With her introduction of the miniskirt and new "mod" look, Mary Quant (born 1934) began a fashion revolution. Although her designs eventually faded in popularity, Quant's business expanded to include everything from carpet to swimsuits to toys.
Mary Quant was born February 11, 1934 in London, England to Welsh teachers. Her childhood was disrupted and colored by World War II-for the better, she later recalled in her 1966 autobiography Quant by Quant. "Almost my first clear memory is the day we were evacuated from Blackheath to a village in Kent," she wrote. That village, on the east coast of England, placed the family directly beneath the path of enemy planes flying over the coast on their way to bomb London. "Because we had no understanding of the grim tragedies of war," she remembered, "this was tremendous fun." She would run with her brother, Tony, and friends to investigate and ransack crashed planes, taking everything they could carry. "Our prize possession was some poor pilot's thumb which had been shot off and which we carefully preserved in vinegar in an airtight bottle," she gleefully noted.
Quant's schooling was random as her parents moved the family around the countryside, seeking teaching jobs and safety. At one point, Quant's parents sent her away to a "very proper, very correct, absolutely heartless" boarding school near Tunbridge Wells. Normally, however, she was near her family, finding all manner of mischief with Tony. While living on the coast one summer, Quant and her brother formed a business teaching rich visitors to sail. When the weather didn't allow boating, Quant wrote in Quant by Quant, she stayed home and sewed. "I think I always knew that what I wanted to do most of all was to make clothes … clothes that would be fun to wear. As a very small child, I had idolized a little girl we knew who took tap dancing lessons and wore very skinny black sweaters, short black pleated skirts and long black tights, white ankle socks and black patent ankle strap shoes," Quant recalled. "How I envied her!" Her artistic expression was flavored with the same measure of mischief found in her other pursuits. "When I was about six and in bed with measles," she wrote, "I spent one night cutting up the bedspread with nail scissors. Even at that age I could see that the wild color of the bedspread would make a super dress."
After completing her primary education in 1951, Quant's parents encouraged her to begin pursuing a career. "It was made absolutely clear to both of us from the start that we would have to earn our own livings," she wrote. "My parents never even considered the possibility that marriage might be a way out for girls. I was made terribly aware that it was entirely my own responsibility to make a success of my life."
Enrolled in Art School
Unfortunately, Quant's idea of a career path didn't quite match her parents' expectations. They wanted her to choose a sturdy, practical vocation. "It was only with the greatest difficulty that I ever persuaded them to allow me to go to art school," she related in Quant by Quant. "It was only when I managed to win a scholarship to Goldsmiths' that I was able to persuade them to agree to a compromise … if they would allow me to go to Goldsmiths', I would take the Art Teachers' Diploma."
With her parents' qualified permission, Quant enrolled at Goldsmiths' College of Art in London. Almost immediately she met Alexander Plunket Greene, who became her business partner and, later, husband. Her classmates, including Greene, were an education unto themselves, she wrote. "It was only when I went to Goldsmiths' that, for the first time in my life, I realized that there are people who give their lives to the pursuit of pleasure and indulgence of every kind in preference to work," Quant marveled. "At first it was a shock even to me; to my parents, such a thing was incomprehensible." Quant spent several years reveling in the atmosphere of Goldsmiths', but left after failing to earn her Art Teachers' Diploma. She took a job working for a Danish milliner, earning such a tiny salary she ate only occasionally.
Meanwhile, Greene and Quant had paired up with a friend named Archie McNair. When Greene inherited 5,000 pounds on his 21st birthday, the three decided to go into business together. They rented Markham House, a three-story building on King's Road in London's artist district, Chelsea. In Markham House, they opened a boutique on the first floor and a restaurant in the basement. They called the boutique Bazaar. Its owners knew little about the business beyond Quant's fashion philosophy: "I can't bear over-accessorization … a white hat worn with white gloves, white shoes and a white umbrella," she declared in Quant by Quant. "Rules are invented for lazy people who don't want to think for themselves."
True to her philosophy, Quant searched for the clothes she herself wanted to wear, selling miniskirts, funky dresses, bright tights and bras called Booby Traps to young people. The shop capitalized on the buying power of baby boomers, those born during the sharp increase in birthrate following the end of World War II, who were beginning to grow into teenagers.
Naive about the mechanics of running a retail business, Quant and her partners sold their wares with a markup much smaller than any nearby store, without realizing they were actually taking a loss on many items. "It was no wonder we did such a roaring trade the moment we opened," she later wrote. "The shop was constantly stripped bare-sometimes we hardly had enough to dress the window-because we never bought enough of anything."
