Expert blog: How Mary Quant came to redefine the style and attitude of youth culture
By Dr Naomi Braithwaite, Associate Professor in Fashion Marketing and Branding
Expert blog: From rising hemlines to the swinging sixties, how Mary Quant came to redefine the style and attitude of youth culture
Mary Quant, the iconic British fashion designer whose creations came to define London in the swinging sixties died at home in Surrey, on Thursday 13th April, 2023, at the age of 93. Quant was renowned as a trailblazing designer, whose creations fuelled a new approach to youth identity and femininity, that resonated with the social and sexual liberation that emerged through the 1960s. In the era of The Beatles, rising affluence amongst the young, and the advent of the contraceptive pill, Quant’s revolutionary designs responded to a shift in youth culture with a move from the constraints of austerity towards freedom. This is often termed the youthquake, towards which Quant made a pivotal contribution.
Quant was born in Blackheath, London in 1930. She studied Illustration at Goldsmiths, University of London, having been refused by her parents to study fashion, as they wished for her to follow a more conventional career path. It was at Goldsmiths that Quant was to meet her future husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene (1932-1990).
Quant was a self-taught designer, who attended evening classes on cutting and adjusting mass market patterns. Following a short apprenticeship with the Mayfair Milliner Erik of Brook Street, Quant started making her own designs, before opening in 1955, with Plunket Greene, her first boutique, Bazaar. Bazaar stood at 138A Kings Road, Chelsea, London and it was here that her innovative creations from the mini skirt to PVC boots became iconic creations that placed London firmly on the global fashion map. Quant’s legacy to fashion and popular culture is extensive but it is the mini skirt that created a shift in fashion and feminine identity that she will undoubtedly be most remembered for.
The invention of the mini skirt has been widely accredited to the French fashion designer Andre Courrèges, who showed them in his 1964 catwalk collection. Prior to the sixties the above the knee skirts developed alongside the Rock n Roll subculture of the 1950s, early examples were also evident in the work of couturiers such as Cristobal Balenciaga’s famous ‘sack dress’ and Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Trapeze line’ for Christian Dior. The mini skirt was not just a garment it symbolised a new expression of femininity. While Quant may not have been the inventor of the mini skirt, she is certainly the designer who made it famous, taking it to new heights, by popularising the style and making it readily available to the mass market.
It was while designing for the Chelsea customers of Bazaar that Quant started experimenting with hemlines, and in 1964 she created the thigh skimming mini, named after her car, the Mini Cooper. Quant acknowledged that her rising hem line was a response to an emerging London street style, where art, fashion and music were underpinned by youthful vibrancy and freedom, along with a wider cultural shift towards informality. Quant designed clothes for the young that they could run and jump in. The mini skirt epitomised this sense of freedom, becoming a symbol of the feminist movement of the time which campaigned for equal opportunities, better pay and reproductive rights. Quant’s designs did not just revolutionise style they contributed to the youthquake of the 1960s, which saw young people make the transformative cultural shift, that has come to define the era.
Quant’s designs famously put youth at the heart of fashion and popular culture. In April 1966 Time, the American news magazine ran a special feature on London, the swinging city, reporting that ‘every decade has its city… Today it is London, a city steeped in tradition, seized by change, liberated by affluence. In a decade dominated by youth, London has burst into bloom. it swings, it is the scene’.
The term ‘youthquake’ was famously coined in 1965 by Diana Vreeland, Editor in Chief of American Vogue 1962-1971. Vreeland had observed a ‘shake-up’ in 1960s London, through the expression of fashion by young people and popular culture with the music of the Beatles that led to Beatlemania. Youthquake has been defined as being a significant political, social or cultural change which comes as a result of the actions and influences of young people. Vreeland observed the trickle up of style from the streets of London to influence mainstream culture. In fashion this was a shift away from the following of trends set by couturiers. Quant’s designs offered something new and different in terms of style and the shopping. Bazaar was an experience with music, drinks, entertainment and clothes that were young, relaxed and liberating.
Mary Quant was a revolutionary designer whose style and spirit contributed towards the youthquake of the 1960s. Her innovative designs and playful approach to fashion has left an unforgettable mark not solely on fashion’s rich history but also popular culture.
- Category: Press office; Research; School of Art & Design