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My ringside seat on the Mary Quant revolution

As a fashion editor at the Sunday Times in the 1960s, I saw first-hand the huge impact of Quant's designs

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

30 March 2019

9:00 AM

I think I probably qualify as the oldest fashion editor in the world, because in spite of my advanced age I am still writing about clothes (in the Oldie). This gives me one USP: it means that I was actually around — even wearing them myself — when the revolutionary fashion ideas that are now the stuff of museum exhibitions were being invented. Next month the Mary Quant exhibition opens at the V&A, and sure enough I have been asked to talk about those giddy times for a video that will be shown at the museum.

I was 16 in the autumn of 1955 when Quant’s shop, Bazaar, first shocked the passers-by in the King’s Road, Chelsea, with its startling window displays. One of these featured a black-and-white gingham skirt. This may not look very remarkable to readers today, but until Quant gingham had only really been used for kitchen curtains or tablecloths.

In 1961, at the age of 21, I found myself young fashion editor of the Sunday Times. The column on young fashion was called the Young Grown-Ups because that is how young women dressed then — our mothers set the styles and we looked just like them, only younger, down to their (and our) permed brown hair.

I was the luckiest person in the entire world. Not because of the job itself, but because getting it coincided with huge changes in my world, which I was now perfectly placed to write about. Young people were taking over every aspect of the fashion industry: Vidal Sassoon was about to revolutionise hair cutting, styling and colour (Nora Ephron once wrote that the best thing to happen to women in the 20th century was not feminism but hair dye); enthusiastic young photographers were waiting to take over from the 1950s greats, fresh-faced model girls were graduating from Lucie Clayton’s modelling school and replacing their sophisticated predecessors, and a whole bunch of young designers were finishing their degrees at the Royal College of Art. Mary Quant was a key figure in this revolution — it was as if the whole fashion world had just been waiting for her and Bazaar to shatter the mould and enable what Diana Vreeland of American Vogue called the ‘youthquake’ that was shaking England.


In 1962 our editor at the Sunday Times, Denis Hamilton, did a similar thing for newspapers by launching the first colour magazine (at the time it was called a colour supplement so as not to upset the unions). I was given the job of styling its very first cover, which was to represent the Best of Britain. And of course this had to be a photograph taken by the new sensation David Bailey of the exquisite new model Jean Shrimpton wearing a dress designed by the most talked-about dress designer in the world at that moment, Mary Quant. We did the picture down on the Thames, in the freezing-cold, by Lots Road power station. (The finished cover also incorporated a photograph of a footballer.)

It is almost impossible to explain to today’s readers why Mary Quant (and the other Young Designers, as they became known) had such a huge impact. Over the half-century since, there have been so many ‘new’ ideas in fashion that her and their initial shock value has been diluted. Luckily, though, the Christian Dior exhibition is also showing at the V&A, and a quick visit there — look particularly at the fashions of the 1950s — will give you a clue.

Pre-Quant, clothes were constricted: fussy, fitted, buttoned, cuffed, boned. They demanded a lot of the wearer. Mary’s were unstructured and she took her inspiration from surprising places.

Her grey flannel suit that I fell in love with  — which my friend who worked in the Quant sewing room replicated for half the price — had a casual jacket, cut like a man’s blazer and a box-pleated skirt. Box pleats were more often used for school skirts in those days (Mary liked adapting school uniform; the pinafore was another favourite). As well as using jersey fabric, which was unusual, she made a feature of zip fasteners rather than hiding them away. She also put men’s braces on skirts and trousers, and she made vests fashionable. And she used PVC for raincoats (shock horror: plastic in fashion!). She didn’t altogether invent the short skirt; the couturier Courrèges did that (I saw it with my own eyes). But she took it to mini heights. She invented hotpants and she launched tights (these had been invented in the US, but Mary produced them in black, yellow, red, shocking pink, green, etc.)

Mary also created the kind of make-up girls were desperate for. We all wanted Beatnik black eyes and, even more, almost-white lipstick, but before Mary you had to find someone going to Paris to buy it for you. She had her own hair cut into a bob by Vidal Sassoon, and inspired a generation to copy her.

Mary and I were not bosom friends (she is painfully shy), but I was often at their office in Ives Street, Chelsea, chatting with her husband Alexander Plunket Greene, or watching their exciting fashion shows (totally different from any others at the time, with loud music, energetic models, contemporary make-up) or choosing clothes to feature.

Time passed and I left the paper. After trying (and failing) to be a famous war reporter in Vietnam, I went back to my true home on the Sunday Times, as fashion editor once again. Mary Quant was about to turn 40. The Queen of Youth, the epicentre of the youthquake, was entering middle age. I phoned Mary to arrange an interview, but she wouldn’t agree. I wrote to her. I sent a bouquet of flowers. But she was adamant: she would not talk about being 40. I thought of something else to write about, but I was hurt and at the back of my mind I held it against her. (Which didn’t stop me from putting her forward for a damehood a few years ago — supported by David Bailey and Terence Conran. It was a serious oversight that she hadn’t received one decades before.)

It’s never too late for life to surprise you. In the course of making the video at the V&A for its Quant exhibition, I discovered why Mary had been so obstinate in her refusal all those years ago. She hadn’t been 40 at all, but 45; she’d lied about her age because she was older than her husband and in those days we kept these things secret. Mary, I am sorry — all is forgiven.

Mary Quant is at the V&A from 6 April until 16 February 2020. Brigid Keenan’s memoir Full Marks for Trying: An unlikely journey from the Raj to the rag trade is published by Bloomsbury.


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