Fashion is a frightening business to be in.
Having just seen the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Karl Lagerfeld exhibition, I’m convinced that Mary Quant must have been one of the most down-to-earth people ever to work in the fashion industry. When one considers the luxurious materials Lagerfeld used, and the high-end clientele who purchased his frocks, Quant looks decidedly down-market. To feed the demand for constant creativity, Lagerfeld – like so many haute couture designers – raided the history of art and design, borrowing freely from anything that took his fancy. Quant had a more direct approach, working with simple, dynamic motifs, using colour to create variety.
Whereas Lagerfeld would plunder entire art movements to get a range in tasteful black-and-white, Quant might draw inspiration from a coat or uniform she spied in the street, spinning colourful variations-on-a-theme. She claimed to have been chiefly inspired by the girls who frequented her shop in the King’s Road – the famous “Chelsea Girls” who would become a ‘look’ in their own right – international and classless.
In answer to the age-old question as to whether it was her or French designer, André Courrèges, who invented the mini-skirt, Quant always said it was her customers who were responsible, as they kept demanding shorter hemlines. Quant came up with the name, which she took from the quintessentially British car, and turned the skirt into a worldwde phenomenon.
Quant detested the aristocrats and weathy businessmen’s wives – the “duchesses” – who were major customers for the small but snooty British fashion industry of the 1950s. Having worked supplying hats to this crowd in one of her early jobs, she had first-hand experience of their pettiness, meanness and snobbery. She believed fashion had to be radically democratised, bringing it within reach of working-class girls who wanted to look stylish.
The most banal critiques of the fashion industry see it as a ruthlessly commercial activity preying on the vanity and specious fantasies of its customers. Quant thought quite differently. From the very first she saw fashion as empowering, allowing women to express their individuality and find a new self-confidence. In an era of change, when Women’s Liberation was finding its feet, and gender roles in the workpace were being challenged, Quant’s fashion tapped into a social revolution.
All of this is discussed and illustrated in Quant, a feature-length documentary by Sadie Frost, that blends rivetting newsreel footage with interviews with fashion experts, and those who knew and worked with the designer. Inserts that use actor, Camilla Rutherford, to play Mary Quant and give voice to her thoughts, feel completely redundant. When the historical footage is so brilliant there’s no need to get arty.
The film arrives at a sadly opportune time, as Mary Quant died last month, at the age of 93. She was given a major retrospective at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2019, a version of which would travel to the Bendigo Art Gallery last year. I saw the V&A exhibition, and read her autobiography, Quant by Quant, which fleshes out the rapidly moving montage we get in this documentary.
Undoubtedly the seminal event of Quant’s life was her meeting with Alexander Plunket Greene, at Goldsmiths art school. The film gives Alexander his due, but not to the same extent that Quant does in her memoirs. She was a naïve girl from a Welsh middle-class family, brought up with a strict work ethic. He was the offspring of louche nobility, who shunned the very idea of commerce. She had the creativity, he had the charm. Their good friend, Archie McNair had all the financial acumen.
Although the film was made a couple of years ago, Quant declined to be interviewed, perhaps feeling she would sooner be remembered as a young woman in a miniskirt with a Vidal Sassoon bob. She often struggled to overcome her shyness, once locking herself in the restroom of a plane until the press and cameramen had given up and left the tarmac. One interviewee recalls how she wanted to write a story about idols of youth culture turning 40. When Quant refused to participate, she learned that the designer routinely knocked five years off her official age so as not to appear older than her husband. She was already 45.
Quant’s success was instantaneous. From the moment she and Alexander and Archie opened their boutique, Bazaar, in the Kings Road, in 1955, she was selling clothes faster than they could be designed and made. This was partly because as newcomers to the fashion business they didn’t understand all the costs involved, and frequently sold at a loss. This would change when Quant was lionised by the fashion press, then picked up by huge American chains such as J.C. Penney.
Archie McNair got them into branding, and this is when the cash started rolling in. The big sellers were her distinctive make-up kits, but the Quant name was attached to almost everything for a while, even wine.
Today we’ve forgotten just how big Mary Quant became, and the influence she exerted on the way the world dressed.
Frost emphasises Quant’s affinities with the music and the democratic ethos of the sixties, which saw her models dancing down the catwalk accompanied by live jazz or rock. No matter how rich and successful she became, it was a matter of pride that her clothing was accessible to the average person. She spoke out against “negative” fashion, by which she meant paying a lot for outfits that only helped one blend in with the crowd. For Quant fashion was always a statement.
This documentary makes all these crucial points in a fast-moving montage of the 1960s and beyond. The pop music alone should induce tremors of nostalgia in older viewers. Even the language takes us back to another era. Quant once wrote, “I heard my clothes described as dishy, grotty, geary, kinky, mod, poove and all the rest of it. People either loved them or hated them.” She has taken her place in both fashion and social history at the dishy, geary end of the spectrum.
Written & directed by Sadie Frost
Starring: Mary Quant, Alexander Plunket-Greene, Camilla Rutherford, Dave Davies, Zandra Rhodes, Edward Enninful, Jill Kennington, Kate Moss, Jasper Conran, Tony McGee, Joan Corlass, Heather Tilbury Philllips, Roger Tredre, Clare Hunt
UK, M, 82 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 May, 2023