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Mary Quant: ‘Girls Will Be Boys’ – redefining gender and class norms in fashion.

The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone” – Mary Quant 1966

Currently on at the V&A Dundee, the Mary Quant exhibition displays some of Quant’s seminal pieces, covering over 20 years of her influential career from 1955 to the 70s.

Famous for popularising the mini skirt, Mary Quant was an influential and powerful force in the fashion world of the 60s and 70s. Her designs subverted normative gender ideas about how a woman should or should not dress, and refocused British fashion psyche away from elitist Parisian couture, towards the everyday woman.  A pioneer of her time, she empowered women through her collections and gave them ownership and freedom of choice in their clothing by making fashion accessible to the masses. For her the “point of fashion” was not to perform traditional feminine ideals, but for clothes to be a vehicle of self-expression for the everyday woman. The exhibition begins with “The Miniskirt”, the motif of her clothing for which she is well renowned. However, as the exhibit progresses it is clear that the depth and significance of her work extends much further than the miniskirt. 

Quant played with gender norms and challenged the traditions of the post-war era, representing a shift from modest feminine dresses to focus on the individuality and self-expression. 

“Clothes are a sort of statement about oneself, or what one wants to be. In ordinary life, I think a woman had to be, and had to dress, and had to act the part of the way the man in her life saw her. And she was never allowed to dress the part of being her.” 

Pieces displayed in the exhibition exemplify the way in which Quant’s clothes undermined the traditional patriarchal order, showing that women no longer had to “act the part”. Her “Waistcoat and Tie Dress” playfully disrupts masculine ideals of female fashion with its mannish lines and shapes. She took material intended for men’s professional suits and military uniforms to create dresses to mirror and mock traditionally masculine clothing and subvert normative gender roles. Teasing names of pieces such as the “Overdraft” waistcoat and the “Chequebook” skirt further satirise and challenge the masculine dominated financial world, and highlighting its ironies, parodying the fact that in 1966 (when these garments were manufactured), women were unable to open their own bank accounts or access credit without a male relative to act as a guarantor. However, that is not to say that Quant’s clothes had an over emphasis on boyishness. The collection is a mix of femme lacy dresses and bold designs. Indeed, her sweater dress collection has a focus on “female lines” to flatter female form, showing a woman doesn’t have to be confined to aping male stereotypes, but is equally empowered by dressing to emphasise her feminine qualities.

“Once, only the rich, the establishment, set the fashion. Now it is the inexpensive little dress seen on the girl in the high street.”

The exhibition underscored the influence of Quant in redirecting fashion from haute couture, and aiming it instead towards the everyday women and girls of Britain. This aspect of Quant’s fashion was highlighted throughout as the clothes were donated by normal members of the public. In order to put on the exhibition, the V&A sent a call for donations of original Mary Quant pieces, and the names and a short biographical piece about the real women who bought, wore and loved the clothes are presented alongside the items on display. Certain pieces show signs of wear, yet the imperfections of personal, treasured items further accentuated the ideology of fashion for real people. Her clothes were not designed just for runways and museums, but truly for the masses. 

Her clothes challenged societal norms of the accessibility of fashion. The ownership and empowerment of female self-determination in fashion – emphasised through shorter hemlines, wearing trousers, and masculine motifs – represent a time of cultural shift from post-war traditions to redefining gender roles in society. In a time in Britain when women are no longer so confined to the gendered norms of the past, it is difficult for many of us to conceptualise the fashion rules that these normative limitations imposed on women. However, you need only to look at what people on the street are wearing to understand how much of today’s style we owe to Quant. Her influence extends down through the decades and what struck me about many of her pieces was the timelessness of the designs. Collections such as the PVC collection, would be far from out of place on Market Street today. 

The Mary Quant exhibition is currently on show at the V&A Dundee, and runs until Sunday 17th January 2021.

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