It seems like there are a lot of great movies coming out right now. So many great options it makes your head spin. Rarely are there so many movies out at once in the cinema that I want to see. I’m really interested in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho (for the classic rock nerds, you’ll recognise that title as a Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick, and Tich song) and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch – two of my favourite directors.
But this last trip to the cinema I decided to see Quant, a documentary about famous 60s fashion designer, Mary Quant. I decided to write a review for it for the blog because even though this isn’t a fashion blog, it’s 60s culture and I’d argue that fashion is adjacent to music because a lot of classic rock is about image. It was part of the marketing after all. You can’t just sound good, you gotta look good too and give the audience that full fantasy, that experience. Look at how many classic rockers had such distinct style, and who is one person who is a big influence on that? Mary Quant!
As you know, I love 60s fashion and when I was last in London, I went to the Mary Quant exhibit when it was at the V&A Museum – it was amazing! The 60s wasn’t only the best decade for music, it’s the best decade for fashion and for one simple reason: the clothes still look hip, cool, and fresh to this day and almost all of the trends of the decade aged so well. You can wear those clothes and still look stylish, turn heads, and feel beautiful. I can’t say that about every decade. Even the 70s had some cringe-y trends and the 80s and 90s, even worse! The 60s though, you can wear anything from the 60s and it looks so classic and timeless, especially if you’re wearing the ubiquitous mod looks that dominated the middle part of the decade. Even before and after that, with the elegant, classy matchy-matchy separates as seen on Jackie Kennedy and the eclectic styles of the dandy and hippie taking influences everywhere from India to the Victorian era, the 60s was a real decade of change and it blows my mind how diverse and dynamic it is in everything: music, fashion, technology, science, space exploration, film. Who doesn’t love the 60s?
As soon as I saw the trailer, I knew this was a must watch for me, but after seeing it in the cinema, would I still say it’s a must watch? Yes! This visually appealing documentary with a pretty kick-ass soundtrack, tells the story of the rise of Mary Quant, how her brand evolved and changed over the years, what impacts she had and continues to have on the fashion industry, and how she fits into the 60s – putting the popular styles of the time into context. There is no doubt that in the 60s, she was cutting edge and everyone looked at her and took notes. More on what I’ve learnt from the documentary in the things I learnt section!
There are a lot of iconic quotes from Mary Quant too, like in the opening and trailer.
“I think the point of fashion is to not get bored when looking at somebody. The point of clothes should be: 1. That you’re noticed, 2. That you look sexy, and 3. That you feel good”– Mary Quant
Isn’t that the truth? If clothing doesn’t do those three things, then what’s the point in wearing it? Life is too short to be wearing boring clothes that you don’t love and don’t make you feel your best. Mary Quant knew that and capitalised on it. And what a smart group of businesspeople they were: Mary is the design expert and brilliant mind who knew how to break the rules and is in touch with what the youth want and her husband Alexander Plunket Greene had nerve and knew how to market and get the clothes out there – their two minds together made fashion history. A real power couple!
Two quotes from her that stood out to me are: “Free yourself, Be yourself”, which is totally the spirit of the individuality of the 60s and “Fashion is not frivolous”, it’s part of being alive today.” – makes me think of how I sometimes feel the need to reconcile my love of fashion with my socialist views, but at the end of the day, you have one life – look fabulous while you’re on this planet. Can you be a socialist fashionista? Can you be socially conscious and fashionable? I don’t see why not! Being socialist doesn’t mean you have to live an ascetic life and struggle all the time.
Visually and aurally, it’s amazing. You’ll see a lot of real photos and videos from the 60s along with some really well done reenactments by models and actresses, including one who looks like a young Mary Quant. While Mary Quant herself doesn’t give any new interviews for this documentary, you have a lot of commentary from all kinds of people: fashion designers, style enthusiasts, fashion journalists/communicators/commentators, makeup artists, models, and even some classic rockers! Classic rock fans will love the commentary from Pattie Boyd and Pete Townshend, whose voices are in the documentary, and Dave Davies who actually appears in interviews for the documentary and I honestly loved his commentary, my favourite line from the whole thing was his comments on Mary Quant and the mini-skirt, something she may not have actually invented, but for sure something she popularised. He said something like, I thought miniskirts were a male invention because they make it easier to hook up with chicks.
It’s a little something for everyone and a delightful documentary to watch. Simply put, if you’re a 60s enthusiast, you’ll love this documentary because it doesn’t only talk fashion, but all things 60s and what made the decade so magical, and something that fascinates people. If you love history, you’ll get a bit of that with some discussions of women’s lib and how the 60s was really the decade where women finally started to feel free and break away from the traditionalist expectations of the past. If you love music, you saw what I said above. Even if you’re not a vintage or history enthusiast, it’s still interesting because it’s a special story about a very special person and there’s a human interest aspect in all of that. My husband isn’t obsessed with the 60s and fashion like I am and even he loved it!
