Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Mary's fascinating autobiography is as short as her trend-setting skirts

Mary Quant and the Beatles defined the 1960s. If England swung - and Time magazine thought so, its April 1966 cover capturing the moment - then Mary, every bit as much as John, Paul, George and Ringo, set it in motion.

Quant democratised fashion creating clothes for young women who would have morphed into a younger version of their mums. She named the mini-skirt after her favourite car.

Bishops, judges and Daily Telegraph-reading fathers complained about the "disgrace" of the mini yet thrilled at the new vista. Quant gave women "legs and an easy look and a mix of male suitings and very feminine blouses under sleeveless dresses", topped off by "Picasso ponytails or Vidal Sassoon bobs and five-point cuts".

Her first creations were run up on a sewing machine in her Chelsea flat from materials bought at Harrods. They were sold in Bazaar, the shop she and her soon-to-be-husband Alexander Plunket Green (APG) launched (along with an espresso bar and a restaurant) with his £5,000 inheritance.

Opened in 1955, Bazaar made history, and soon Quant and her designs were featured in Vogue. The designer herself was scarcely into her twenties.

The cover shows Quant in mini-skirt and blouse under a suede jerkin, her shapely legs clad in tights - which she brought out of the theatre and on to the high street (the paraphernalia of stockings didn't work with the mini).

The photo sums up the era: Quant was designing clothes for girls like her. Soon there was perfume, make-up, linens, carpets and a doll. Daisy Britain's response to the ubiquitous Sindy, an English rose complete with a wardrobe of MQ clothes.

Quant was a worldwide success, at her peak designing 18 collections a year.

She and her aristo-dandy-jazz-loving errant husband, whom she met at Goldsmith's art school, clearly enjoyed every minute of it: launching her JC Penney collection at the British Embassy in Washington; driving to the south of France, holing up at La Colombe d'Or; hanging out with a Beatle or two; lunching with Nureyev... Quant and 'APG' made the Sixties Technicolor.

Yet the story is modestly told, and the book less an autobiography than a series of deftly painted scenes from a life.

In a half-dozen pages, she recalls her parents, the children of miners, who won scholarships and took Firsts, and the "enormous fun" of her wartime childhood.

Her interest in fashion started early (asked during a history lesson to take sides in the Civil War, she chose the Cavaliers, "as they were more chic") but her parents told her there was no future in it.

Art school was a compromise. By page 18 she's earning £3 10s a week making hats in Brook Street.

By page 24, she's part of the Chelsea set.

Quant brings to her memoir the same sense of style and detail she once brought to fashion. She's got terrific recall, a neat turn of phrase, and the story she tells is as much the socio-cultural history of an era as a personal one. If only she'd told it at greater length.

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