I remember buying Quant By Quant. It was at the former location of the Mississauga Central Library, at 110 Dundas Street West, in the book sale on the ground floor outside the Children’s Department. I also bought a discarded Italian Epoca magazine because it had an article in it on John Lennon (not that I can read Italian). What is even more memorable is that I bought these at the library before I was employed there, in 1982. It has taken me 34 years to get around reading Mary Quant’s memoir. What can I say? Better late than never.
While fashion was the focus of the book, Quant talked about her early life in England and being evacuated with her family during World War II. She had so many hilarious stories to tell from her childhood (and even stories during wartime) that I was laughing out loud soon after starting to read. I still snicker at one story where she and her brother Tony were billeted at a house and were forbidden to pick the apples. That didn’t stop them from eating them, however:
“Then [Tony] had a brilliant brainwave; when everyone else in the house was busy, we’d go into the orchard, climb the trees and eat the apples we wanted without picking them. ‘We only promised we wouldn’t pick them,’ he kept emphasizing.
“We really put our hearts into this…it was days before we were discovered. Poor woman! It must have been a ghastly experience for her when she walked into the orchard to count her precious apples and found nothing left but cores hanging on the trees.”
and then as she got older:
“We took to police baiting instead. The police are splendid material for anything like this because they take things so seriously. You have only got to scamper across a road at night with a parcel under your arm and drive off quickly and they will follow you all the way to Richmond.”
Quant told her story about starting a fashionable accessories shop in London and then expanding its merchandise with her own designs. There are no chapters to her memoir so you definitely feel as if Quant herself is sitting next to you telling her life story. You feel as if you can read on and on since no chapter break is going to end it for you. Quant wrote in an oral style that placed you in the middle of the action; the mayhem of a fashion show is suddenly all around you instead of being merely described. This Kerouackian stream of consciousness style also lacked dates or even years. I honestly didn’t know when events took place and had to figure things out for myself by the details. For example, Quant talked about President Kennedy, then made references to both Idlewild and JFK airports, which are the same place, the latter only renamed after the president’s assassination. Quant is so much a part of the 1960’s that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that the book started sometime in that decade, yet it is clear that some events must have happened in the fifties.
Quant By Quant can be viewed as a lesson in elementary couture as well as a fundamental business primer. I noted so many key lessons for the novice businessman or -woman that I would recommend this book to any entrepreneur, not just fashionistas. Quant was shockingly candid in revealing her insecurities about her initial successes. Each time she had a rave review or created a media storm of praise she would feel nauseated. Her inability to accept her own success crippled her, or at least it did so prior to 1965, when this book was written. When the media awaited her arrival at an airport, Quant froze on the plane and would not leave. She cried after successful fashion shows. These were not tears of relief that the stress of the show was finally over. To her credit, Quant as well as her husband both attended sessions of psychoanalysis, which helped free her inhibitions and totally liberate her creative process. Quant raved about her and her husband’s psychoanalysis:
“I suppose we both made a lucky choice and I have to resist rushing about recommending analysis to all and sundry in the way newly married couples recommend marriage to bachelors.”
Since the book was written in 1965, it predated the widespread breakout of the miniskirt, which Quant is best known for. Quant thus only comments on the London fashion scene just prior to when everything went wacky. One can read into the following quote that Quant is talking about her newest innovation, the miniskirt:
“Changes in fashion have seldom been accepted immediately without derision. But if the original design is good and exciting and true to trend then–however outrageous it may at first appear–it will succeed. It will be a legitimate indication of the direction in which fashion is moving forward even though a season or two may have to go by before it can be fully appreciated and accepted everywhere.”
Her initial impression was that only young women would embrace the miniskirt:
“They loved the short, short skirts. They would have liked theirs as short as [model] Kari-Ann’s but schools don’t approve! I don’t think anybody except perhaps the very, very young will ever dare to cut their skirts as short as we do.”
But in 1966 and 1967 the skirt was a widespread fashion phenomenon, with women of all ages wearing it, even into the early 1970’s. Quant in later years modestly deflected credit as the designer of the miniskirt. In 1965, though, she downplayed her role of designer of influence by claiming:
“We were in at the beginning of a tremendous renaissance in fashion. It was not happening because of us. It was simply that, as things turned out, we were a part of it.”
“Over and over again I was told I was responsible for the off-beat clothes that became known as the Chelsea Look. I heard my clothes described as dishy, grotty, geary, kinky, mod, poove and all the rest of it. People either loved or hated them. But, in fact, no one designer is ever responsible for such a revolution. All a designer can do is to anticipate a mood before people realize that they are bored with what they have already got. It is simply a question of who gets bored first. Fortunately I am apt to get bored pretty quickly. Perhaps this is the essence of designing.”