Watching this documentary, you’ll see that what The Beatles are to 60s music, Mary Quant is to 60s fashion.
Things I learnt/Top 10 Takeaways
As I love to do with my reviews, I like to share things I’ve learnt and things I took away from whatever I’ve read or watched. I also like to add a little of my own research for background and so you can learn something new too!
1. Mary Quant’s Welsh upbringing & rebellious childhood
In the 60s and 70s, Mary Quant hid her real age, saying she was five years younger than she really was. A bit older than the Baby Boomers, she is part of the Silent Generation, but don’t write her off! She was with it and understood what the youth wanted and still, in the fashion industry, being in your 30s and a top designer is still quite young.
When you think about Wales what comes to mind? Badfinger, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Budgie? Well add Mary Quant to that list too!
Mary Quant was born in 1930 to Welsh parents and spent a good amount of her childhood in Wales, Pembrokeshire to be exact, and this gave her a love of the countryside, which you’ll see later in the documentary with her buying a nice home in the countryside and really loving the outdoors and the tranquility of being far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. As a child, she was tomboyish, sporty, and rebellious and growing up in the 30s and 40s, it was a very conformist time and she just didn’t like that. Even as a kid, she’d hike up the skirt of her school uniform, a precursor of things to come? And with the fashions of the 50s, she felt like she didn’t fit in with her body type being different from the ideal. Someone’s gotta change that! And Mary Quant was ahead of the game, wearing miniskirts before everyone else.
2. 60s culture was born at the art school
Mid 20th century Britain was really a pretty good time to be a young adult getting an education. It was tuition free and high quality and there were many opportunities for you once you graduated. Let’s say that university wasn’t the place for you, well, there was art school and quite a few rock stars you love went to art school: Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Keith Richards, Phil May, Freddie Mercury, Graham Lewis, and Adam Ant. Guess who else went to art school? Mary Quant! She studied illustration at art college.
3. Coffee Bars and Chelsea were the birthplace of rock and roll and fashion
In case you aren’t up to speed on your British rock history, British rock and roll didn’t begin in Liverpool at the Cavern with The Beatles. There was an era of rock and roll pre-beat music in Britain and it was born in the coffee bar. One of the most famous ones was The 2i’s in Soho, where Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard and the Shadows got discovered. The coffee bar was really just a gathering place for the youth to socialise, dance, and enjoy some great music. Before there was Top of the Pops, there were The Six-Five Special and Oh Boy!. Surely, this must have been a hangout and inspiration for some future British Invasion superstars.
Mary Quant particularly liked Fantasie in Chelsea, the same neighbourhood where she opened her first boutique, Bazaar – on the Kings Road. Besides Carnaby Street in Soho, the other cool place was Kings Road in Chelsea, where a lot of the cool boutiques were and the rock stars, actors, and models would shop there. Sadly, nothing from the 60s survived.
4. Mary Quant got her start as a milliner
After Mary Quant graduated from art school, she worked as a milliner, making hats for wealthy clients. She didn’t like that job very much and couldn’t stand the snobbery and pretension of the wealthy ladies who’d wear these hats. Something had to change! The young women of Britain wanted to wear something cool, and not their mother’s clothes.
5. The 60s were a response to the 50s, aesthetically
Each decade is a response to the previous one. For example, the simple, boyish 20s flapper style (a big influence on the silhouette and fashion of the 60s) was a response and a rejection of the Edwardian era’s highly structured Gibson Girl look. One thing stays the same throughout history, the young generation don’t want to look like their parents and want to wear something that’s theirs and rebels against the older generation. The 50s and 60s were the first time when you got to see teenagers be teenagers, not quite kids or adults, but a distinct group.
The fashion 60s was a response to the conformist, very traditional 50s. In the 50s, clothes were very gendered and there were a lot of expectations on women to dress girly and have the ideal hourglass body type, which left out those who were skinny and smaller chested, but not for long, the 60s was the waif’s time to shine! While 50s clothing was demure looking, aged one, and was quite restrictive, the 60s clothes moved, had colour and personality, and looked youthful. Gone were the cinched in waists (bad news for those of us who are stacked, if you will), long skirts, petticoats, wiggle dresses, stockings, muted colours, and overly girly looks. Here come the drop waist dresses, a-line dresses, mini skirts, colourful tights (said to be one of her inventions), and bright, fun colours and patterns. Maybe while we’re at it, we’ll burn some bras! The 60s was all about freedom!
