There’s something rather ironic about the fact that the V&A, London’s most obsessively image-conscious and socially just major museum, is hosting a Mary Quant exhibition as a distinct second fiddle to its giant Dior show. Quant’s clothing, we are constantly told in the exhibition, was designed as instant, young, accessible and affordable – street wear, before anyone talked about street wear, and an antidote to the haute couture fashion houses that offered little to the youth either in style or cost. Well, the kids have been put in their place – this is definitely seen as the lesser of the two current fashion exhibitions at the V&A, the freewheeling clothing of Quant being seen as far less important than the luxurious and determinedly elitist styles from the House of Dior, and tucked away in the room where more niche displays tend to go.
Admittedly, there’s not much in the show to suggest that Quant’s clothing could have filled the bigger space – there isn’t the same length of history of volume of product here. And perhaps, just as Quant’s Bazaar boutiques in the 1960s were fresh, new, vibrant and small compared to the stuffy traditional fashion shops, so this small exhibition is the ideal antidote to the sterile world of Dior, where everything is impressively expensive and crafted, but – outside of the John Galliano pieces – feels oddly unaffecting and soulless.
The Quant show is not above its own mythologising, of course – the exhibition hammers home the message that this was all very fresh and new, and that Quant was the leader of the 1960s ‘youth quake’, occasionally making room to acknowledge the odd other leading light like Vidal Sassoon (whose haircuts are arguably even more of an iconic part of that ‘London Look’ than the clothing), David Bailey and the odd pop band. The exhibition covers the bulk of Quant’s work in the 1960s and 1970s, from the famous mini skirts and dresses, to ‘wet look’ PVC clothing and Emma Peel style jump suits that beg the question of just how conscious designers of the era were of the fetish influence. Much of this stuff was mass-produced, and while perhaps not quite as affordable as is constantly emphasised (there are some pieces that the average person might have to work a few months to be able to afford, and even then they might be skipping meals), the idea of the boutique that offered something for everyone definitely seemed to start here – the comic book instructions for cosmetics, the pocket-money accessories and the low cost, mass market ranges of trendy gear were certainly revolutionary at the time, and the sort of thing that helps build brand loyalty and global success – restricting your clothing to an elite (either financially or geographically) is still all too often how the fashion world operates, but Quant shook that up dramatically and paved the way for every boutique and youth-oriented chain that followed.
Of course, the emphasis on street level fashion and Quant being part of this new, working class revolution is over-egged – Quant and her team were clearly frightfully middle class (the video clips reveal cut-glass accents and everything being priced in guineas) and notably, so were most of the customers who have donated their clothes to this exhibition – there’s lots of fashion journalists, executive’s wives and people who were decidedly not shop girls and working class kids, But perhaps those customers simply wore the shit out of their clothes and then got rid of them. Elsewhere, the V&A – or whoever put this together – tries, unconvincingly, to apply current cultural and political fixations to Quant’s work – pieces titles ‘Chequebook’ are said to be comments on inequality from times when women needed the permission of a male relative to open bank accounts, but there’s no evidence that this was the case at all. The only comments we see from Quant herself, in archive film clips, are that she thinks girls are made to be looked at, not hidden away – an attitude that doesn’t really suggest that she was overly exercised by feminist thought at the time.
Quibbles about aspects of the presentation aside, there’s a lot to enjoy at the Quant show. Some of the designs are wildly vivid, and unfamiliar (the media interest in Quant seems to start and finish with the mini, but there’s much more than that), and the shoes, accessories and toys – the famous Daisy doll (though not her action heroine alter-ego Havoc) is well-represented – are as interesting as the clothing. People who think that punk invented anything will be shocked to see that Quant was playing with safety pin motifs and zips in unusual and inaccessible places a decade earlier, complete with pockets deliberately placed out of reach of the wearer. The aforementioned film clips are all fun – there’s a lot of stuff about the business, and a fantastic prancing, swinging fashion show from the Sixties that feels both dated and revolutionary, because who out there now is stepping away from catwalk tradition? The advertising and vintage magazines are also a treat.
I suspect that this show will remain under the Dior shadow (that show has apparently become one of the V&A’s biggest ever, showing there’s no accounting for taste), but if you can only take in one, then this should be it. Appropriately, it’s fun rather than staid, accessible and not elitist (and, of course, a lot cheaper). You have until February 2020 to see it.