Sunday, 29 April 2012

Mary Quant

Here's the review of Mary Quant's autobiography that I wrote for the Guardian, or you can read it here, albeit without any paragraph marks (see below), due to unfathomable technological issues. (For some reason, whenever I click on the Guardian website, my computer also goes into a spin). It looks like her original memoir is going to be reissued by V&A publishing later this year, so I look forward to reading that, as well. I don't remember my mother wearing any Mary Quant -- she was more of a Biba fan -- but I did find a wonderful second-hand black and white Quant check mini-dress when I was a student, which I wore as often as possible, until it fell apart. It's one of those pieces that perhaps I should have kept for posterity, but at least I had fun in that dress, cycling around Cambridge, whatever the weather. Speaking of which, I have never seen my garden so wet as this week; the lawn has turned into marshland, and the borders are overflowing with rainwater. Good for the plants, given that we're in a drought, but I'm longing for some sunshine. Feeling a bit gloomy at the prospect of an equally rainy May (is it just me that feels sleepy after days and days of grey skies?), which is apparently what we're forecast, but I suppose the trees will be thankful... PS: a query to anyone else who uses blogger. There seems to have been an 'upgrade', but it strips away the paragraphs when you post, even though they appear to be there in preview. Any advice?
Memo to self: consult great blogger in the sky...


The autobiographies of fashion designers have a tendency to cover up as much as they reveal, which might be an artful indication of their craft, albeit frustrating for the reader. Coco Chanel embarked on several failed attempts with ghost writers, and then decided against all of them; Christian Dior produced a tantalizingly opaque account of his life, with little in the way of personal detail; while Elsa Schiaparelli was as creative in reinventing her past as she was with her surrealist costumes, leaving the briefest of memoirs behind her.
   So it is with Mary Quant’s autobiography, which skims through her life with almost as much brevity as the miniskirts that made her famous. The book itself is a solid looking object – too solid, perhaps, for such a stylish subject, with cheap-feeling paper and a paucity of pictures – but the words skitter about all over the place, in truncated chapters and an eccentric narrative that incorporates lists but avoids linear convention. Quant’s account of how she found herself at the centre of the Swinging Sixties, as a designer and icon of the era, is impressionistic, and sometimes sketchy. Her itinerant wartime childhood is dealt with in less than six pages, skipping over her parents, who met at Cardiff University as ‘the prize pupils of their vintage’, thereafter becoming teachers, like Quant’s Welsh maternal grandparents. There is an occasional clue about the source of her fashion inspirations; in a school history exam on the Roundheads and Cavaliers, she declares herself to be on the side of the latter, based on their ‘accessories, hair styles, hats, make-up, toiletries...’ And she spies the ‘vision of chic’ at a childhood dancing class, who will form the basis for her future designs: ‘A girl with bobbed hair, wearing a black skinny-rib sweater, seven inches of black pleated skirt, black tights under white ankle socks, and black patent shoes…’
   It is this girl, an eight or nine year old, that Quant takes as her model for the Sixties dolly bird; child-like, with white socks exposing colt legs, a Lolita apparently liberated by the Pill. Not that Quant herself is immune to the inconsistencies of the sexual revolution; everyone adores her, but her beloved husband and business partner, the upper-class hipster Alexander Plunket Greene (‘a 6’2” prototype for Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney rolled into one’) is as unfaithful as his father had been in a previous generation. ‘Alexander was a hell of a womaniser, like his father, and that makes life bumpy,’ she admits, in a rare moment of emotional candour, before blaming herself in a manner almost untouched by notions of feminism. ‘I was working so hard and obsessed with design, so I knew it was partly my fault. Women would telephone me and say, “Can Alexander come out to play today?” And I would find little presents for him left in the car. The trouble was he was such fun to be with until he became too ill, and by then one cannot do anything about it.’ Her husband’s illness and death at the age of 57 is not referred to again until close to the end of the book, with a cryptic reference to alcohol: ‘He said he could not live without wine and vodka anyway.’ Other than that, ‘he just petered out… I can’t bear to write more about Alexander’s exit as I will never get over it.’
   Curiously, Quant’s descriptions of the Sixties also verge on the hazy – inevitably, perhaps, because of the whirlwind that spun around her – with repetition taking place of recollection. (‘Everything was changing. Chelsea was changing… Change, change, change.’) Names are dropped, as visitors swing down the King’s Road from the Royal Court Theatre to her boutique, although without much more in the way of context or analysis: ‘John Osborne, Claire Bloom, Susannah York, Audrey Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Leslie Caron and, later, pop artists and musicians like the Beatles and the Stones, photographers David Bailey and Richard Avedon, film directors Stanley Kubrick and Joe Losey, and models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy. Why it caused such heated attention from the start is hard to understand…’
   When she does write in more detail, it is with considerable panache, as with her evocation of an earlier post-war youth, when rationing still prevailed: ‘London was a bombsite and the only thing that thrived was the buddleia… If you went out to tea you took your own private plate of rancid butter and kept a sharp eye on it… Fog permeated everything. Fog was a smell. Fog was a colour.’ In the aftermath of this austerity, a new decade explodes into colour, but not always with the clarity or vividness in Quant’s memoir that you might expect.
   Nevertheless, this is a story to be cherished (indeed, one wishes that the publishers could have lavished it with more care). Quant’s understanding of the language of fashion is as astute as the way in which she shaped traditional gentlemen’s tailoring, pinstripe City suiting and herringbone tweeds into the clothes that she and her friends wanted to wear. In this, she had something in common with her predecessor Coco Chanel – that sharp sense of how to turn masculine classics into androgynous style with a feminine twist – and like Chanel, Quant built a global brand out of herself. Whether this can survive with anything like the same success remains uncertain (she resigned as a director 12 years ago from the company that bears her name, after a Japanese buyout). But the hidden history of Mary Quant will continue to be every bit as intriguing as before.

