Mary Quant was one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century, known for her innovative designs that revolutionised the way women dressed in the 1960s.
Quant grew up during World War Two and was inspired by the colourful fabrics and fashions of the post-war era. Her playful and daring designs, including the iconic mini-skirt and her Vidal Sassoon bob haircut, became synonymous with the Swinging Sixties and helped to define a generation.
So how did Mary Quant transform 1960s fashion?
Mary Quant was born in Blackheath, London in 1930. Her parents were schoolteachers, and she had a young brother, John, whom she was evacuated with to Kent during World War Two. After her parents persuaded her to pursue art rather than fashion, Quant later studied illustration and art education at Goldsmiths, where she met her future husband, aristocrat Alexander Plunket Greene.
After graduating in 1953, Quant began an apprenticeship at a high-end Mayfair milliner – Erik Braagaard.
In 1955, Quant’s husband bought Markham House on the King’s Road in Chelsea, an area popular with a group of young artists and socialites known as the ‘Chelsea Set’.
Quant, Plunket Greene and their friend, lawyer-turned-photographer Archie McNair, opened a restaurant called Alexander’s in the basement which they co-owned, and created a boutique called ‘Bazaar’ on the building’s ground floor.
All played to their strengths, and Quant began designing clothes for Bazaar, which quickly gained a reputation for its fun, quirky and eclectic designs, becoming a popular destination for young women looking to wear something different to their mothers.
Quant initially sold outfits sourced from wholesalers, but soon became frustrated with the options available. The bolder pieces from her own collection started garnering more attention, including a pair of quirky lounge pyjamas she had designed for the boutique’s opening (later featured in Harper’s Bazaar magazine, then bought by an American manufacturer). This inspired her to stock Bazaar with her own pioneering designs.
Quant was self-taught, taking evening classes to finesse her technical proficiency in dress-pattern-cutting to put outfits together for herself. She drew inspiration from the Chelsea Set and the Mods (another youth-culture in late-1950’s Britain), creating alternative and riskier designs than the standard ‘mature’ styles of other designers. Her cottage-industry approach (she used proceeds from the day’s sales to pay for the cloth that was then used to create more stock overnight for the following day) meant Bazaar’s stock was continually refreshed with new designs, satisfying her customers’ quest for fresh looks.
Quant’s youthful, modern clothes were more relaxed than her competitors, designed to suit normal life. By 1957, demand meant a second Bazaar store was opened in Knightsbridge, designed by her friend Terence Conran.
Quant created a special informal environment (including loud music, free drinks, daring and eccentric window displays, and long hours) that appealed to young adults – further differentiating Quant from traditional department stores and inaccessible high-class designer store environments.
Bazaar and Alexander’s thus became a hub for models, photographers, pop stars and fashionable women wanting to be part of what became the Swinging Sixties scene.
Quant stocked bright, colourful tights (including colours such as ginger, prune and grape), and paired these with short tunic dresses, creating high fashion versions of practical childhood outfits. This further enhanced the modern look of her designs, as did her creativity in playing with scale and proportion, her interest in the unexpected, and her irreverent approach, such as her line of men’s cardigans long-enough to be worn as dresses.
Quant was inspired by the era’s youthful energy and optimism, and also experimented with new materials. She was the first designer to use PVC, creating ‘wet look’ clothes and new styles of weatherproof boots (‘Quant Afoot’). She also experimented with nylon, incorporating bold patterns and bright colours. Her clothing was playful and daring, with short hemlines, plastic collars, the ‘skinny rib’ jumper, and bold prints challenging the conventions of the time.
Mary Quant’s designs gained national and international attention in the early 1960s. She signed a design contract with US department-store chain JC Penney in 1962, and introduced a cheaper line, ‘Ginger Group’, in the UK mass-market in 1963 – the same year The Sunday Times awarded her an International Award ‘for jolting England out of a conventional attitude towards clothes’.
In 1965 she raised hemlines to create the mini-skirt, which became her trademark and a symbol of the Swinging Sixties. Despite debates over the actual inventor of this style, Quant is often credited with introducing the mini-skirt – a daring departure from the long skirts and dresses that had been in fashion for decades – popularised by Twiggy, the most high profile model of the era.
The mini-skirt was liberating for women, allowing them to move much more freely and express themselves in new, sexier ways. It was also controversial – many critics accused Quant of promoting immorality and indecency.
Quant is said to have named the skirt after her favourite make of car, the Mini, and described its wearers as “curiously feminine” with their femininity lying “in their attitude rather than in their appearance”.
By 1966, Quant was working with 18 manufacturers.
Bob haircut and further impact on the 1960s
Quant’s influence extended beyond fashion, becoming a cultural icon of the era. Her famous Vidal Sassoon bob haircut was also a symbol of the Swinging Sixties, with Sassoon’s architectural way of cutting hair going perfectly with her graphic designs, and many women wanted to emulate Quant’s look.
Quant was also known for her collaborations with other artists and designers, including photographer David Bailey, and was friends with John Lennon.
In 1966 (the year she invented the forerunner to hot pants), Quant was awarded an OBE and published her autobiography, Quant by Quant. Her famous Daisy logo was registered and began appearing on all packaging, as well as her cosmetics range. In 1967, she opened her third boutique, and designed berets for British headwear company Kangol.
Bazaar closed in 1969. Quant was the UK’s most high-profile fashion designer, with an estimated 7 million women worldwide owning at least one of her products.
Quant remained working in fashion, but from the late 1970s, produced womenswear and interior designs and products for British manufacturing company ICI, as well as swimwear, hosiery, jewellery, make-up and skincare product ranges – and her Daisy fashion doll.
In the 1980’s she revived her cosmetics under licence in Japan, introduced skincare for men, and in 1988, designed the interior of the Mini for a limited edition version. In 1990, Quant received the British Fashion Council’s Hall of Fame Award. She resigned as director of Mary Quant Ltd in 2000, and published her second autobiography in 2012.
In 2015, Mary Quant was made a Dame, and in January 2023, was appointed a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in the 2023 New Year Honours.
Quant died on 13 April 2023 aged 93.
Mary Quant’s influence on the fashion industry and popular culture is still felt today. Her daring designs and playful spirit paved the way for a new generation of designers unafraid to challenge convention and push boundaries. The mini-skirt has become a staple of women’s fashion, and contemporary designers continue to be inspired by her bold and innovative designs.
Quant’s impact on popular culture can also be seen in the countless films, books, and television shows inspired by the Swinging Sixties. The most radical designer and social innovator since Coco Chanel, her designs have become synonymous with the era, and continue to evoke a sense of freedom and optimism that defined the time.