by Jaleh Brazell
Dior: Designer of Dreams, V&A, until 1 September 2019 Mary Quant, V&A, until 16 February 2020
‘It is given to a fortunate few, to be born at the right time, in the right place, with the right talents’, wrote fashion journalist Ernestine Carter, ‘in recent fashion there are three: Chanel, Dior, and Mary Quant’. As if in response, the Victoria & Albert Museum has curated two simultaneous retrospectives which implicitly invite comparison: one exhibition charts the luxurious hourglass designs of Christian Dior’s haute couture and the other focuses on the gamine, mass-produced work of Mary Quant, who combined fun and functionality for the first time and exported it to a huge market. The design approaches could not be more different: from silhouettes to ‘sexiness’, from debutantes to working women, from the delicacy of chiffon to the practicality of vinyl – Dior and Quant responded to the boring, boxy restrictions of wartime fashion in radically divergent ways. In doing so they contributed to the redefinition of womanhood for the post-war generation.
Belonging to the same era, both Dior and Quant can be credited with ushering in sartorial sea-changes in post-war fashion, but that is where the similarities dry up. In essence: Dior reinvented, and Quant rebelled. Dior’s 1947 collection may have been dubbed the ‘New Look’ but by 1955 – a mere eight years later – Quant had opened her first boutique and kick-started a radical re-assessment of what ‘new’ could mean for women’s fashion. Above all else, their approaches to the basic template of the female body were worlds apart. Dior’s ultimate vision is woman as flower: shapely, delicate, decorative. Inspired by a love of horticulture, this floral interest pervades every stage of his designs. His first pieces were modelled against a backdrop designed by Parisian florist Lachaume; one collection is named ‘Tulipe’ after the dominant outline of the clothes; and in 1954 he declared that ‘after women, flowers are the most divine of creations’. The clothes themselves are an education in human topiary: full skirts bloom outwards like petals, impossibly small waists cinch torsos into elegant stems and shaped hips create clean, arched lines as if traced from the outline of a teardrop-shaped leaf.
The Dior exhibition opens with some 1947 sketches that illuminate his conception of the ideal Dior woman: the obligatory miniscule waist is omnipresent, but the poses are most remarkable – these are women with hips thrust forward, arms akimbo, heads inclined away. They are elongated, self-consciously disinterested, perfect S-shaped curves which exude femininity and a very specific kind of refinement; something about their delicacy is reminiscent of a champagne glass, and that is exactly the kind of luxurious association Dior aims to evoke. The curators have reflected this element of mystique in the show’s layout; gowns are shown elevated above ground level, in corridors with dark panelling, or scattered throughout grand hall-like rooms like socialites at a ball. The layout of the space emphasises fashion as art, which chimes well with Dior’s own view; he thought of his work as ‘ephemeral architecture, dedicated to the beauty of the female body’. He was exactly right – his dresses are architectural shapes mapped onto the human figure, where the elegance of the final result belies the razor-sharp precision of the tailoring and the discretion of the padding. The ‘Aladin’ dress of 1953 is a prime example: slightly ruched at the hem and decorated with a print of red and white flowers, it was inspired by the domed cupolas on the roofs of Paris.
Woman as flower, woman as architecture: everything about Dior is deliberately tethered to the curves of the female figure. His designs reflect the ethos of Parisian haute couture as a celebration of luxury, wealth, and the type of traditional elegance embodied by princesses and other fairy-tale figures. Indeed, the tagline of the exhibition is, fittingly, ‘Designer of Dreams’. Passing through the show, it comes as a slight surprise that Marc Bohan (creative director of Dior from 1960-89) was famous for his advice n’oubliez pas la femme, ‘don’t forget the woman’. Dior himself perhaps did not go so far as to forget the woman, but he did not seem particularly interested in remembering her either. Instead, he sculpted the female form into his preferred shape, conceptually as well as visually. Women as flowers is a striking aesthetic which he executed with undeniable elegance – and with all its connotations of fertility, beauty, and fragility the floral theme was well-aligned with the conventional femininity espoused by Parisian haute couture and its clientele. However, all flowers do is stand around and look pretty: it isn’t easy for them move, or speak, or push at convention. That was left to Mary Quant.
