Fashion & Feminism: The Revolutionary Mary Quant

By Gabrielle Ebeling

At the entrance of Bendigo Art Gallery’s main exhibition space, a bewigged mannequin stands tall and thin. Sporting a cropped hairstyle and a marshmallow-like beret, the model brings to life a short, A-line dress that flows geometrically to create a gently feminised form.   

The outfit, crystallised in a pristine glass cabinet, was worn by British fashion icon Mary Quant as she received her Officer of the British Empire (OBE) from the Queen. With its high hemline and jersey knit, the dress’s outing to Buckingham Palace was quintessential of Quant’s fashion empire; audacious, rule-bending and iconoclastic in the face of the established conventions of British institutions.

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Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary is the first international retrospective of the iconic designer’s work from 1955 to 1975.

Borrowed from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the survey of Quant’s legacy is an effervescent celebration of the designer’s use of fashion to manifest new attitudes, ideas and ambitions in the post-war landscape. Wrapping the whimsical outfits in their social and historical context, audiences are guided through space, time and geopolitical landscapes to witness the electrifying freedom that Quant’s cost-effective and modern designs imparted on women globally.  

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As the exhibition begins, dresses with dropped waists made from repurposed fabrics form an unexpectedly modest example of the self-taught designer’s first works. In 1955, Quant had just opened her fashion boutique Bazaar in London’s King’s Road, a popular fashion district for the city’s young and creative.  

Just one year after the end of rationing in England, it was a time when young people’s income was at its highest since before World War 2. Further education and higher wages had led to increased affluence and social mobility, fuelling young people with a new sense of identity and a need to express it.

There were little means to do this, however. The 1950s were dominated by the mature elite, with fashion controlled by the couture houses in Paris that sculpted women into hourglasses and defined their beauty and relevance through the lens of the male gaze.

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In reaction to the insufferable austerity that was continuing to hold young people hostage, Quant used new, cost-effective fabrics to create free-flowing feminine lines and colour-blocked ensembles. These innovative pieces functioned as a much needed intersection between women’s yearning for autonomy and the economic, sexual and social liberation that the 1960s were finally delivering.

Far more than transient fads and materialism, Bendigo Art Gallery’s survey of Quant’s works reinforces the elemental role that fashion plays in our society. Inspired by the wants and needs of her customers, most of whom were young, working women, the streamlined outfits conveyed new expectations and individual identities – a strident declaration that women’s liberation was here, and it wanted to be noticed.

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As audiences are weaved through zigzagged channels, the evolution of Quant’s feminist rebellion gradually unfurls. From a repurposing of Victorian frills and bloomers to create flamboyant modern ensembles that mocked British institutions of the past, to high-hemmed, childlike pinafores, colourful cosmetics and innovative Lycra underwear, the optimism and social fluidity captured in the experimentation of form is spellbinding.       

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Amidst a whirlpool of short skirts and colour pops, a striking dress made from striped twill magnetises visitors with its gently feminised transformation of a style normally reserved for the working man. With exaggerated collar and cuffs, the piece’s playful and subtle rebellion against established gender norms is reinforced through its title: ‘Bank of England,’ a tongue-in-cheek nod to a woman’s inability at the time to open a bank account without the written consent of a male relative.

The outfit is a crafty summation of Quant’s signature theme: the questioning of traditional stereotypes and gender roles. Familiar masculine accents were knitted into waistcoats, suits and trousers, creating androgynous overtones that anticipated the growing global movement towards freedom of sexuality and gender expression.

In providing outfits to women that allowed them to function just as a man could, Quant paved the way for gender equality and female emancipation, utterly revolutionising the way women functioned and lived in modern society.  

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Emphasising the extent of her creativity, the exhibition also highlights Quant’s innovation through the use of modern materials. Her fascination with the slippery texture of PVC compelled her to pioneer its usage for rain jackets and shoes, creating waterproof clothing that was astronautical in style and practical in use.

Perhaps the most influential, however, was her experimentation with a type of acetate-backed wool jersey previously employed for men’s rugby jumpers. Bright and deeply hued, Quant employed the smooth, fluid qualities of the fabric to create audaciously short dresses that moved in synchronicity with their wearers. Available in a kaleidoscope of colours and often paired with berets, tights and flat shoes, the outfits quickly became a liberating apparatus for women who were at last able to jump, run and move in the ways that life demanded.

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It was a rebellious, energising and practical approach to clothing that came to redefine femininity as an attitude, rather than merely a look. Audacious, assertive and determined to allow women to feel true comfort in who they were and how they moved, Quant’s mass-produced designs quickly gathered global relevance, gaining overwhelming popularity in Paris, New York and Australia.

Yet amidst the celebration of Quant’s revolutionary use of materials and manufacturing techniques, curious lines are drawn between the electric atmosphere of the 1960s and the contemporary context in which the exhibition finds itself. Quant’s use of mass production methods revolutionised global access to fashion and democratised a commodity that she considered to be a fundamental part of being alive. Yet the eerie fog of hindsight creeps in: with the modern dominance of fast fashion and its propensity to violate human rights and encourage disposable modes of living, has Quant’s legacy been corrupted by globalised mass consumerism?

Perhaps our curse as future beings is a distraction.

As the bopping tunes of The Beatles spill from the Gallery’s speakers, the undiluted joy and frenetic optimism that soaked the 1960s and 70s is intoxicating. Reels of Quant’s fashion parades punctuate the endless displays of quirky mannequins, reinforcing the provocative, rock-and-roll delirium that oozed from Quant’s dominating empire.  A far cry from the demure fashion pageants of the past, models rave down runways obscured by encroaching crowds, unfettered, and alive.   

It is clear, though, that the struggle for equality is far from over. Extracting ourselves from the exhibition’s time warp, we are bombarded with news stories of sexual assaults and workplace harassments, with leaders in our highest positions of power debating issues of gender equality as though they are still contentious. It is easy to get lost in the despair.

The timing of Bendigo Art Gallery’s Mary Quant exhibition, then, seems uncannily opportune. Wrapped in the glow of the 1960s, when women were first liberating themselves from the grips of an establishment that treated them as members of a second class, the breath of optimism and empowerment is pleasantly reassuring.  

Quant’s garments represent far more than the fashion of the time. They represent a fragment in the shared story of womankind, one that cements the knowledge that women have fought, and they will fight again. 

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Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary is showing at Bendigo Art Gallery until 11 July 2021. Tickets are essential.

Images: Mark Orlandi (Bendigo Art Gallery)

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