The woman who said ‘I love vulgarity. Good taste is death, vulgarity is life’ has been made a Dame in the UK New Year’s Honours list.
Yes, Mary Quant, who transformed the face of British fashion and helped to turn Swinging England into a worldwide brand, has been awarded a top honour for her significant and lasting contribution to British life.
Nearly 60 years or so ago, she opened her first shop, Bazaar, in Chelsea at 138a, Kings Road, and launched her innovative designs on a the newly emerging market of young people who were tired of wearing what were essentially the same clothes as their mothers.
Bazaar was a wonderful shop, but not for the likes of many of us post-war girls, who at the time were still wearing ankle socks.
The clothes were undoubtedly fun and different, but they were for grown-up girls, debby types and Kings Road bohemian types who belonged to a different world.
Bazaar’s window displays were works of art, as were the clothes themselves. Some were even named : a striped tweed pinafore dress with a wide flap collar and white cuffs was called Bank of England; a navy and white striped skirt was called Butcher Boy; three-piece outfits were called Hook, Line and Sinker and Lock, Stock and Barrel.
Wonderful, but as far as most teenagers were concerned, they might as well have been in a museum (and indeed you will find the grey wool pinafore dress called Rex Harrison (look him up, YPs) in the Fashion Museum in Bath).
But as Quant expanded into mass production, her influence became widespread.
Instead of the constricting, fussy, patterned clothes of earlier decades, she made loose-fitting, easy, tunic-style waistless garments which moved as you moved. Colours were sludgy ginger and prune, and (shock horror) spots were mixed with checks.
The simple daisy motif she designed became synonymous with the Quant brand. And then, in 1964, a look pioneered by the French designer Courreges and developed by Mary took us by storm. The mini-skirt arrived.
It was probably the summer of 1964 when we realised there was such a thing as ‘with-it’ fashion.
The Beatles were having a Hard Day’s Night, the Beach Boys were getting around, Marianne let tears go by as she watched the children play. And suddenly you became aware there was something wrong with your skirt, which firmly hit the middle of your knee. And it sat on your waist, not on your hips. And your hair — all those waves and curls! We must have eaten too many carrots.
Penniless, but resourceful gals, we found ways of achieving the look. Cutting an inch or two off your hem was a start. Eighteen inches, or three to six inches above the knee became the standard length.
If you had the knack, or a mum or a chum, you could make a simple shift dress in an afternoon and wear it that evening. Kingston Market had a great selection of materials in bang-on colours. You only needed a couple of yards and a Simplicity or Butterick pattern. And your hair, in the dark ages before straighteners and the rest — you’ve seen the films. An iron and a sheet of brown paper really did do the trick.
Mary Quant is rightly honoured for her success as a pioneering business woman. Her legacy for those of us growing up within her orbit was the awareness that we could dress confidently and wear a look that was young and free.
We had a fashion of our own. And if some of us rejected it in favour of jeans accessorised with a copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan, well, that’s another story.