Mary Quant: The designer who defined the 1960s and beyond

She’s the woman who put the swing in the 60s and made us go short and go bold. Ahead of a major new Mary Quant exhibition launching next month at London’s V&A, some of fashion’s most famous names share their recollections of the designer who defined the 1960s and beyond…

Mary Quant
Mary in 1966. Image: Alamy

‘She burst on to the scene and defined an era’

YOU’s fashion director Shelly Vella

Mary Quant was my first go-to fashion icon. She’d leapt into my consciousness way before fashion college was a glimmer in my eye and when I was attracted to Mod culture in my teens. I’d trawl London’s Kensington Market for original Quant hosiery in the distinctive Daisy logo packaging and buy the make-up from a tiny store on South Molton Street in Mayfair – all before I really knew the full extent of her influence. Mary went on to be the most relatable fashion icon I studied at the London College of Fashion. I was fascinated by how she burst on to the scene in the vanguard of the Swinging 60s and defined an era. The graphic cuts, trademark bob, coquettish eyelashes and quintessentially British style inspired a generation of women to go short, go bold and be more modern; to have fun with their fashion.

The designer (bottom centre) at the launch of her footwear range, Quant Afoot, in 1967. Image: PA Archive

I loved the way her designs reflected what was going on in the wider world of politics, music and society – how rebellious they were. Often her imagery showed models goofing around with establishment norms such as police, palace guards, businessmen – injecting colour, vitality and humour into an erstwhile sober fashion arena.

She shook up everything: the dance moves worked with the shorter skirts, the haircuts were liberating, the make-up was striking, the clothes were a statement of individuality and a new-found freedom. To me, she was so exciting, smart and commercially savvy. Her quote, ‘The fashionable woman wears clothes. The clothes don’t wear her’ has stayed with me throughout my career.

Mary Quant 1966
Mary (top) with Alexander and models, 1966. Image: National Portrait Gallery London

‘My mother had a clear vision of what she wanted’

Mary’s son Orlando Plunket Greene

I remember the day an official-looking man with black shoes and an enormous clipboard came to our home to investigate why I still hadn’t been enrolled at a school. ‘He is having an amazing education travelling with us!’ my mother protested, baffled that the officer didn’t share her logic.

Until the British government finally caught up with me, I travelled everywhere with the Mary Quant team and the first thing I always heard from people who worked with my parents (and still do to this day) was how much fun they had. Everyone worked like crazy because they were all having so much fun. Even by today’s digital standards, the pace was eye-watering. New products were launched on a near-weekly basis.

An advert for berets, 1967. Image: The Advertising Archives

I don’t think anyone really knew what they were getting into but my mother had a clear vision of what she wanted and my father, Alexander, had an innate ability to make everything riotously exciting. Thankfully, Archie McNair’s legal and business skills managed to wrangle the whole circus into a business.

A mid the hubbub of the tiny office in Chelsea, I would be sprawled out on the floor with my crayons and toys. Countless times I would hear the phrase, ‘But Mary, you can’t do that’. A momentary flash of defiance in my mother’s eyes would quickly turn to a flirtatious and mischievous, ‘Oh, come on, you can make it happen… and it will be so much fun!’ Be it a lifelong career man from ICI or a fifth-generation artisan perfumer from the South of France, their balance sheets and conventional wisdoms would be tossed over their shoulders like it was the last day of school. Conventional wisdom no longer seemed necessarily wise and, most of all, it really wasn’t that much fun.

From the grey of postwar Britain, ‘necessity’ wasn’t the mother of invention, fun was. Across Britain a generation decided to risk it, to go for it, unleashing an attitude revolution that changed much more than fashion.

‘She realised that her peers didn’t want to dress like their parents’

Legendary fashion editor Suzy Menkes

Mary Quant models
Models Jenny Boyd, Sandy Moss and Sarah Dawson backstage before a show in 1966. Image: Richard Davis

Great fashion designers are those who offer people what they never knew they wanted – until, of course, they see it. Mary Quant, the graduate from Goldsmiths College of Art, who married aristocratic Alexander Plunket Greene in 1957, was a poster girl for the 60s before that postwar era let loose a cacophony of youth. Everything that Mary did with her husband, in partnership with their friend Archie McNair, was about creating a new society. That meant physically turning to London’s King’s Road in Chelsea, as a haven for fun new coffee shops and fashion boutiques, laced with lively music. Together with like-minded friends, they helped to create the Swinging 60s.

