Did she or didn’t she invent the mini skirt? Well, what we do know is that Mary Quant brought us that quintessential London Sixties look. Martha Hayes looks back at a British fashion icon.

It’s one of those age-old questions. You know, one we’ve mused upon so often, we presume we know the answer, but actually trying to nail it down opens the gates to a minefield: whether Mary Quant invented the mini skirt is definitely up for debate.

Controversy aside, Quant’s contribution to fashion is still significant. Writer Ernestine Carter best sums up what Mary Quant did for the Sixties: ‘It is given to a fortunate few to be born at the right time, in the right place, with the right talents. In recent fashion there are three: Chanel, Dior and Mary Quant.’

So how did Mary Quant, who cut her teeth at Goldsmiths on an illustration course, wind up part of such a subversive movement in fashion? Her beginnings weren’t dissimilar to her designer peers Barbara Hulanicki (Biba) and Jean Muir, who started out illustrating for Jaeger. After meeting her husband Alexander Plunkett-Greene, Mary Quant set up a small Kings Road boutique, Bazaar, in 1955 and it wasn’t long before she was catapulted to success in Swinging London.

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Quant started her own clothing range in the shop, popular with the Chelsea set of artists, film directors and socialites, hoping to put to bed any previous snobbery surrounding fashion. “The shop is a sophisticated candy store for grown ups,” she said. “I want women to come in here and play with colour and have fun.”

Unsurprisingly, a second Bazaar opened in 1961 and by 1965, her unique form of affordable couture for young women was bought by the chain J.C. Penney to be mass-produced for the US market.

But what about the clothes themselves? As we know from visionaries like Ossie Clark and Barbara Hulanicki, fashion’s rules were rewritten and completely unwritten during the Sixties. Mary’s early designs of simple shift dresses skimmed the waist, quite a statement compared to the nipped in waists and puffed out longer skirts of the Fifties. The Fifties’ divide between formal and casual also disintegrated, as illustrated in a 1960 edition of Vogue which featured Quant’s black pinafore teamed with a black jumper for daytime and then on its own as evening wear.

“The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone.” Mary had achieved this by 1963 when she launched her Ginger Group collection of more affordable mix-and-match pieces that could be worn together.

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The following year, mini skirts were rising up to the length that defined an era. French tailor Courreges, who had trained at Balenciaga, was making the shortest skirts in Paris and from this, Mary is thought to have taken inspiration. By 1965, she was selling even shorter hemlines. And the following year, the queen of the mini skirt turned up at Buckingham Palace to collect her OBE, wearing well, a miniskirt of course.

While hemlines continued to rise, the shape of Mary Quant’s designs remained consistent. They were always simple, neatly cut and young, using a lot of cotton gabardine, and often finished with a cute white collar.

Her skirts, dresses, A-line coats, clingy jersey dresses and sleeveless tunics all had one thing in common, they were easy to take on and off and, it’s often been said, designed to run for a bus in. It was all part of a new, exuberantly youthful approach towards dressing so it’s no wonder the archetypal Twiggy look gained such an allegiance with her designs, the two go hand in hand in history.

Mary Quant’s boutique Bazaar was known for its surreal window displays, unmistakable trademark daisy motif, fabulous famous customers like the girlfriends of The Beatles, but most of all, for being a haven where you could get fashionable clothes, make-up, jewellery and accessories all under one roof.

Constantly pushing design boundaries, Mary helped popularise PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which hadn’t been used in the fashion industry before. It gave a wet-look effect and was easy to colour and print patterns onto. She also started selling that old staple in all our wardrobes – tights. The perfect accompaniment to minis and hot pants, finally, liberation from girdles and suspenders!

By the Seventies and Eighties, Quant was concentrating on household goods and makeup, which continued to make money and her niche nail varnish and lipsticks among others, became licensed to be sold around the world. Today there are still hundreds of Mary Quant Colour shops in Japan.

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