Fashion With Flexibility : How Mary Quant Liberated Women’s Clothes And Lives
07 Apr 2023
Words by Megan Earl
Allow me to introduce you to revolutionary 1960s fashion designer, Mary Quant. The woman who not only put sky-high hemlines on the map but who also rejected a system that continuously oppressed women - by creating designs that sought to uplift the wearer and revitalise their sense of play. Quant opened the boutique store, Bazaar, on The King's Road in 1957 and found immediate success - skyrocketing her career to build a global empire and superbrand. While modern designers offer throw-away trends, Quant ripped up the original foundations to implement a legacy that is still relevant today.
“Clothes are a statement about what one wants to be,” said Quant. The swinging ’60s was a period, no pun intended, of liberation, especially for women - seeing the introduction of the contraceptive pill. Free love was in the air and many were hungry for change and in pursuit of excitement. My grandma describes the transition from the 50s to the 60’s “...as if someone turned a light on to new, exciting possibilities”. Quant embodied these ideals and is responsible for many of the designs that we still have hung up in our wardrobes.
“Fashion is a tool... to compete in life outside the home. People like you better, without knowing why, because people always react well to a person they like the looks of.” - Mary Quant, 1966
Certain colours, shapes, embellishments and textures have an undeniable influence over a wearer’s psychological processes. A phenomenon known as enclothed cognition - a term coined by Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky, after exhibiting their white lab coat experiment in 2012. The experiment consisted of 58 participants, who were asked to complete a series of randomised trials, whilst dressed in either their own clothing or a lab coat. They were tested on their selective attention abilities, which improved across the board, with both groups making significantly fewer mistakes when physically wearing the lab coat.
With that in mind - clothing can communicate our mood, state of mind and alter our own external perceptions; it’s our armour. Quant realised the power of fashion and revolutionised women’s clothing to enable free movement that coincided with their newfound body autonomy.
"I want free-flowing, feminine lines that compliment a woman’s shape…relaxed clothes, suited to the actions of normal life" - Mary Quant
Before Quant, it was near impossible for women to be mobile. Caged in clothing that restricted movement and that was designed to maintain modesty. Quant sliced the fabric that weighted women and is often credited for bringing the decade's most iconic look to the limelight - the ever-polarizing mini skirt. A thigh-grazing garment that would give a Victorian man a brain aneurysm, as even baring ankles was considered indecent exposure during this era. Who knew the ankle bone could be so erotic and scandalous.
Above the knee fashion was part of a wider movement, and Quant was a significant piece of a larger puzzle - utilising clothing to break down social codes and to be part of the cultural shift towards informality.
The mini skirt was and still is a symbol of youthful rebellion. Last year we saw the graduation of the mini to the micro skirt, a nod to styles seen in the early noughties. Cropping up on the runways of Miu Miu, Chanel, Versace and more. Despite the gear shift in attitudes towards women’s fashion, the skirt was synonymous with the original messaging. That of female empowerment and play. Given the cyclical nature of fashion, this itty-bitty silhouette is bound to grace both the runways and high street in years to come, shedding a few more inches with each return.
Comfort and style - it’s a magical moment when the two work hand in hand. Quant saw potential in the avenue of using jersey fabrics. The fabric itself had been used since the 17th century, but for the production of underwear and stockings, and only after the second world war did manufacturers consider this a real gateway to a wider net of consumers. The material was cheaper than wool, and given the loose fit Quant opted for, it was also more efficient for mass production than the precision required for tailoring.
Pullover pinafore jersey dresses were a Quant signature and a staple piece in the launch of her Ginger group collection in 1963. One way to spot a genuine, authentic Quant jersey is to check the label, you’ll either find the ginger snap collection plastered on it or her name.
Quant was inspired by her customer base, that of mods and dancers, and people on the hunt for fun. From this, it’s no wonder that the jersey dress reigned supreme, as it allowed free movement in an array of different colours and shapes; an item for any occasion that offers a quick, classic look even now.
A challenger of gender norms and promoter of trousers for women, Quant seized the opportunity to incorporate this look as an integral part of a woman’s wardrobe. Injecting trousers with a new lease of life and pushing them to be worn outside of the home, as many women still saw trousers as an item to be worn for informal occasions or in private. Historically speaking, trousers were considered a male garment, but Quant made it her mission throughout the entirety of her career to play with gender conventions and was an advocate for sporting typically more masculine styles.
Quant was part of the movement that paved the way for flexible fashion; creating clothes that enabled the wearer and could be part of the experiences of life, not inhibit them. I’m also personally grateful that I don’t have to worry about tripping up on a petticoat when running for the bus.
Generally speaking, we’re fortunate in this modern era that we’re granted permission to express ourselves freely through how we dress. If we can take any inspiration from Quant, it would be to experiment and play, as it’s an act of self-love to wear what makes you feel good.