M, 82 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
As she says herself in this documentary packed with talking heads and sixties fashion, diva of style in Swinging London, Mary Quant seemed to anticipate what people wanted at the time. This feature, directed by Sadie Frost, has also arrived at an opportune time. In the wake of a retrospective on Quant’s work and influence that was held at the Victoria & Albert recently, breaking museum records, and as the spotlight turns to the role of trend and fashion influencers on social media.
Actress, fashion designer and former fashion model, Frost has at her disposal a vast amount of archival material, including black-and-white video vision complete with timecode, that she combines with contemporary interview material with rock stars, fashion authors and academics, and top fashion editors. Opening on Peggy Lee’s breathy Fever, the music mix is accompanied by many great samples of the soundtracks of the time.
Quant was a remarkable influencer of mid-20th century fashion, so it is intriguing to learn that she was diffident. The daughter of schoolteachers, this country girl from Wales grew up a tomboy roaming wild with her younger brother for ‘summers on end’. Despite the dire conditions, life in wartime Britain could be a bit of a lark if you were young enough.
After fulfilling her parents’ wishes and completing a diploma in art education in postwar London, she drifted back into the world of fashion that was her preference, becoming an apprentice to a milliner. But the traditional route was not for her. She had absolutely no interest in dressing the hourglass figure celebrated at the time, or for the sedate elegance of the couturier look. Her fashions offered the wearer the opportunity to be noticed, feel relaxed, and perhaps sexy – and be free to run for that bus! Who wanted to look like a duchess, anyway?
Quant mantra to free oneself and be oneself a given now, but not back in the 1950s-70s
It is surprising to hear that her first shop opened in 1955. The dynamic fashion store Bazaar, a business on King’s Road, was a phenomenon, prompting her to open a second store on Brompton Road two years later. All the shots of young working women walking down the high street in her simple, short tunic dresses decorated in bright colours and geometric designs says it all. The contrast between this relaxed breezy look and the besuited, bowler hatted business gentlemen at the time is rather droll. It would be years before the Beatles shook the social foundations and there were plenty of influencers to come, but, as is pointed out here, fashion and social change go hand-in-hand.
It was also a surprise that Quant was not a sole operator. Her dynamic business partners, in particular her husband Alexander Plunket Greene, were critical to her success. Plunket Green was a natural impresario who had great impact on her creative confidence. Their friend, former lawyer and photographer Archie McNair also brought his skills to the Quant brand.
Did she invent the mini-skirt? Or was it Courreges in Paris? It seems hard to be certain, though what is clear is that she popularised it in a big way, taking hemlines even higher. And along came the patterned, colourful tights to go with it, and the hot pants. Of course, fashions like these need the right kind of makeup, so Quant developed her own line, and sold it in her ‘paintbox’.
The fashion models like Kate Moss, the rock stars like Dave Davies of the Kinks and the fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes who are interviewed here are united in their superlatives about the influence of Quant, who, as it happens, died at 93 last month. Her business partner and husband Plunket Greene had passed away 30 years ago. Westwood left us recently too.
The video excerpts of interviews with her in intrusive close-up reveal a woman who was surprisingly shy, but at the same time capable of standing up to tough questions, and moreover forthright. This advocate for more freedom for women also supported birth control, in the days when the contraceptive pill was new and controversial. Though she says she was too busy to find time for women’s lib, surely no one would quite believe her.