Review of V&A Dundee and the Mary Quant Exhibition

ARTicle by Alexa Dewar, ARTiculation Ambassador (King’s College London)

As I walk in, I’m not sure what to expect. I have ventured to the V&A in Dundee, eager to see an exhibition about fashion. It is one of the first days of reopening. I have to wear a mask – hand sanitizer on arrival – and walk via a one-way system through the whole museum. Needless to say, it all feels a bit off. The usually grand space directly inside the museum is different; its vast entrance is marred by the people checking my timeslot and the restrictive barriers that prevent me wandering as I want. But this is the new normal, and what can we do to get used to it? Get on with it.

So, I’m here to see the Mary Quant exhibition: a woman who I know little about, bar the fact she is an icon of the fashion and design world. Extremely successful down south, the exhibition has been transferred directly from its presence in London’s Victoria & Albert museum to the Dundee equivalent. Given Dundee’s up and coming fashion scene – the existence of many budding businesses (assuming they haven’t all gone bankrupt during the pandemic), eager art students from the college, and public members with a keen interest in art – it seems well-suited to its placement here.

As soon as I walk into the exhibition, the atmosphere of the room hits me. It’s popping. Everything about the space is alive; the colours bouncing from garment to garment; the fun 60s music blasting overhead; the striking poses of each mannequin. The vibrancy seeks to recreate an atmospheric feeling of Quant’s 1960s, immediately setting the tone for what’s to come. Or perhaps it is the mood that we think existed when we look back at her work and view it from a distance. Either way, I feel as though I’ve been transported to the bubbly, swinging sixties of post-war Britain, when everything felt like it was on the up.

The exhibition details a chronological tale of Quant’s ascent to fashion royalty. Beginning in her youth, it highlights that she attended Goldsmiths in London. Then, in 1955, she purchased a shop on Kings Road, London, which became a success after she sold her personal designs (the shop had previously been a ‘bazaar’ – filled with various designer’s goods). Whilst the garments on display do not follow her time narrative (these are interspersed from years throughout her career), the practicality that characterised all of Quant’s designs immediately comes through; from swimming costumes to garments women could dance in. You can tell that Quant was ready to shake up the fashion industry. This gave women a freedom they had seldom experienced before, given that garments were often designed for social purposes and prioritised aesthetics, not practicality. Throughout the earlier pieces, we are able to see the design aesthetic she is known for – miniskirts, unfitted silhouettes, simplicity – illustrating her ability to make timeless pieces. Yet it is only in the later pieces of Quant’s career that her confidence and boldness in terms of colours and fabrics becomes clear, illustrating how both of these factors grew greater over time.

Around half-way through the exhibition, there is a video of the people who wore Quant’s designs – giving us a context to the community she created, that is, those who wore her clothes and became synonymously part of the Mary Quant ‘look’. It is evident that this look built up to so much more than the garments she created; it also included the make-up, the music, the attitude of the people who wore her designs. The exhibition, through its multi-mediums (videos, garments, music, etc), really captures the multi-dynamic nature of Quant as a designer. The reality that her designs went so much further than clothes is indicative of her reputation as a designer – only the true greats can define more than cuts of cloth. They can define a time, a feeling, a movement; all of which does more for the world – in terms of barriers that existed for women and challenging the Parisian dominance of the fashion world – than we realise.  

Popping colours define Quant’s later designs; her iconic designs (acquired mainly through private collections) are clearly more forward thinking, with bold patterns and intricate design features slipping into the pieces. There is an emphasis on easy-to-wear clothing, such as jumpsuits and wrap dresses, that were not fashionable, nor stylish, before Quant transformed them. Her uncompromising quest for practical, beautiful pieces probably made her the name that she is in the fashion – and feminist – world today.

Although sad, it is perhaps pertinent that Quant’s brand did not continue following her resignation. Today, the Quant brand lives on only through the time capsule of an exhibition the V&A displays, personal memories, and an eye make-up line available in Japan. Thus, Quant’s brand and associated ‘look’ has stuck. And for that, she truly stands out.  

After I exit through the one-way barriers in place, the Quant exhibition gets me thinking what clothing will define the current times. If anything, it is a reminder not to fall into the trap of pessimistic thinking. Quant’s designs could have been more reflective of post-war 1960’s reality – women slipping back into their place in the household – millions of men struggling with PTSD – whole countries recovering back to ‘normality’. But instead, she changed the narrative – she made it more positive, hopeful and optimistic than most people were willing to think. And for this, in the current times of apparent chaos and abnormality, we can learn. Let’s take a vermillion green leaf out of her pop-coloured print book.

By Alexa Dewar, ARTiculation Ambassador

Mary Quant is showing at the Dundee V&A until 17 January, 2021

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