11 comments:

enid said...

maru quant brings back so may memories. I loved her clothes and pride of place was taken by a PVC raincoat printed with flowers in red that my father bought for me in London. One of our big department stores had a Mary Quant section where I bought a black and white mini dress and Mary Quant make up too. Oh she and Jean Shrimpton were our idols. We all wanted to be Mary Quant girls.

2012helen365 said...

It's a pity she skims over her childhood so quickly. My mother was at school with her in Tenby, Pembrokeshire for a while - my mother had always been the best artist in the school until Mary came along!

Lilac In May said...

Haven't had those blogger problems, yet, just the usual with comments. Great piece, I do love biographies, the truth is always subjective I guess. I was at the Fashion Museum in Bath today, the outfit chosen to portray Quant in the swinging sixties was dreadful, so drab.
The MacQueen outfit dontated by Sarah Burton needed a much better setting, a real diamond in the rough.

Justine Picardie said...

Enid, a Mary Quant PVC raincoat with red petals sounds just what we need now in London -- April showers bringing forth May flowers.
Helen -- thanks for your comment; and I agree, I'd love to read more about Quant's childhood. Her eye for period detail is really sharp. Also, the arc from Tenby to Chelsea is one I'd like to know more about. Did your mother have any other insights?
Lilac: interesting that you were in the Fashion Museum today in Bath. I think it can be difficult to make fashion come alive in a vitrine... like a butterfly in a glass frame.

jaywalker said...

I just finished reading 'The Last Curtsey' and Fiona McCarthy's second last chapter about the demise of debs includes some interesting insights into this era of fashion. She writes: 'Once Mary Quant introduced the mini skirt the concept of dressing in a style that reflected your position in society was fatally undermined.'

Lilac In May said...

You are right Justine, as with the arrangements of birds and butterflies that Victorians put under glass, the life of the white (feathered) dress had gone. Brocade and crinolines fared much better, or was it just that is how I am used to seeing them - still and silent.

Justine Picardie said...

Jaywalker -- what a coincidence! I've just been reading The Last Curtsey, as well; synchronicity.
Lilac -- sometimes movement is everything, isn't it?

jaywalker said...

Happy coincidence - they seem to happen on here! I was also fascinated with the chapter on Princess Di being the last vestige of a girl brought up to be a deb with all its connotations, and the stark contrast of Rose Douglas, the deb who went to prison as an Irish activist.

I'm now going to look for McCarthy's biography of William Morris.

enid said...

Looking for my Quant book and I just found a Biba biography full of swinging 60's and Carnaby Street. I am going to reread it- nostalgia is perfect for rainy weather. What reads do you suggest as I am finding it difficult to settle into a book and stay with it?

Justine Picardie said...

How about Hannah Rothschild's The Baroness? I'm going to blog about it v. soon. That's my suggestion for a new book to read.
As for the old favourites: have you read Elizabeth Bowen's 'To the North'? Or anything by Rosamond Lehmann? If you haven't read RL before (though I'm almost certain you will have done), you could start with Dusty Answer, her first book.

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