6. The 60s were a rejection of couture
Before the 1960s, couture and fashion designers were what defined what was fashionable. But here comes Mary Quant to shake that up. The youth didn’t want to look like old duchesses, they wanted to look like themselves. They wanted something fun, youthful, and different. This was the era of the boutique. Instead, fashion was all about what the youth on the streets were wearing and from there, the designers copied that. The young generation said, ‘You can keep your Diors and Givenchys, we’d rather have clothes from unique boutiques that are more affordable and accessible to us, and speak to us too!’ If only today we could reject labels and just focus on the look of the clothes. Now it’s all about the annoying over the top logos and branding. Weird flex, but okay!
7. Makeup is just as important as clothing and Mary Quant knew that
Because the fashion of the 60s was so different from the 50s, the makeup had to change too. The makeup of the 50s was a bold red lip as the focal point, and a simple eye with winged eyeliner, and if you’re feeling fancy – blue eyeshadow, but that was old news. The 60s look was the reverse, the eyes were the focal point with bold graphic lines that can be seen a mile away, big doll-like lashes (and even some drawn on under the eye), and pale pink lips, almost the colour of concealer. A very youthful look and a perfect match for that mod Mary Quant style.
Mary Quant wasn’t just a fashion brand, it was a lifestyle brand, but more on that later. One thing that Mary Quant did just as well as clothing was makeup and it was innovative too with cool packaging so you know it’s not your mother’s makeup. Two famous items of makeup from her line were inspired by art supplies. A nod to her art school years? First is her makeup crayons, inspired by 60s street fashion and makeup where people would draw designs on themselves with crayons. The second is the paintbox, a simple travel-friendly kit with everything you need to create the perfect eye look.
8. Fashion is political
Everything is political and so is 60s fashion. In the 60s, there were a lot of advances for women’s rights. This was the first time when women could take control of their bodies and decide when it’s the right time to have a baby, if they want to have one that is! Women could be their own people, they didn’t have to have their identities defined by their relationship to men. And with more women in the workforce that meant more spending money and what to spend your money on? Clothes, makeup, concert tickets, fun things! I guess in the 60s, cigarettes were a big part of people’s budgets too. In the 60s, it was cool to reject wearing restrictive undergarments. Wanna go without stockings or tights? Why not? Anything goes in the 60s!
Mary Quant also questioned gender roles. The 60s was a time when girls looked like boys and boys looked like girls, the lines were blurred and people were experimenting with self expression, and some even experimenting with their sexuality. The fashion was androgynous and Britain was ahead of America in fashion. When British rock stars went over to America, they were always asked if they “were a boy or a girl” to the point where The Barbarians made a song about that. Mary Quant took elements of men’s fashion and made them colourful and feminine and when she and her models went to the US to show off their looks at a fashion show, they weren’t always allowed into establishments because they had dress codes that required women to wear dresses or skirts. Thankfully times have changed since then and women can wear whatever they’d like.
As well, shouldn’t we question how we consume and buy clothes? Fashion is inherently wasteful with its constantly changing trends. The best thing to do is buy pieces that are timeless, classy, and will last you a long time.
9. Mary Quant pioneered many things, including licensing her name
Besides popularising the miniskirt, Mary Quant licensed out her name and that’s how she grew her business. Mary Quant is not just a clothing brand, but a lifestyle brand. There was Mary Quant shoes, tights, dolls, perfume, you name it! She did collabs with Butterick clothing patterns and JC Penney, an American department store chain. However, this might have led to the fall of her brand because when you license out your name, you lose control of the product and its quality and if something is subpar, it makes your name look bad. But that wasn’t really the reason her popularity waned. You can’t always be the revolutionary, at some point after you gain a lot of popularity, you become the establishment. The trends changed to hippie and then glam and then punk rock. The Beatles breakup in 1970 was an end of an era and the 70s economically was a bust. The 60s party was over and many got left behind.
10. Mary Quant is a trailblazer and her legacy lives on
Even if her brand isn’t dominant and the brand as it is now doesn’t have quite that magic (seriously, make some reproductions of the old designs from the 60s, they’ll sell like hotcakes, trust me!), Mary Quant is a trailblazer. She influenced a lot of designers, one in particular being Vivienne Westwood who started a boutique called SEX, which she started with Malcolm McLaren. Punk and mod may look very different, but there are a lot of similarities – it’s about shocking people and wearing clothes that old fogeys won’t like. Even today you’ll see some of Mary Quant’s influences in fashion, yes even in the mainstream. I was at a department store and guess what I saw? A pinafore dress with a turtleneck underneath, yes that’s another thing she pioneered! The fashion of the 60s is so iconic, it’s no wonder it’s widely copied.
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