Ever heard of Mary Quant, British champion of rising hemlines and graphic silhouettes? Maybe, maybe not. While her Mod aesthetic continues to have global resonance, she isn’t top of mind in the American fashion world’s frame of reference.
Quant is often conflated with her contemporaries, Pierre Cardin and the late André Courrèges, and misremembered as an extension of “Space Age” fashion. Misremembering and misattribution plays a lead role in the mythology of the Quant empire: controversy over who invented the miniskirt (Courrèges likely did; Quant launched the hot pant) and who coined the term “miniskirt” (Quant did, after her favorite car, the Mini Cooper) makes for a swervy, nonlinear narrative.
“A woman is as young as her knees” was a common Quantism — a convenient catchphrase to have in your arsenal if you’re in the business of popularizing the miniskirt and its longform counterpart, the minidress. Quant was something of an Original Man Repeller, challenging older generations of conservative Brits who were scandalized by the miniskirts they alternatively labeled “pelmets.” Pelmet (noun): a narrow border of cloth or wood, fitted across a door or window to conceal the curtain fittings.
While the three mid-century designers were making clothes for A New Woman, Courrèges and Cardin infused their lines with a futuristic aesthetic (think: Fall/Winter ’16 J.W. Anderson and Syd Mead-itized Opening Ceremony). Quant drew from illusionary Op Art and Warholian Pop Art to dress the “Mod,” or modern, woman. Cardin and Courrèges designed for the European Jetson’s set as Quant aimed to accommodate the contemporary woman with an uniform inspired by practicality: she informed reporters that she “wanted women who wore her designs to be able to run to catch the bus.”
If Quant’s revolution is muddled with other designers’ narratives and genres, an evaluation of her legacy is all the more pressing to establish. Quant’s innovations in silhouette and palette have made a gaggle of recent designers’ visions possible. Her sensibility is palpable in the landscape of contemporary fashion, particularly in the collections of New York designer Lisa Perry.
Perry draws inspiration from her own extensive art collection, which includes ‘60s artists like Martial Raysse, Alain Jacquet and Robert Indiana, and her designs of brightly colored and unconventional silhouettes often incorporate some sort of geometric garnish. Layered on top of a stripey Edith A. Miller turtleneck, Perry’s sleeveless circle dresses feel transformative enough to inspire the Second Coming of Twiggy.
Meanwhile, in Florence, the fashion label Vivetta has gained popularity because of its hand-shaped, button-on collars, which are in some part indebted to Quant’s detachable Peter Pan collars. Young French designer Simon Porte Jacquemus’ eponymous line, Jacquemus, harkens back to Quant’s silhouettes for boyish figures while maintaining a commitment to the miniskirt. Sometimes his pieces look more like collages of textiles and colors moonlighting as clothes, and in these instances Jacquemus might as well be the phoenix of Swinging London.
There’s still something about Mary even in the most unexpected places: these metallic daisy mules by the usually-American-minimalist Trademark seem to have been shipped directly from MQ’s HQ via ‘60s time machine.
Quant’s influence bleeds into other facets of the fashion world, too, and is particularly felt in the styling work of Shirley Kurata, who dresses celebrities like Lena Dunham, in pieces by knitwear wizards like Annie Larson. Kurata exhibits Quant’s innate sense for colorblocking and gravitates toward the silhouettes Quant popularized in the ‘60s.
Though the designer stepped out of the limelight after her career’s second wind in cosmetics, the vision she devised lives on today in contemporary garments by designers like Perry, Jacquemus, Larson and Burch. Mary Quant: the mother of Mod, modern as ever.