Quant’s engagement with the floral motif begins and ends with her logo, a simple monochrome daisy. Born 25 years after Dior in Blackheath, she was expected to become a grammar school teacher. Instead, she set about transforming the world of women’s fashion (in her own words, ‘it had to be livened up and kicked a bit’) and revolutionised brand-building, mass-production, and female self-perception in the process. Dior’s ‘Bar Suit’, which opens the V&A exhibition in a fanfare of muted monochrome, is a fitting point of reference: a pairing of that familiar bodice-like torso and full flowing skirt, it emerged in 1947 and was immediately dubbed the ‘New Look’ by the press. This seems almost woefully ironic when Quant’s impact is taken in to account: she is credited with popularising the miniskirt, as well as tights, waterproof mascara, pinafore dresses and vinyl waterproofs. While Dior had English debutantes model his designs in 1953, Quant made clothes for both ‘duchesses and typists’ – in the post-war years when women were going to college and earning their own living, hers were the clothes they chose to buy. Even before the element of mass-manufacture is considered, the practicality and irreverence of her pieces appealed to women across the social spectrum: the exhibition describes how ‘snobbery had gone out of fashion’ such that Quant’s designs became ‘a new rite of passage for London’s aristocratic elite.’
If Dior is ‘Designer of Dreams’, Quant is designer of the day-to-day; her clothes are anything but mundane, yet remain firmly rooted in the real world. She opened her first boutique on King’s Road in 1955 and began selling clothes characterised by their comfort and simple, striking impact: a typical example is a burgundy 1966 A-line dress in jersey material with details (a faux breast pocket, high collar, and hem) picked out in bright orange. The stretch of the jersey translates to comfort, the colours to boldness, the hemline – well above the knee – to youthful cheekiness. The shape and design of the dress are now so commonplace that it is difficult to understand how they could have once been seen as radical, but in many ways that is the exhibition’s purpose: to pinpoint a turning-point in fashion history when the basics of how we now think about clothes were formed. Suddenly, in the 1960s, women’s clothes stopped being about propriety and restriction, and began to take on the role they have today, as an opportunity for self-expression and individualism. This personal element is illustrated by the ways in which Quant’s pieces accompany women’s lives; the exhibition includes snapshots of young ladies from the 1960s wearing the designs, which they then donated to the V&A show. Many items were bought for special occasions, worn over and over, and passed down from mother to daughter. This narrative is reflected in those attending the exhibition, where groups of women (mothers and daughters, pairs of friends, well-dressed teenagers) trade their appreciation of Quant’s legacy with each other. Quant is famous for saying that she ‘didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib’, and the audience of the retrospective seems to be a mirror-image of that impatient, strong-willed energy: the proof is in the pinafore dress.
Dior’s impact on high-end fashion is indisputable – a whole room of his exhibition is devoted to a roll-call of celebrities wearing the house’s later designs – but the influence of Quant’s accessible designs is much more widespread. Where Dior conquered the red-carpet, Quant captured the kitchen tiles. Before her, trousers were an informal choice for women, a piece of clothing confined to household use. She promoted them as a fashionable – even sexy – item, adapting the formal tailoring of menswear to a low-waisted style, topped by a jumper with exaggerated V-neck which parodied men’s cricketing whites. Her effect is as pervasive as it is long-lasting: completely unawares, I passed through the exhibition wearing two hallmarks of Quant innovation – a pinafore dress and a light blue vinyl rain mac which could have been lifted directly from her 1963 ‘Wet Collection’ (a range of PVC rain coats in bold primary colours). She was ahead of the game not only in trend-setting but in trend-spotting. The exhibition begins with the dress she wore to receive her OBE in 1966, in jersey material with a circular zip pull and contrasting top stitching, it is a nod to athleisure decades before the rise of the tracksuit. From school-girl outlines to utility-inspired details, her clothes would not be out of place on a Topshop rail. Stephanie Wood, co-curator of the exhibition, remarks that Quant’s Bazaar boutique was ‘like the original Topshop’: playing music and serving drinks. Quant pioneered the idea of shopping as a consumer ‘experience’ instead of a prosaic activity. Even her shop mannequins were styled in gawky, angular poses – a far cry from the stately composure of Dior’s sketches.
Quant’s most famous contribution is bringing miniskirts into the mainstream, and her reasons for doing so are refreshingly pragmatic: she wanted women to be able to move, dance, run, catch a bus, go to work, and dance the night away all in the same piece of clothing. These days, it is rare to find sexiness so closely aligned with freedom of movement, but the miniskirt has remained a symbol of fun and dynamism. Ellie Pithers, fashion features editor at British Vogue, writes that there’s something optimistic about wearing one simply because ‘there’s defiance in a flash of leg’. The Quant retrospective has already made its mark on contemporary high street styles. Topshop reported a 106% rise in searches for miniskirts, and has even decided to shorten the hemline of its most popular slip model in response. Pithers has analysed this enthusiasm as a sartorial hit-back at the depressing news of today: ‘two fingers up to all that right now is manifesting itself for me with a short hem and a big wide smile’.
