Lifetime Achievement – Dame Mary Quant

Dame Mary Quant, the British designer and Blackheath High School alumna who revolutionised fashion and epitomised the style of the Swinging Sixties, died in April 2023. Known as the mother of the miniskirt, she was 93.

Mary Quant was born in Blackheath on 11 February 1930, to Welsh schoolteachers John and Mildred. Evacuated to a village in Kent with her brother Tony during the war, Quant recalled her earliest fashion memory as being in bed with measles at six years old and cutting the bedspread with nail scissors to transform it into a dress. When Quant was dispatched to a boarding school in Tunbridge Wells and presented with an exam question that asked her to choose between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers, Quant deemed it a no-brainer. “I came down strongly on the side of the Cavaliers, as they were more chic,” she said.

On leaving Blackheath High, she expressed her intention to pursue a career in fashion. Her parents were firmly against the idea. Quant persuaded them to agree, on the condition that she took an art teacher’s diploma. Quant applied to and was accepted at Goldsmiths. It was here that she met her future husband, the debonair Alexander Plunket Greene, describing him as “a 6ft 2in prototype for Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney rolled into one”. Dame Mary Quant, the British designer and Blackheath High School alumna who revolutionised fashion and epitomised the style of the Swinging Sixties, died in April 2023. Known as the mother of the miniskirt, she was 93. Quant was dressed chiefly in balloons at the time.

“Life … began for me when I first saw Plunket,” she wrote in her 1966 autobiography, Quant by Quant. He was short on ready cash, with an income of “four bob a day,” she recalled, “if one bought cigarettes one couldn’t go to the cinema too.”

Mary Quant graduated from Goldsmiths in 1953, the year of the Queen’s Coronation, in a Britain still subject to wartime rationing, and began work as a trainee assistant at the Mayfair milliner Erik. Quant picked up pins with a magnet and counted out the ration of one chocolate biscuit a day for the assistants, who were so poorly paid that, as Cecil Beaton joked, “there were weeks when only an aspirin touched Mary’s lips and, but for the Jamaicans in nearby Claridge’s kitchens handing over their refuse bins, she would have starved.”

Plunket’s poverty ended on his 21st birthday when he inherited £5,000. Advised by the entrepreneur Archie McNair, a lawyer who had become a portrait photographer and who ran a coffee bar under his studio in Chelsea, the three decided to open a business together. Each man put up £5,000, and they bought a building at 138a King’s Road. Plunket told McNair that his girl was good at clothes, and Quant quit the Mayfair millinery to set up Bazaar, a fashion boutique, on the ground floor.Young women at the time were turning their backs on the corseted shapes of their mothers, with their nipped waists and ship’s-prow chests which had dominated since 1947. They disdained the uniform of the establishment — the lacquered helmets of hair, the twin sets and heels, the primly matched accessories — the model for which was typically in her 30s, not a young gamine like Quant.

Quant’s fashion connected with a new generation of aspirational and modern young women with careers and money in their pockets.

“I think to myself, you lucky woman – how did you have all this fun?”

When she couldn’t find the pieces she wanted, Quant made them herself, buying fabric from Harrods at retail prices on a Plunket family account, and had to sell each batch of clothes before she could buy more; when she ran out of stock, she simply shut up shop and started sewing in her bedsit, batting away her Siamese cat as it tried to eat the Butterick patterns she worked from.

Within seven years of opening in Chelsea, a second store was launched in Knightsbridge, and the business had made more than £1 million. Quant’s designs were in 150 shops in the UK, 320 shops in the USA and on sale globally in France, Italy, Switzerland, Kenya, South Africa, Australia and Canada.

Hair and make-up were also part of the vision. She was already having her hair cut at acute angles by rising star, Vidal Sassoon, telling him decades later, “I made the clothes: you put
the top on.” And in the mid 1960s, Mary Quant Cosmetics was born, to complete the Mary Quant “look”.

In the spring of 2019, when the Victoria & Albert Museum showed its retrospective of her work, a vibrant exhibition of 120 pieces from her heyday, the curators included a montage of photographs and memories from the thousands of women who had answered their call to share their beloved Mary Quant pieces — along with tales of how they had worn them as liberated young women heading to job interviews and first dates, a powerful tribute to Quant’s legacy and the nascent feminism of her times.

As tributes began to flood in on Twitter following news of her death, the Victoria & Albert Museum said: “It’s impossible to overstate Quant’s contribution to fashion. She represented the joyful freedom of 1960s fashion, and provided a new role model for young women. Fashion today owes so much to her trailblazing vision.”

In 2009, Quant’s favourite dress – called the Banana Split – was featured on a set of Royal Mail stamps, along with other icons of design including Concorde, Spitfire, the Anglepoise lamp and the London Underground map. When she wrote her second autobiography in 2012, three years before she was made a Dame for Services to the Fashion Industry, she looked back on her adventurous existence with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. “I mostly felt, my God, what a marvellous life you had, you are very fortunate. I think to myself, you lucky woman – how did you have all this fun?”

Dame Mary Quant Mary Quant, Blackheath High School alumna, fashion designer and entrepreneur, born 11 February 1930, died 13 April 2023.

GDST Life Alumnae Magazine 2024/25

Mary is featured in our 2024/25 edition of GDST Life alumnae magazine, where you will find a whole host of features and articles including stories, tips and viewpoints from a range of alumnae contributors, GDST and school news, our latest alumnae book listings, and how you can keep in touch.

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