Galleries: Quant – The Energy Capture of the 1950s and 60s

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“Life was a rush!”Life was a rush! “It was so much fun and unexpectedly wonderful despite, or perhaps because of, its intensity. We were so lucky with our tremendous luck and timing; we also celebrated – there were no real limits.” The “whizz” was the ethos that permeated Quant’s clothing, the perpetual mini-skirts she credits herself with inventing with French designer Andre Courreges; the subversion of the female masculine suit The dresses of Quant were vivid, entertaining, and redefined youth, throwing aside the tailored tweed, beading, and cardigans that were the uniform dressed in in the 1950s by women, young and old. These dresses were much too restrictive, physically as well as socially, for Quant. Her idea was that women should always be able to run, to walk – shock, like kids! -and she created the business that would popularize the “London Look” around the world with her partner Alexander Plunket Greene, the man she had met at Goldsmiths College. Her imaginative clothes, from the “Wet Collection” of PVC coats to the brightly colored jersey mini dresses, are just some of the main looks featuring Quant during her glory years from 1955 to 1975 in the late blockbuster of V&A Dundee.

The V&A Dundee, which opened two years ago with a lot of pomp, seemed to be barely open until it was forced to close in March of this year, like anything else. It reopened last week, and one can imagine that the space presentation is almost as much work as it was the first time around. Masks are compulsory, hand sanitizer is everywhere, and some sense of protection is offered by the highest ceilings; the restaurant has been repositioned and a one-way system has been established.

The Mary Quant show is a panacea for gray days, as the sheer joy and chutzpah of the bright dresses – and a pair or two of trousers – on display in this Scottish exhibition upstairs at the V&A retrospective can not help but be impressed. It opened its doors in South Kensington last year, designed by Stephanie Wood and Jenny Lister, full of borrowed and donated dresses from those who wear them in the ’60s and’ 70s. As my mother-in-law told me the first time I saw them, the dresses – at least the 1960s mini dresses, the color blocking, the playfulness of it all – certainly stood the test of time. The feeling of the dresses is so contagious.

It was all about London style, models whizzing in amphibious vehicles down the Thames, dipping their feet into the sea, jumping off statues, staring wide-eyed at cops, and certainly not posing in the stylized and glamorous way of models of the ’50s. If London was the stomping ground of Mary Quant, this show focuses on the glory years when she opened her boutique Bazaar on Kings Road (1955) and passed through the 60s to the more floral and flowing designs of the 70s with miniskirts and block colors. The poster child for her look, with her short bowl Vidal Sassoon haircut and willingness to wear her clothes as well as the models who occupied them, from Jean Shrimpton and Celia Hammond to Twiggy, was Quant herself, not just the models.

If these dresses were already cut for the Shrimptons and Twiggys of this world, they were worn by anyone who could afford the six guineas, or so it took to get their hands on them. Color and movement, zippers, the trademark daisies, and a total lack of daring necklines.

The testimonies of the people who owned the clothes – clothes with names such as “Prim” or “Prude” or “Miss Muppet” or “Cad” – who lived life, whether in Kensington or the wild suburbs of Croydon and beyond, are what adds another dimension to this exhibition, and who, in the photos and text that accompany each dress on show, were always donated by the individual who wore it, reflect the person who wore it. It’s as much a snapshot of an age as the clothes themselves, from the forays of Quant into colored tights that made it possible for the smallest dresses, to the lipstick palette and the loafers, the unteafers,

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