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Quant review - Sadie Frost's debut documentary skirts the genius of Mary Quant | reviews, news & interviews

Quant review - Sadie Frost's debut documentary skirts the genius of Mary Quant

Quant review - Sadie Frost's debut documentary skirts the genius of Mary Quant

One of the most innovative fashion designers of the 1960s deserves a deeper dive

Mary Quant: extraordinarily ahead of her time

As a teenager in 1967, I asked for a Mary Quant make-up box for Christmas and my parents reluctantly complied.

It was so thrilling to hold that plastic white box with the black daisy in the middle and the big mirror in the lid and to be able, at last, to experiment endlessly with the eye-shadows, the pearly face-lighter, the Starkers foundation (“Forget about colouring, go for shaping” said the instructions, excitingly).

I already had her white zip-front PVC mac with a black collar and cuffs, bought from Fenwick or Selfridges, slightly too long but easy to chop off at the hem, and, like several other girls at my school, a purple dress with a black geometric-patterned top half.

The V&A’s Mary Quant exhibition of 2019-20 was wonderfully comprehensive. There was my mac, there was the Paint Box, there were the coloured tights – she invented them! - the hot-pants, the skinny-rib sweaters, the pinafores, the low-waisted dresses in their revolutionary fabrics – jersey borrowed from men’s underwear, pleated pin-stripe suiting - all looking far more modern and futuristic than those floaty flower-power clothes that tend to look drab today. Many women donated or loaned clothes for the show.

Sadie Frost’s debut documentary, though lively, does not deliver much that we don’t already know (those women who loaned clothes to the V&A might have provided a useful context) and timelines, such as that of Quant’s expansion into the mass market with Ginger Group in 1963, are muddled. It also skates over how ahead of her time she was, opening Bazaar on the corner of Markham Street and the King’s Road in 1955, 10 years before Biba took over in Kensington as the hipper, much cheaper boutique.

In the mid-Fifties, fashion was all about Paris couture and girdles. Most people looked like “duchesses with artificial hair,” as she puts it, while she, with her art-college background, made clothes that “you could move in,” says model Jill Kennington. Simple, short, practical clothes for herself and her friends, in fact. She studied illustration at Goldsmiths and was self-taught as a designer, though she was an apprentice at a Mayfair milliner’s after leaving college, spending ridiculously long hours, she recalls, making hats for those duchesses.

Quant, now 91, met her posh, hard-partying (gin and tonics at 10am business meetings) husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene at a Goldsmiths fancy dress ball. “It was lust at first sight,” he says. (She’s said elsewhere that he was a monstrous womaniser.) For years, because she was older than him, she pretended to be five years younger than she was, says Brigid Keenan, who tried and failed to interview her on her so-called 40th birthday.

“She looks exactly like Mary Quant ought to look like,” says Plunket Greene. “She wears her own clothes rather well.” He comes across as supercilious and slightly bullying, but was undoubtedly brilliant and charismatic as a PR and impresario. “She was very shy,” says their son Orlando. “She needed a big personality to hide behind.”

There are many talking heads – Dave Davies, Edward Enninful, Pattie Boyd, Zandra Rhodes, wonderful former Quant co-director Heather Tilbury Phillips - or just voices, sometimes haphazardly attributed. Pete Townshend, for example, has interesting things to say about The Who getting fashion inspiration from their audiences, in the same way that Mary Quant’s customers demanded shorter hemlines (did she or Courrèges invent the miniskirt? It's an unanswered question) only we don’t know it’s his voice until later.quantBut the most irritating aspect of the film is the intermittent appearance of Camilla Rutherford (Phantom Thread) as Quant (pictured above), making pronouncements such as, “The whole 1960s was one massive party,” or “I absolutely love cows.” It’s totally unnecessary as there’s plenty of archive footage of the real thing, looking ineffably chic with her shiny Vidal Sassoon haircut. She may have been shy - she hid in the loo on a plane in Washington when told about the media scrum waiting for her (in America, which was hopelessly behind Britain fashion-wise, she was almost as big as The Beatles and did eight collections a year for JC Penney) - but she’s incisive in interviews.

Isn’t the mini-skirt misguided, one TV pundit asks her in 1966, as very few women have the legs to carry it off majestically? “Who wants to be majestic?” retorts Quant. And she’s politely stubborn when explaining to a male perfumier that she wants a scent that expresses the “perverse, schizophrenic” duality of being a modern woman. “You need two perfumes for that,” he says. “But it’s the same woman,” she says, and in the end he gives in.

Co-founder Archie McNair set Quant along the licensing path – bed linens, carpets, roller blinds, paint, dolls, wine – but the brand was inevitably diluted while the pressure to “maintain the machine”, as Jasper Conran puts it, remained enormous. And as he says - his father Terence designed the second Bazaar boutique and he remembers family lunches at the Plunket Greenes’ country house as being, surprisingly, “rather conventional” - she kept going far longer than The Beatles or Twiggy. In 2000, she gave up control of the company to a Japanese buy-out. We see Camilla Rutherford turning out the lights, but the real Mary Quant’s amazing style and energy live on. Just wish I still had my PVC mac.

There’s plenty of archive footage of her looking ineffably chic with her shiny Vidal Sassoon haircut

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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