How Dame Mary Quant helped changed the world

Primary page content

Professor Emeritus Angela McRobbie looks back at the designer's work and the huge impact the former Goldsmiths student and Honorary Fellow had on society.

There was an early moment in Mary Quant’s career which was to prove pivotal to the everyday lives of women. This was when, in the late 1950s, as a young designer developing the disctinctive, revolutionary, streamlined and quintessentially modern look for young women, she realised that specific legwear was needed to offset the crisp, geometrical A-line dress.

Such an item was only available from theatrical suppliers, whose thick coloured tights were more normally destined for the Royal Shakespeare Company or indeed the Royal Ballet. By 1960 Mary Quant had teamed up with the Nylon Hosiery Company to produce what has since become the most ubiquitous and taken-for-granted item in the female wardrobe, otherwise known as tights.

Like so many of Quant’s best-known works, this single item permitted a greater freedom of movement on the part of the young women, who from the early 1960s onwards were looking for a different, more colourful and more independent life from that of their mothers.

These opaque tights also completed the stark image comprising homogenous colour blocs which were such a distinctive feature of her designs. The face was elfin, and the make up bold but not hard. There was the cropped hair, and black eyes gazing directly to the camera. The body shape was androgynously slim, often in a triangular dress, with elongated, balletic legs which seemed to hang down below, wide apart and pointing outwards  and so extending the lines of the triangular (or tent-shaped) dress. With such an emphasis on silhouette the message seemed to be that style did not just take precedence over sexuality, but re-defined a new and distinctively modern sexuality.

We associate Mary Quant with short skirts, mini-dresses, with the simple A-line shift dress, with hipster pants and with bright coloured pvc macs, with "skinny rib" jumpers and with knee-length white boots.

I should remark that almost all women of my own generation can recall, with great pleasure, the precise details, down to the colour of the buttons and the shade of the fabric, of the Quant dress they owned, or the lengths they went to, as schoolgirls, to copy the overall look. 

Quant also teamed up with the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon who was developing a new angular and easy-to-maintain look in hair styles that chimed so well with her own interest in creating a femininity of lines rather than curves.

At a time when make-up came in a limited number of shades, mostly beige foundation, pink lipstick and blue eyeshadow, she turned for inspiration to children’s crayons and introduced ranges of cosmetics with daring and adventurous colours and she also gave her models huge panda eyes.

She created an integrated design aesthetic which made 1960s femininity suddenly synonymous with movement and energy. The modernity of this image gave out a strong statement to the wider public which was that young women had a visible role to play in the unfolding narrative of the time, that of social change, and of the much-quoted "white heat of technology". 

As Quant herself has often said, postwar Britain in the mid-1950s was still a country which lacked colour, it was a sombre place and there was a drab uniformity about how men and women looked.

Mary Quant was one of the talented new generation who brought a sense of drama, confidence, and optimism and who challenged the rigidities and social barriers of the time. Her work cut through the boundaries of social class and the conventions of gender and sexuality.

Her signature style was appealing to young women from all social backgrounds, she worked with models like Jean Shrimpton and also of course with the cockney girl Twiggy. We also associate her work with the growth of the distinctive "classless" genre of fashion photography, in particular the ground-breaking photographs of David Bailey and Terence Donovan.

The rise of popular culture, and the success of new fashion magazines and the Sunday supplements, the tremendous excitement of British pop music, and the development of new kinds of small shops or "boutiques" all provided a wider context for the archetypal Mary Quant girl for whom the city street, be it London’s Carnaby Street or (in my own case) Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, was suddenly a space of leisure, freedom and excitement. 

Mary Quant’s career began at Goldsmiths College, University of London where she studied Illustration, and it was at Goldsmiths that she met her late husband and partner Alexander Plunkett-Greene. They opened the first Bazaar shop in Chelsea in 1955, and then a second shop two years later in Knightsbridge.

By all accounts these shops became meeting places and social centres for the young artists and designers who were part of the Chelsea Set. But they were also enormously appealing to ordinary young people. Indeed I would go so far as to say that Bazaar was one of the first non-exclusive boutiques open to teenage girls.

The small size, the darkened corners, the clothes laid out in relatively small numbers, all of this was in total contrast to the large department stores with their bright lights and rather bureaucratic atmosphere. In addition this kind of shop became a place where boyfriends would willingly accompany girls precisely because of the connection Quant forged between fashion and the world of pop music. Suddenly with these unisex styles and shared interests in the world of popular culture young men and women appeared to have become more equal, they had more in common with each other and that was enormously exhilarating.   

By 1963 Quant, along with Plunket-Greene, had set up the Ginger Group which allowed her to design ranges of garments to be sold across the world. Mary Quant, like her good friend Terence Conran, had an instinctive feel for combining the highest of design standards with an ability to serve a mass market.

From clothes and tights she moved, in the mid 1960s, into cosmetics, and by then her five-petalled black daisy logo had become an instantly recognisable, in effect a global brand avant la lettre.   

By the late 1960s Mary Quant’s remarkable contribution to British culture and everyday life was being recognised and she was named Royal Designer for Industry in 1969.

She received many honours and accolades up until her passing, including being appointed a Dame in 2015 for services to the fashion industry and a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in King Charles's first New Years Honours list. 

She went on to design ranges of home furnishings, opened many shops, with an emphasis both on make-up and on clothing, especially in Japan where her work also has influenced greatly the growth of contemporary Japanese fashion design.

I also had the honour of meeting Mary at a Goldsmiths lunch in 2015. It was a genuine thrill to meet the woman who was possibly my very first heroine from the early 1960s, almost like meeting one of the Beatles. 

Mary Quant was known across the world, and her contribution to British art, design, culture and industry is both unique and outstanding. She is truly a historical figure as well as a woman who was always way ahead of her times.