In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Mary Quant redefined ‘sexiness’ altogether. Whereas Dior recast womanhood, he did not reimagine it – his designs play into a highly conventional concept of the female form as something to be artfully shaped, an object of beauty but not of agency. Quant’s designs, on the other hand, are a balanced mix of the demure and the defiant. Many of the clothes draw on school-girl chic, with Peter Pan collars and oversized buttons, but become daring when paired with that radical hemline (Quant herself saw this as an audacious combination: ‘I love that perversity’). The exhibition includes a video in which she praises Levi jeans as the pinnacle of allure because they combine functionality with comfort: they are ‘tough, casual, terrifically sexy’, and the benchmark for her own designs. So for Quant, sexiness is not exposing flesh or emphasising womanly curves – or even drawing attention to the female form at all: dropped hemlines disguise waists, cleavages are absent, textures belong to the highly functional spheres of tweed, vinyl, and jersey. Her version of sexiness stems from confidence and an expression of individuality. Deborah Cherry, who donated a dress to the exhibition, describes how ‘you just stepped out and you felt bold – young women had an identity by wearing clothes that were made for them.’
This goes to show that Quant was a designer who – unlike Dior – never forgot the woman, partly because she was the woman. Luxury designer brands often fixate on this concept, which has now filtered into celebrity advertising campaigns; being the ‘face’ of a fashion house involves embodying that brand’s conception of ideal womanhood. Quant was the forerunner in this, as one of the first designers to popularise her designs by wearing them herself, she prefigured the marketing tactics of, say, Victoria Beckham by some 50 years. It worked so well because Quant herself was the image of the womanhood that the clothes seemed to offer: playful and ambitious in equal measure, she was unafraid to stand out from the crowd, but always on her own terms. One picture in the exhibition shows her whirling around a New York dancehall with her husband Alexander Plunkett Greene, a paradigm of the swinging ‘60s. At a time when everyone else was still struggling with perms and curlers, her angular, flapper-style bob (created by Vidal Sassoon, and unchanged on the 89 year-old Quant today) soon became a sensation in its own right. Jenny Lister, co-curator of the exhibition, summarises the effect perfectly when she describes how one could buy her branded lipstick to ‘get a little bit of that feeling of being like Mary Quant’. Christian Dior made beautiful clothes for beautiful women, but in pictures he is a balding middle-aged man in suit and tie. Quant understood the power of personal branding, and used her youth, style, and personality to her own advantage.
Even the name of Quant’s 1963 ‘Ginger Group’ collection (coined as a political term for a pressure group) is a nod to her aim of ‘kicking it up a bit’, of injecting some ‘ginger’ into the staid habits of the fashion industry. And it worked: manufacturers would provide her clothes in thousands of copies at a time, and by 1970 it was estimated that up to seven million women owned a Mary Quant piece. This commitment to mass-production was explicitly anti-couture (where each hand-made piece takes hundreds of hours to make) and represented a move towards the democratisation of fashion that was entirely unprecedented. Wood describes her as the ‘godmother of accessible, affordable fashion’, and this matches Quant’s own view. For her, the working woman directed fashion, and she was fed up with waiting ‘to imitate what the few rich couturists did in Paris’. It is impossible not to draw direct comparisons between the two exhibitions – metres apart, so close in time, but so disparate in their approach. Wood sees them as complementary, each offering a ‘flipside’ to the other in the same period of fashion history. This contrast is obvious even in the exhibition space: people move round the Dior show in an attitude of distanced awe, as if visiting a museum, but in the Quant retrospective, a woman looks at a dress and turns to her friend: ‘I was wearing a dropped waist like that when I met Richard – our 40th wedding anniversary is this year!’.
The fundamental distinction between Quant and Dior is encapsulated by their respective brushes with the royal family, so different in nature and tone: Dior created royal dresses while Quant flirted with royal scandal. The Dior exhibition includes a display of the piece the designer made for Princess Margaret on her 21st birthday in 1951: it is a confection of a dress, a wedding cake of white silk, tulle, flowers, and shimmering sparkle. He took the concept of a princess to a level that would be parodic if it wasn’t so completely, extravagantly serious. Quant’s royal connection was of an entirely different sort: she was viewed with suspicion in high society because of her flirtatious manner with Princess Margaret’s husband. Quant’s irreverent response to such rumours is completely opposed to the ballroom attitude embodied by Dior’s dress: their interaction was, according to her, ‘rather in the French style, [so] nothing gets out of hand – no problems … life is more fun if you have flirtatious conversation’. That’s the short hem, wide smile way.
JALEH BRAZELL reads Classics at St Hilda's College. Her aim in life is to be less stressed and better dressed.
Art by Ellen Sharman