“Good designers–like clever newspapermen–know that to have any influence they must keep in step with public needs…public opinion…and that intangible ‘something in the air’. They must catch the spirit of the day and interpret it in clothes before other designers begin to twitch at the nerve ends.
“I just happened to start when that ‘something in the air’ was coming to the boil. The clothes I made happened to fit in exactly with the teenage trend, with pop records and espresso bars and jazz clubs.”
Quant’s fashions were the epitome of swinging London. We have all seen the black-and-white news clips of heavily mascaraed mod-looking women with their hair in bangs, wearing A-frame tops, miniskirts, tights and boots:
“The Chelsea girl, the original leather-booted, black-stockinged girl who came out of the King’s Road looking like some contemporary counterpart of a gay musketeer, began to be copied by the rest of London and watched with interest by others all over the country. Soon the ‘look’ was to be copied internationally. This girl’s challenging clothes were accepted as a challenge. It was she who established the fact that this latter half of the twentieth century belongs to Youth.”
The challenge as well was to produce these clothes on a grand scale. Quant suddenly had to deal with the concept of mass production, and learned how to adapt her designs to factories. She did not feel that she was compromising her styles, as:
“Our decision was finally influenced by our belief that the whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone.”
Thus had Quant decided to keep her Chelsea designs on a smaller scale, exclusive to her own shop and produced entirely by her, there might not have been a “Chelsea look” as we know it. No one would have known these fashions outside of London. Quant’s designs would have been more intricate, and less sleek and “industrial” in their form and line. Her boots were PVC, that eternally shiny material that was brand new in the early sixties. Talk about industrial: they looked as if they were dipped in oil. In order to make these fashions accessible to all, she had to tone down her designs, as certain characteristics, such as choice of buttons, style of hem or pleat could not be produced en masse to make the final outcome reasonably priced:
“Creative talent on its own is just not enough. To be able to work with other people is terribly important; so is the ability to adapt an idea for mass production without losing ‘the look’. A ‘look’ can so easily become weak and diluted and disintegrated when garments have to be made in all sizes for all types. I have seen it slaughtered in mass production.”
“Just as it is pointless to design a Rolls-Royce, then pare it down and down until it is supposed to fit into the mass market of the Mini Manor, so it is pointless in fashion to create a couture design and imagine it can be adequately produced cheaply in quantity.”
Quant’s mod designs were the rage of London, and every woman wanted to look like Quant. Her styles united women from all classes:
“There was a time when clothes were a sure sign of a woman’s social position and income group. Not now. Snobbery has gone out of fashion, and in our shops you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dresses.”
“Once upon a time if two women turned up at a party wearing the same dress, it wrecked the party. There were hysterical outbursts and one of them probably walked out. Nowadays, it is not unusual to see several identical dresses at the same party and the girls love it. You can see them huddling together, delighted at this confirmation of their own good taste.”
Quant however saw the contradiction in fashion as a trend-setter:
“The problem always is that if you start a distinctive trend in fashion, you are also digging its grave right from the beginning because the more people are converted to your way of dress, the less exclusive it becomes and a uniform is born.
“I don’t want my clothes to be anything like a uniform. I believe clothes should be a background to personality. The dress should attract attention from across a room but, close to, no one should be distracted from the person by the dress. The only answer, from a designer’s point of view, is a new collection every season with a new look which should develop and evolve naturally out of the fashion line that is on its way out.”
She still feels the same way. After reading this book I sought videos of Quant on YouTube and I found interviews from the 2000’s where she still espouses the personality-over-fashion dictum.
Success stories are rarely overnight sensations, and Quant addressed this misconception about her. However, had Quant used dates in her memoir, the reader would be more aware of how long it took from the founding of Bazaar, her first store, until 1965, the time of publication. She was an international success story by 1965 even before the miniskirt took the fashion world by storm so I hope she adhered to her own advice below:
“I know now that however emotionally involved I am in anything I am doing, I dare not allow myself one ounce of prima donna behaviour. As soon as you give way to this, you have the mistrust of the business people, the manufacturers, the buyers, the retailers, the promoters. Any one of these people who may see prima donna behaviour going on is at once uneasy.”
My copy was printed in London yet utilized Canadian spellings. Thus colour and behaviour but also realize. The indexing was indeed mysterious. I am a fan of the Beatles and with Quant’s domination of the swinging London fashion scene, I was intrigued by three references to the Beatles in the index. All three references were false hits, where Quant in reacting to the fame she had been receiving wrote that she felt “like a Beatle”. The other two references were literally only passing references and not about any interaction with the Beatles at all. What irked me most was the indexing pertaining to Quant’s husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, and to Quant herself. How lazy of the indexer to state: “Greene, Alexander Plunket: 1–6, 20, 22–198 passim” (the book only had 198 pages). Even more heinous was Quant’s own indexing:
“Quant, Mary (Mrs Alexander Plunket Greene): throughout“