The exhibition Mary Quant currently showing at V&A Dundee is filled with revolutionising fashion, feminist dogma and, ultimately, playful artistry. As the first international retrospective focusing upon the career and significance of Dame Mary Quant (born 1930), the exhibition offers a spirited glimpse into Quant’s work spanning the years of 1955 to 1975. Although the exhibition was set to run from the 4th April until September, lockdown in Scotland halted these plans. As such, the V&A Dundee’s reopening in conjunction with Mary Quant holds a particularly energetic spirit though still ensures the safety of its visitors through mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-sanitising upon entry and exit.
When one enters Mary Quant, there is an immediate sense of youthful enthusiasm and nonconformity. Although the timespan of the exhibition suggests the vogue of a different era, what is particularly noteworthy is the discernible impact Quant holds on fashion trends even today. The exhibition’s exceptionally impressive array of Quant’s work emphasises her revolutionary designs, such as the miniskirt, subverted menswear and hot pants, all of which are commonplace today. Although these clothes were evidently startling at the time, Quant was simply wishing to offer young girls a style that was fundamentally freeing. As she stated, ‘I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move, in which you could run and jump and we would make them the length the customer wanted’.
Mary Quant undoubtedly highlights this feminist perspective: her desire to mass-produce for the common girl is shown in private interviews scattered throughout the exhibition, where she explains that she is embracing this age of mass-production and widespread distribution. The articles of clothing are also commonly accompanied with the sale price of the time, demonstrating to the visitor that Mary wanted to make affordable, designer fashion for the everyday working girl wanting to reject the traditional clothing worn by her mother and grandmother.
However, what is particularly unique about this exhibition is the personal quality attributed to Quant’s clothes. The V&A South Kensington, when first curating this exhibition, released a public call-out for individuals to provide any articles of Mary’s clothing they still had on hand. These articles on display in the exhibition are accompanied by intimate glimpses into each customer’s history with the outfits; informative descriptions in front of each article name the customer and include them recalling how they felt when purchasing clothes from Quant’s Bazaar shop, which opened in 1955, or wearing the styles from day-to-day. The liveliness of Quant’s fashion is then further illustrated through photographs of the outfits being worn by the contributor.
Although photographs capture the energy radiating from Quant’s clothes, the V&A Dundee has gone one step further by collaborating with Dundee Contemporary Arts to screen a cinematic celebration of her fashion designs. By screening films such as Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road, Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, one can view Mary Quant’s clothes in action. There is a particularly amusing quality to the clothes as one sees Audrey Hepburn striding in a bright colour-blocked dress, or Jane Birkin dancing in an extremely short hemline. Ultimately, this offers the viewer a wonderful opportunity to see Quant’s clothes actively worn, and one not to be missed after viewing this lively exhibition.
Admission is ticketed.
With grateful thanks to Teresa Lillis for this review.
See also the Dovecot Studios show Mid-Century to Modern in Edinburgh.