By Anne Laure Mondesert & Caroline Taix
Mini-skirt creator and queen of Swinging London
The creator of the mini-skirt, British designer Mary Quant, turned 80 on Feb.7 still brimming with enthusiasm for fashion and women’s rights.
She admits a certain nostalgia for the “high excitement and innovation” of 1960s “Swinging London”, but told AFP it was “wonderful to be a woman and alive right now”.
“Women are enjoying their lives more than ever before,” she said in an emailed statement, and gave an approving nod to current trends: “It is all legs and bottoms.”
Quant scandalised British society with her frank views on sex and her thigh-skimming skirts and shift dresses worn with coloured tights.
Known for her bob haircut almost as much as for her designs, she revolutionised women’s fashion — and with it, how many of her customers saw themselves.
In her 2012 autobiography, Quant described with admiration the “superwomen” now who “move like athletes and sit like men with their knees well apart. Their children take their mother’s surname… They are in control”.
Quant herself is widowed with one son, Orlando, and three grandchildren. Her husband and business partner, Alexander Plunket Greene, died in 1990 at just 57.
She currently lives in Surrey, southwest of London, and remains a consultant on her make-up company that she sold in 2000, and which still bears her flower logo.
Quant met APG, as she called her husband, while they were studying at Goldsmiths art college in London, drawn by his eccentric style — he used to wear his mother’s pyjama tops as shirts.
Together they opened their first boutique, Bazaar, in 1955 in Chelsea, a district to the west of the capital that would soon become the beating heart of Swinging London.
Bazaar sold clothes and accessories, the restaurant in the basement became a meeting point for young people and artists and soon the whole district was attracting celebrities such as Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
‘Immoral and disgusting’
Quant designed short dresses and skirts with simple lines and vibrant colours, which she enjoyed showcasing in extravagant and provocative window displays overlooking the King’s Road.
“City gents in bowler hats beat on our shop window with their umbrellas shouting ‘Immoral!’ and ‘Disgusting!’ at the sight of our mini-skirts over the tights, but customers poured in to buy,” she recalled in her book.
The King’s Road became a constant catwalk show for girls in mini-skirts, drawing American photographers keen for a view of Swinging London with a party atmosphere rivaled only by Carnaby Street.
Business was good, and during the 1960s Quant opened a second shop in London, collaborated with the US department store JC Penney and launched a more mass-market line of clothes, The Ginger Group.
She used geometric designs, polka dots and contrasting colours and played around with new fabrics, including PVC and stretch fabrics, for a modern and playful look.
“The clothes I made happened to fit in exactly with the teenage trend, with pop records and espresso bars and jazz clubs,” Quant recalled in her first book, “Quant by Quant”.
“She was in the right place at the right time and that was part of her success,” confirms Jenny Lister, a fashion curator at the V&A Museum in London which has many Quant items in its permanent collection.
Quant’s personality and style — including her iconic fringe cut by Vidal Sassoon — made her “probably the most famous fashion designer that has come out of this country”, Lister told AFP.
“She had an audacious approach and she went out to get headlines and would make very provocative statements about sexuality and her private life as well, which perhaps went along with her clothes, which were seen as quite outrageous at the time,” she added.
Quant was honoured by the British establishment with an OBE in 1966, and her legacy can still be seen on the high-street today, including fashion stores like Topshop.
How mini conquered the world
It was all too much for Coco Chanel.
As the sixties started to swing, the French fashion icon pronounced mini-skirts to be “just awful”.
She also famously declared that she had never met a man who liked women wearing them.
How wrong can you be?
Half a century later and with Mary Quant, the mini remains a wardrobe staple worldwide.
A hemline half-way up the thigh is no longer synonomous with rebellion and newly-won sexual freedom as it was in the mini’s first decade.
But the style remains as popular as ever with the likes of Kate Moss and Sienna Miller having lately given it a contemporary twist as an element of the “boho chic” look copied by millions.
Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s current artistic director, recently described Coco’s dismissal of the mini as one of the biggest mistakes she ever made.
The German designer has underlined that belief by making above-the-knee skirts a staple of the Chanel suit.
“Coco must be turning in her grave,” observed Laurent Cotta, a fashion historian.
Cotta echoes Quant’s own admission that the mini was a trend on the streets before she gave it its name, taking inspiration from another 60s design classic, the Mini car.
“It was a revolution but it didn’t come out of nowhere. The trend was already established,” Cotta said.
“It was in the air — a mini-skirt was a way of rebelling. It stood for sensuality and sex. Wearing one was a sure-fire way of upsetting your parents.”
Not for the first time, a trend born in the youth culture of Britain soon found its way onto the catwalks of Paris.
Designer Andre Courreges is credited with taking the mini to France and some say he rather than Quant should be considered the inventor of the cut.
Whatever the truth, Courreges’s lead was quickly followed by rival fashion house leaders Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin. The latter pushed the trend to its natural limit with even shorter micro-skirts.
By the mid-sixties, the mini could be spotted around the world, its success driven by the parallel export success of British pop, spearheaded by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
A ban in, of all places, The Netherlands lasted only a few months and by 1968 the mini was part of the uniform of young female students and workers taking to the barricades in that year of upheaval.
Hazel Clark, a professor of design and fashion studies at Parsons University in New York, says the mini was a natural progression from the simple shift dresses popular in the early 60s.
“So when the mini skirt ‘arrived’ in the US care of Mary Quant’s designs and their variations, there was a ready market for it,” Clark told AFP.
“Also, by the early 1960s Britain was a big influence on popular music and ‘Swinging London’ on fashion.”
A basic of the modern wardrobe
Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, says the mini in its heyday was the mirror image of both “a new peacock revolution in menswear” and the sexual revolution that came with the widespread availability of the birth control pill.
“It’s come back periodically ever since then but it doesn’t have anything of the same significance anymore, it’s just one more style,” Steele said.
“Then it was really an integral part of youth culture and sexual liberation. It doesn’t carry those connotations much anymore.”
By 1969, minis were so popular in the United States that the Japanese embassy advised Prime Minister Eisaku Sato’s wife, Hiroko, then 62, to wear one on an official visit. In itself, a visit by 18-year-old British model Twiggy was credited with triggering a boom in mini sales — as well as a debate on whether “moral standards” were declining as fast as skirts were rising.
With the onset of the hippy era, minis fell out of favour as the in-crowd opted for longer flowing skirts or bell-bottomed trousers.
But they never entirely disappeared from closets and, with denim and leather versions to the fore, the mini has enjoyed a recent renaissance.
“It has become a basic, an essential,” said the French couturier Alexis Mabille.
While the ‘60s mini was frequently offset by bare skin and high boots, the modern trend has been for less overtly sexy combinations with thick tights or leggings.
Minis have been a feature of Mabille’s recent haute couture and ready-to-wear collections and he vaunts the benefits of a high-cut waist, which he says “makes legs seem three metres long.” Cotta however warns that the mini’s unforgiving nature means it is not for everyone. “There is nothing more difficult to wear,” he says. “It was born into a world that saw itself as egalitarian, but it’s the most non-egalitarian piece of clothing there could be.”