Quant quickly discovered that manufacturers weren't making the kinds of clothes she wanted to sell, so she set up her own manufacturing outfit in her apartment, hiring a dressmaker to come during the day and help. Quant herself sewed dresses at night to sell the next day in the shop. "I had to sell one day's output before I had the money to go out and buy more material," she recalled, noting that at first, "I didn't think of myself as a designer. I just knew that I wanted to concentrate on finding the right clothes for the young to wear and the right accessories to go with them."
Struggling to make ends meet and suffering ridicule from the press and some passers-by, Quant persevered. In less than ten years, her clothing designs was world famous, selling in 150 shops in Britain, 320 stores in the United States, and throughout the world: France, Italy, Switzerland, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Canada, and more.
In 1957, Quant and her business partner, Alexander Plunket Greene, were married. In 1970, they had a son, Orlando. "We had an awful wedding," she recounted in Quant by Quant. "The Registrar, or whoever it was, put on a sanctified Dearly Beloved voice; he treated us in an impossibly pompous manner and went purple in the face with the effort."
Shortly thereafter, they decided to take another plunge, and opened a second shop, this one in the more swank Knightsbridge neighborhood. Soon, their production shifted into even higher gear when, in 1963, Quant was approached to design a line for J.C. Penney, at that time the biggest retail chain in the United States. Quant was selected to give the stores a more up-to-date image, with her bright, geometric printed dresses. "It was the first time ever that the clothes of a named British designer had been promoted throughout a large chain of stores across the States," Quant recalled. "It was exciting but worrying too."
Mod Look is Worldwide Phenomenon
She needen't have worried. Suddenly available on a mass scale, the "mod" look took the fashion world by storm. "I really believe that when the whole thing had first been planned, it had been looked upon purely as a promotional idea," she disclosed in Quant by Quant. The store's managers decided to stick with Quant as they watched sales soar.
With the flood of Quant designs came a change in the way women dress. "Fashion had always been dictated from above, by Parisian couturiers and other authorities," wrote William L. O'Neill in Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s. Fashion "was a monopoly of the rich. But in the sixties it was the young, and relatively unknown designers like Quant and Gernreich who catered to them, who set the pace.… Not since the 1920s had women's clothing changed so radically. No one could remember when the flow of fashion had been reversed on such a scale." Quant herself, in her autobiography, echoed the same sentiment. "There was a time when clothes were a sure sign of a woman's social position and income group. Not now," she wrote in 1966. "Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dress."
Even as she was changing the look of women worldwide, Quant was getting a crash course in the fashion business. "We were not the first to find out it doesn't always pay to be first in the field," she wrote. "The pioneer is the one who makes the mistakes, discovers the snags and prepares the ground for those who more cautiously follow after." Case in point was Quant's foray into clothing made from PVC, a vinyl material. She designed a line in PVC and orders piled up, but Quant's manufacturers' machines couldn't sew the material.
Despite the setbacks, Quant won a prestigious Sunday Times Fashion Award, shocking an entire industry that had previously been ruled by couture houses selling expensive, made-to-order clothes by famous designers. Quant's place in fashion history was secured when the London Museum mounted its 1973 retrospective exhibit, "Mary Quant's London."
Quant Empire Grew
Although Quant's designs eventually faded in popularity, the business continued to expand to include everything from carpet to swimsuits to toys. In 1983, she launched "Mary Quant at Home," a line of household furnishings featuring wall paper and china, based around a chosen color scheme. Color, in the form of cosmetics, was her lasting passion. In Quant by Quant, she explained her entrance into the field: "In the fifties, there was no makeup around that I wanted to wear," she told Vogue's Gully Wells. "So I started experimenting with crayons. The best were Caran d'Ache colored pencils. … Then the models started using theatrical makeup to get the look they wanted, so finally I decided to start producing my own line in 1966." Quant ultimately focused her energy almost entirely on her cosmetics line, which sold worldwide but was most popular in Japan, where, by the mid-1990s, Quant had more than 200 stores. Besides her autobiography, she had penned two additional books: Colour by Quant, published in 1984, and Quant on Make-up, in 1986.
Further Reading on Mary Quant
Contemporary Designers, 2nd edition, edited by Colin Naylor, St.James Press, 1990.
McDowell, Colin, McDowell's Directory of Twentieth Century Fashion, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1985.
Quant, Mary, Quant by Quant G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1966.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Fairchild Publications, 1988.
Vare, Ethlie Ann and Greg Ptacek, Mothers of Invention: From the Bra to the Bomb: Forgotten Women & Their Unforgettable Ideas William Morrow and Company, 1988.
Management, September 1997.
Vogue, July 1995; February 1999.
"Mary Quant," A&E Network Biography, http://www.biography.com (March 2, 1999).