produced version of the look, with U.S. manufacturer Steinberg's. In the same year she was nominated as Woman of the Year in Britain and the Sunday Times in London gave her its International Fashion award.
Quant created a total look based on simple shapes and bold fashion statements. She hijacked the beatnik style of the late 1950s: dark stockings, flat shoes, and polo necks became obligatory for the girl in the street. The pinafore dress, based on the traditional British school tunic, was transformed as one of the most useful garments of the early 1960s. Hemlines rose higher and higher; Quant's miniskirts reached thigh level, in 1965, and everyone followed. Courréges confirmed that the time was right by launching his couture version in Paris but Quant needed no confirmation—1965 was the year of her whistlestop tour to the United States. With 30 outfits and her own models, she showed in 12 cities in 14 days. Sporting miniskirts and Vidal Sassoon's five-point geometric haircuts, the models ran and danced down the catwalk. It was the epitome of Swinging London and it took America by storm.
Quant's talents did not go unnoticed in higher places. In 1966 she was awarded the OBE for services to fashion and went to Buckingham Palace wearing a miniskirt. Her cosmetics line was also launched this year, and recognizable by the familiar daisy logo, Quant cosmetics were an international success. Later taken over by Max Factor, they were retailed in 90 countries. Additionally, she experimented with new materials including PVC and nylon, to create outerwear, shoes, tights, and swimwear.
In the early 1970s Quant moved out of mass market and began to work for a wider age group, chiefly for export to the U.S. and Europe. Her range of merchandise expanded to include household goods, toys, and furnishings. Mary Quant at Home, launched in the U.S. market in 1983, included franchised home furnishings and even wine. By the end of the 1980s her designs were again reaching the British mass market, through the pages of the Great Universal Stores/Kays mail order catalogues.
Mary Quant remained a genuine fashion innovator well into the 1990s and into the 2000s. She adjusted to change—the 1960s designer for the youth explosion became a creator for the 1980s and beyond lifestyle boom. Her market had grown up with her and she was able to anticipate its demands. Along the way she began publishing books, autobiographical to start, and later on beauty and cosmetics. It wasn't until she was in her 60s that Mary Quant stepped down as director of Mary Quant Ltd., in 2000. She did, however, remain a consultant for the myriad of products she pioneered over the last four decades.
updated by Owen James