But mentally, the shift was even more profound, for the young designer realised that her peers no longer wanted to dress – or to live – like their parents. The renaissance of youth brought in simple clothes such as slip dresses worn over young bodies, with hemlines that climbed higher up the thighs with each season. Sex was not new 1966 to fashion. But the Mary Quant look not only founded the concept of youthful style with its mix of cheekiness and innocence, it also reflected the iconoclastic change in female behaviour following the invention of the contraceptive pill. Once again, the designer was a precursor, not a follower, of what was happening in society at large.

I lived through that era and, as the first woman editor of the Cambridge University newspaper Varsity, I asked, with the daring and certainty of youth, to interview Mary Quant in the mid-1960s. I can still remember the journey to London, wearing fishnet tights, square-heeled shoes and a skirt as short as I dared, to meet the designer. I recall Quant as a slight woman, deprecating herself by claiming her success was all about ‘luck’ and ‘chance’ and leaving her husband to do most of the talking.

A more experienced journalist might have asked her if she felt she had changed society or simply gone with the fashion flow. Approaching that question in the 21st century, it is clear that Quant was a crucial part of a cultural revolution that is still churning, half a century on.

Mary’s muses

Mary Quant beauty bus
All aboard the Mary Quant beauty bus, 1971. Image: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

Mary Quant’s models, along with Mary herself and hair supremo Vidal Sassoon, came to define the ‘look’. The photographic models she employed for presentations and fashion shows each season were at the forefront of a revolution in modelling.

Jean Shrimpton

Affectionately known as ‘the Shrimp’ by the fashion press, Jean went on to become one of the most recognisable and highly paid models of the 60s. She was the first of a new breed who rejected the formality and convention of the previous generation; whose young, natural, tomboyish style embodied the spirit of 60s London and the ethos of the Quant brand. As Mary explained: ‘I want model girls who look like real people… I want girls who exaggerate the realness of themselves, not their haughty unrealness like the couture models do.’

Bright shirts and shorts from Mary’s intimate apparel range, 1966. Image: Brian Duffy

Jean featured in some of the most iconic images promoting Quant designs in the early 1960s. Born in 1942 and raised on a farm in Buckinghamshire, Jean was far more interested in horses and dogs than fashion, describing herself in her early years as ‘gawky and tomboyish, more like one of the ponies I loved than a girl, with a lot of leg, a lot of hair and a lot to learn.’

For Mary, Jean was the perfect model to promote her look and she went as far as modelling the mannequins in her Bazaar boutiques on Jean’s ‘long, lean legs’.

The designer at home with her husband Alexander, 1967. Image: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images

As she explained: ‘The most beautiful of all the models I have known was Jean Shrimpton. To walk down the King’s Road, Chelsea, with her was like walking through the rye. Strong men just keeled over right and left as she strode up the street.’

Jean’s relaxed, girl-next-door look came to define the Quant look of the early 60s: a democratic kind of beauty, refreshingly at odds with what had gone before. Now every girl wanted to look like Jean Shrimpton.

Twiggy

A teenage Twiggy modelling a Quant ensemble, 1966. Image: Terence Donovan

Born Lesley Hornby and also known as ‘the Twig’, the Londoner was just 16 years old when she burst on to the fashion scene, going from Saturday girl at a hairdresser’s to being named ‘the face of 1966’. Her childlike, boyish appearance was often highlighted in the fashion press, with Paris Match proclaiming, ‘Garçon ou fille? Non! C’est Twiggy.’ Her waif-like, adolescent frame, skinny legs and doll-like face, accentuated by painted-on eyelashes, were perfectly suited to Mary’s playfully androgynous designs. Twiggy’s knock-knees and spindly legs emphasised Mary’s hemlines – which were well above the knee. Mary’s continued celebration of youth culture was mirrored in Twiggy’s exaggerated childlike image; in her brief career as a model from 1966 to 1970 (before she turned to acting and singing), she came to define the Quant look, taking on the mantle from her idol Jean Shrimpton.

