As a sixteen year old girl, keen to escape her suburban existence, Mary persuaded her parents to let her come to Goldsmiths. The people she met, including her late husband Alexander, and the experiences she had at the College during that time were to make a great impression on her. She laughs, “Goldsmiths was a great place to go – for causing trouble!”
Mary came to Goldsmiths in 1950 where she embarked on an art diploma course with a view to becoming an art teacher. At the time, the College had only just reopened after the war. “The men were only about 20 but they had been through so much and they somehow seemed terribly older. Goldsmiths then seemed like a very civilised club. You grabbed a table for yourself and put your things there and just got on with your work really – no nonsense with lectures and stuff!”
She also recalls the vibrant social scene at the College. “There were terrific parties. Socialising amongst the other art schools was very intense, but there wasn’t too much rivalry because everybody wanted to do their own thing and be utterly original. But Goldsmiths was, and still is, the most provocative and exciting art school of the lot. It does attract some very interesting people and it produces so many of the new ideas in all sorts of areas. That is the joy of Goldsmiths.”
Mary is of course best known for popularising the miniskirt. This revolutionary new look allowed women a liberating and daring way of dressing which chimed with the dawning of a new era. What is often overlooked though, is the simultaneous introduction of tights, which Quant commercialised. As Mary explains: “They didn’t exist you know! There were only pantomime tights for theatre. I went to theatrical tights manufacturers and got them to make them for me with the colours I wanted.”
Professor Angela McRobbie from the Department of Media and Communications explains the significance of this: “Like so many of Quant’s best-known works, tights 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 than their mothers.”
As well as bringing us new garments, Mary was pushing the boundaries with new materials too. “I got terribly excited about any new fabric that came along and suddenly there was this very shiny stuff unlike anything I had ever seen – PVC. There were problems making the garments initially because we made them on the same machines as we were sewing the other clothes and you need special needles and all that kind of thing, so it took a bit of time to sort that out. I went mad about PVC and did a whole collection which I called the ‘Wet Collection’, which is exactly what it was, and that was a huge hit!
Now over 80, Quant is still thriving in the fashion industry in Japan where there are over 200 stores trading under Mary’s name as well as one branch located, of course, on the King’s Road in London – the hub of the swinging sixties scene, and the road where she opened her first boutique in 1955.
Looking back on the decade that made her name, she says “The 1960s was just the most exciting, wonderful period. I’m sorry you weren’t there! Style-wise and look-wise it was absolutely terrific. And the optimism, the optimism was genuine and terrific. I wouldn’t choose another era to have lived in. I bagged the best.”