Following the sad passing of the pioneering fashion designer, The Knightsbridge Edit remembers the Sixties icon who made clothing glamorous yet accessible, and her exceptional legacyWords: Catherine Hales
Mary Quant: Queen of West London
There are few items of clothing that embody the spirit of the Swinging Sixties quite like the miniskirt. A rebellious break from ’50s prudishness, it signalled a new era of women’s fashion that shamelessly showcased a much-needed liberation from modest hemlines and high collars. And the woman behind it all? Mary Quant.
The daughter of two Welsh schoolteachers, Mary was born on 11 February 1930 in south-east London. After a stint at Goldsmiths studying art education, followed by a millinery apprenticeship, she opened Bazaar on the King’s Road in 1955. It was a sensation. Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones were among its frequent visitors. Bazaar’s fashion boutique and its basement restaurant instantly became a hub for artists and young people – who in turn became her muses.
‘I was making clothes which would let you run and dance, and we would make them the length the customer wanted,’ Mary is quoted as saying of her most famous design. ‘I wore them very short, and the customers would say, “shorter, shorter”.’
After the roaring success of her King’s Road shop, she opened a second (also named Bazaar) in 1957 in Knightsbridge, in a Brompton Road space designed by Terence Conran. Her original and often outrageous style drew on the Beatnik chic of the Knightsbridge locals and the Chelsea Set, as well as the cool simplicity of the Mods. Her iconic haircut, the work of her friend Vidal Sassoon, soon became another of Mary’s trademarks, copied up and down the fashionable streets of SW1X.
The witty window displays at Bazaar quickly became as notorious as the clothing. Writing in her 1966 book, Quant by Quant, Mary recalled: ‘City gents in bowler hats beat on our shop window with their umbrellas shouting “immoral!” and “disgusting!” at the sight of our miniskirts over the tights, but customers poured in to buy.’ She had no intention of stopping there, however. In 1966, she designed the first-ever pair of hot pants. The “skinny rib” sweater, along with PVC clothing and footwear are also numbered among her creations.
By the end of the ’60s, Mary had been awarded an OBE, penned her autobiography and it was estimated that up to seven million women had at least one of her products in their wardrobe – not to mention her “Daisy”-badged cosmetics range worn by many more. She continued for years, working at the forefront of fashion and cosmetics in the UK. In 1990, she was awarded the prestigious Hall of Fame Award by the British Fashion Council, published her second autobiography in 2012 and became a Dame in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list. She passed away on 13 April 2023, peacefully at home in Surrey, aged 93.
From dressing the era’s It Girls (a group topped by Twiggy) to making fashion irreverent and accessible to ordinary women, Mary Quant’s abiding influence cannot be overestimated. She brought colour and chaos to her corner of West London and even a glance into Harrods today would show countless designers who owe her everything – among them Ganni, Miu Miu and Gucci, as seen in this season’s vibrant knitted minidresses.
‘We didn’t necessarily realise that what we were creating was pioneering,’ said Mary in 2019 at the opening of her retrospective at the V&A. ‘We were simply too busy relishing all the opportunities and embracing the results before rushing on to the next challenge.’
Catherine Hales is a London-based writer and editor