Her working-class roots and cockney accent contrasted refreshingly with the image projected by the society girls who had dominated the modelling profession in the 1950s. As photographer Cecil Beaton remarked: ‘Today’s look comes from below. The working-class girl with money in her pocket can be as chic as the deb. That’s what Twiggy is all about.’

Grace Coddington

Although these days she is better known as the creative director at large of US Vogue, Grace began her career as a model in 1959. She left her home on Anglesey aged 18 and began working as a waitress in Knightsbridge, London, to afford her modelling-school fees. After winning a modelling contest for Vogue, she swiftly established herself on the London scene, befriending photographer Terence Donovan and, like many models, became part of the same social circle as Mary and Alexander. Grace remarked: ‘The artistic Chelsea people I usually ran around with congregated each evening at the Markham Arms, a rowdy pub next door to Bazaar, Mary Quant’s King’s Road boutique, where I became a serious shopper…’

‘The Cod’, as she became known, recalled the dangers of stairs on buses while wearing the Quant look, with its progressively shorter hemline. She was Mary’s favourite model because of her ‘mixture of fashion knowhow, beauty [and] stylish simplicity’. Her tomboyish appearance and cropped hair perfectly reflected the increasingly androgynous direction of Mary’s designs of the 60s. She personified the Quant aesthetic, not least because she was an early house model and muse for Vidal Sassoon and sported his iconic five-point haircut, which became Mary’s signature look in 1964.

Vidal Sassoon

During the 60s, the bob became a powerful sign of the new era, with Sassoon revolutionising women’s hairdressing. In creating Mary Quant’s new short hairstyle, he reinvented the sharp bob worn by 1920s actress Louise Brooks and reprised its original significance as a symbol of women’s liberation. According to Sassoon’s 1968 autobiography, Mary wanted an alternative to the chignon to keep her models’ hair away from the clothes during her shows. Sassoon’s solution was to cut the hair off and use the bob style, already tried out on Mary, ‘cutting her hair like she cut material. No fuss. No ornamentation. Just a neat swinging line.’

A model wearing Mary Quant silver stockings, 1966. Image: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

On several occasions journalists and photographers were invited to see Vidal Sassoon cut her hair in his famous five-point bob. Mary recalled in her 2012 memoir that she had discovered Sassoon’s salon while still working at [high-end milliner] Erik’s, braving a rickety lift up to his salon in Mayfair to watch him perform ‘like a four-star chef’. As Mary described 50 years later, Sassoon ‘completely changed hair’, seeing that it ‘could be cut into shapes and textures that not only flattered its character and texture, but projected the best qualities of the head and face – pointing out the cheekbones and focusing on the eyes and making the maximum impact on the individuality of the face and personality’.

Sassoon is credited with liberating women from tedious hours spent under a hairdryer hood, with rollers forcing hair into waves and curls fashionable in the 50s, and promoting the beauty of natural hair. His customers, says Mary, ‘found the freedom to swim, drive in an open-top car, walk in the rain… Your hair did not forget the shape and chunky curves he created, and it simply returned to base.’

Mary with Vidal Sassoon the creator of her iconic five-point bob. Image: Hulton Archive/Ronald Dumont

In a 2012 interview, Grace Coddington highlighted the contribution that Sassoon and Mary made to women’s lives, saying: ‘Vidal came along and liberated hair after Mary Quant liberated clothes… He cut my hair in a bowl cut – everything before then was lacquered and stiff. Suddenly you could shake your head – it was a defining moment of the 60s.’ Mary herself deplored the overblown and unnatural hairstyles that dominated fashion in the 1950s and early 1960s, stating: ‘I find it arrogant to wear elaborate, ornate hairstyles that look like wedding cakes or hats… which are obviously so stiff that if you touch them they’re not hair.’

This is an edited extract from Mary Quant by Jenny Lister, published by V&A Publishing at £30. The V&A exhibition opens on 6 April; visit vam.ac.uk for more information.