Friday, 4 February 2011

Last-Year Reads: Quant by Quant

Quant by Quant had been on my radar for a while but it was Luella's words in her guide to English style that finally made me hunt down a copy (it's out-of-print and £60+ on the internet). She said "Whenever I am at a loss I reread her autobiography which is one of the most inspiring books that I have ever read."

If you want facts, dates and a clear chronology of Quant's career, this book will probably more frustrate than please. However, for energy, fun and - yes - inspiration Quant by Quant is a joyous read. Written in 1966 when Quant was in the midst of her fame and the craziness, it's hardly surprising it's a bit of a whirlwind in places. If you let yourself get swept along, there's plenty to amuse as Quant takes us through her childhood, through the meeting of her husband and business partner Alexander, to the opening of Bazaar and the building of her global brand.

Mary Quant found herself at the centre of a new scene, as part of the "Chelsea set". This set's influence spilled out far beyond their SW postcode. Quant describes "It was she who established the fact that this latter half of the twentieth century belongs to Youth".

Throughout the book, Quant describes the bemusement and amusement which greets her outfits that are variously described as "dishy, grotty, geary, kinky, mod". Though she may not have been the first designer to put a girl in a mini-skirt, she certainly helped bring it to the masses, creating a new range of clothes for a new customer. Her "birds" no longer aspired to look their mothers but look young, part of the seismic shift of the "Youthquake":  "This was the beginning of something we take almost for granted now ... grown-ups wearing teenage fashions and looking like precocious little girls."

The energy and 'have a go attitude' of the book reminded me of Barbara Hulanicki's A to Biba, again a story of how a couple of young upstarts challenged and ultimately strengthened the British fashion industry. Like Hulanicki, Quant is passionate about the worth of fashion: "fashion is not too frivolous; it is part of being alive today."

(via Eurbanista)

Through enthusiastic experimentation, Mary Quant created many unique looks - from the mod styling, to tights to wear with those short skirts, to make-up. Her distinctively youthful British look was soon snapped up by the American textile industry, looking to add instant cool to their ranges, and Quant's naive forays into this world and mass-manufacture are amusing. She wasn't alone though - the whole Chelsea/London/English scene was being celebrated. Women's Wear Daily stated: 

"These Britishers have a massive onslaught of talent, charm and mint-new ideas. English chic is fiercely NOW ... by the young for the young ... coky, not kooky."

(via V&A)

For the press coverage at the time, just look at this image by Norman Parkinson which is reproduced in the book. It shows some of the most famous designers of the London scene, posed by the Thames.  Mary Quant is in the bottom left (Foale and Tuffin are hanging off the lamp post). 

Towards the end of the book, Quant describes a party for Vidal Sassoon (who created her sharp, distinctively 60s haircut) which sounds like a riot:

"It was absolutely fantastic ... a real English party with everyone behaving in an extraordinary English way and being rude to each other as only the British can ... It seemed as if everyone was there ... the pop painters, the pop musicians, everyone you can think of."

That quote sums the book up quite well - it's very British in its outlook, it contains some extraordinary tales and characters and it captures the excitement of the era very well. It's just sometimes frustrating in its lack of details - who were the pop painters? who were the pop musicians that she tantalisingly hints at.  However, I don't think Mary Quant ever intended this book to be studied in detail and, like her clothes, it's fun, youthful and very stylish.

p.s. For more great inspiration from this period, check out the Youthquakers blog. 60s and 70s fashion spreads for your delectation. 

Buy this from Last-Year Girl Books on Etsy

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