Mary Quant: Not Just A Fashion Influencer

Now it’s rare that I stray from the path of interiors but I hope you will forgive me this one-off indulgence. Last week I was invited to the preview of a new exhibition at the V&A museum – the first ever retrospective on the fashion designer Mary Quant.

image courtesy of the V&A Museum
image courtesy of the V&A Museum

Yes it’s fashion, but Quant, now 89 and a Dame, was so enormously influential in so many fields –  she not only revolutionised the high street (and most high street fashion stores now sell homewares but her pioneering attitude and challenge the social mores of the period as well as being central to that period in the 60s when London, or more precisely Chelsea, wasn’t just a place but an attitude. A time when Terence Conran opened the first Habitat and Zev Aram, set up the first Aram store nearby. Zeev told me years ago that people would come into the store and berate him for its ugliness – read modernity.

image courtesy of the V&A Museum

Indeed London’s Fashion and Textile Museum also has an exhibition bringing Quant and Conran together to tell the story of a lifestyle revolution which runs until 2 June.

The two were friends and while Conran was revolutionising our homes with his modern textiles and furniture, so Quant was changing the clothes that women did it in.

image courtesy of the V&A Museum

Quant was hugely influential both then and now. The V&A exhibition focuses on the years between 1955 when she began her career with a tiny shop on the King’s Road to 1975 by which time she was a global sales phenomenon with clothes, make-up, hosiery, bags and the famous Daisy doll, launched as a rival to Barbie but with her own (much cooler) mini Quant wardrobe. I had one and there was also colouring books and press-out paper dolls that you could dress.

image courtesy of the V&A Museum

At a time when women were banned from wearing trousers in restaurants, Quant defiantly wore what she wanted. Credited with inventing the mini skirt – she didn’t it was already being worn in street fashion – she made it much, much shorter.

When I wrote about the exhibition after attending the opening last Wednesday, one woman (@lindacathetine) got in touch to say: “In the late 60s we were finally allowed to wear trousers. However, I was sent home from work for wearing hot pants. It was a dare and I had taken a dress just in case…”

image courtesy of the V&A Museum

Anne Skinner told me: “ I remember being accused of causing a riot in the playground when I was a novice teacher because I was wearing trousers to work.”

It seems hard to imagine nowadays, but given those remarks, we can understand just how groundbreaking Quant was.

mary quant at the V&A
mary quant at the V&A image by KW-S

It was also incredible looking at all the clothes and just how wearable they would be now. I would happily wear any of the dresses and jackets that are among the 120 outfits on display.

Opening the exhibition, Tristram Hunt, said that while the clothes were more expensive than the high street (twice the price of M&S back then) they were worn by everyone from debutantes to nurses.

mary quant at the V&A
mary quant at the V&A image by KW-S

Quant brought bright colour of a dull post-war Britain and with it a period of optimism and a desire to change the status quo. She was, said Hunt, bigger than a brand. She was a movement of hope and liberation. I only wish she could start designing again.





Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. I longed for a ground breaking Mary Quant hair cut but my hair is curly. In 1971 London Hot Pants were worn in the sales office. Biba was affordable but not Quant therefore she was emulated. Innocent times!

  2. Adore Mary Quant and am looking forward to visiting this exhibition. The fashions of the 1960s definitely had an influence on interiors so most appropriate for this blog – all those Twiggy types needed a modernist pad to go with their mod dresses.

    According to the Vogue editor Marit Allen, it was John Bates who invented the mini-skirt (he’s most well-known for designing Diana Rigg’s op-art wardrobe in the black & white Emma Peel episodes of The Avengers) but it’s more likely a zeitgeist moment that designers of the time tapped into from seeing young women pulling their skirts up.

    Whilst Mary Quant symbolised the revolution in women’s clothing with her shop Bazaar on the King’s Road, her styles were initially expensive (before the introduction of the cheaper Ginger range in 1963) and bought by rich debutantes who didn’t want to dress like their society mothers. it was John Stephen who aimed his affordable menswear at young men who couldn’t shop in expensive stores and proceeded to dress the 60s mods from his revolutionary shops (all 15 of them) on Carnaby Street.

    Mary Quant herself said of “The King of Carnaby Street” John Stephen that “He made Carnaby Street. He was Carnaby Street. He invented a look for young men which was wildly exuberant, dashing and fun.”

  3. Great post! The sixties was indeed an exciting and complex decade, artistically, culturally and historically. I was school girl in my teens when Mary Quant designs featured in ‘Honey’ and ‘Petticoat’, but alas too provincial than to do more than dream of owning any. Fast forward 40 years and the Arts Faculty at the Open University, where I worked, staged a ‘60’s Day’ led by Arthur Marwick, who has written extensively on the subject, and invited Mary Quant to come for lunch and to talk about her experiences. Priceless.

  4. Love this post. Thank you for reminding us all that hope and optimism start from within. Different times but same need at this moment. KW-S for PM!

  5. I couldn’t agree more. I also went to see this last week and came away feeling that what we so need now is another Mary Quant to brighten up our lives, shake us all up a bit, and make us smile. It was a superb exhibition (as ate all the V&A shows), although it also made me want to ditch my existing wardrobe and learn how to sew!

  6. Hi Kate,
    I loved Mary Quant (even her name is so cool!)
    My Nan bought me a Quant dress for Christmas –
    I guess I was only about 11 / 12 & my Aunt
    bought me a tray of her Make Up.
    I couldn’t believe it!
    I also had a Daisy – she was awesome!
    I’m sure now, reading your post & thinking
    about Quant, she must have effected my life
    choices (yes perhaps subliminally) along with my mothers books on Dada & Surrealism to “get into”
    Design and become an Architect.

  7. Lovely! I adored Mary Quant. I was very young and just getting into fashion. What a glorious time it was for fashion. So much originality!

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