Not Quite “Quant”

· Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution/Terence Conran – Mary Quant at the Fashion and Textile Museum ·

It seems there’s something in the air in 2019 that is making us nostalgic for the sixties. Specifically, Mary Quant’s 1960s: two of London’s most prominent fashion museums are both hosting exhibitions on the Swinging Sixties focusing on the mod designer. While the V&A’s Mary Quant has just opened, the Fashion and Textile Museum’s Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution/Terence Conran – Mary Quant has been up and running since February.

The FTM’s exhibition, as the title indicates, focuses on both Quant and her friend and colleague, Terence Conran, a fellow designer and member of the “Chelsea Set.” It traces both designers through clothes, prints, furniture, and other objects made by them and in collaboration with other Chelsea Set artists. Focusing on both the designs and the retail settings that revolutionized shopping on the King’s Road, the exhibition produces full scenes with mod furniture and ephemera.

The ground floor forges the connection between Quant and Conran with early examples of both of their designs. The two rose to prominence around 1955 but reached their heyday in the early 1960s. Low-slung furniture, wicker accents, and simplified dresses that differ greatly from the popular silhouette of the mid-fifties open the exhibition in muted greys, blacks, browns, and burnt oranges. Contemporary magazines help to frame the two designers within their field and the zeitgeist.

Moving around, the theme continues. A gorgeous wool cowl-necked dress in burnt orange sits on a matching striped sofa while various home goods decorate the mock living room. Across from this scene, typically modern prints by Conran are hung along the walls. Strangely, in the corner, there is a small section dedicated to Elizabeth David’s cookbooks. These books apparently changed British social and eating habits, but it’s an easily missed annex of the exhibition that isn’t quite incorporated fully into the show.

Some of the few clothes that really capture the youthful essence of Quant and the Chelsea Set are in the section about her relationship with the US. Quant worked with US department store J.C. Penny for 11 years starting in 1961 and created patterns for Butterick starting in 1964. The handful of designs in this section demonstrate her knack for miniskirts, polka dots, and youthful silhouettes. Though still in quite muted colors, they better show the youthquake designs than any in the exhibition yet.

These youthful designs are continued in the next section, a recreation of Conran’s lifestyle store, Habitat. Many of the designs in this section are from Quant’s Ginger Group and both revolutionized retail in the UK as they were designed for the mass market. The clothes in this section are primarily from the mid- to late-sixties and early seventies with shorter skirts, dropped waists, and exuberant trousers. Beautiful deep blue and purple textiles are on display above the section.

Across from this, a less-bright but visually pleasing section explores Conran’s friends’ influence on the Chelsea Set. The works of these friends are included in this predominately black and white bar a yellow and black dress using Conran’s friend Eduardo Paolozzi’s textile design. The exhibition text claims that it demonstrates how Conran and his friends “contributed to the evolution of Pop design in the 1950s.” However, like Elizabeth David’s cooking section, it feels out of place and inserted without being fully integrated into the narrative of the exhibition.

The exhibition moves upstairs at this point, with a view of the larger than life lit postage stamp commemorating Quant and the miniskirt, next to the dress featured in the image. This looms somewhat strangely over the exhibition. Continuing on the emerging Pop theme, the upstairs portion of the exhibition starts with a small display on Bernard and Laura Ashley. A collection of dresses, various textiles, and some furniture and ephemera demonstrate their work, but the exhibition text fails to connect them to Quant or Conran or even the Chelsea Set as they worked in Pimlico, London, and then Wales. It is yet another example of the disjointed feel of the exhibition.

Here, the exhibition finally delivers on the Swinging London promise. A collection of PVC raincoats and other coats are styled with typical Quant bright tights. A suede overcoat, an orange wool coat with a Space Age-y hood, leather capes, and fur coats all finally give us a taste of the youthful fun Quant had with fashion. This is what she was about, after all, so it’s surprising to find it so late in the exhibition. These fun aspects of her fashion empire continue with various examples of her makeup and jewelry. Psychedelic graphics and fun packaging, it continues to show how she didn’t take things seriously, adding to her appeal.

The last of the Quant designed clothing on display are four pieces that demonstrate how she anticipated the psychedelic craze that would dominate the late 1960s. A jacket and matching skirt in a Liberty of London textile is on display next to a promotional image of the 1965 film Alfie in which actor Jane Asher wears the jacket. A coat from a Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band-inspired line for J.C. Penny is displayed next to a typical fur-lined suede coat from the late 1960s.

Next, various PVC accessories by Quant are shown next to the packaging that her tights came in (packaging that is very similar to how tights still come in terms of its construction!). There are the aforementioned Butterick pattern envelopes and examples of her plastic boots rounding out the Quant-designed pieces in the exhibition.

Somewhat strangely, the exhibition ends not with Quant or Conran, but with a collection of other designers’ work. I have no issue with a fashion exhibition demonstrating what influenced the primary designer, but I find it odd that the exhibition concludes with it, rather than keeping the title designers at the forefront. That being said, it is useful to see how her contemporaries influenced her. On display are designs by Coco Chanel, Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges, and Scot Jean Muir. You can see how Quant’s designs fit in especially with Cardin and Courreges’ designs in the mid- to late-sixties.

I must admit that I was a little underwhelmed with this exhibition. It, unfortunately, failed to capture the exuberance of the revolutionary Swinging London it is titled for. In fact, especially on the ground floor, it’s quite the opposite, feeling somewhat dull and bordering on dreary. It lacks in energy when it should embody it. The disjointed and random sections just confused me and I felt as though they were trying to include more than they had the capacity to display.

I will be curious to see how the V&A captures a similar subject. It is certain to have a tighter narrative as it focuses solely on Quant rather than two subject, plus the wider ideal of the Chelsea Set. Will the energy be lost in that exhibition, too, thus implying that I am expecting too much of Quant? 

I hope not.


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