Renowned as the mother of the miniskirt, she embodied London’s Swinging Sixties with her signature playful attire, oversized painted eyes, faux freckles, and a bob haircut.
Mary Quant, the groundbreaking British designer who transformed fashion and personified the Swinging Sixties’ vivacious, youthful spirit, passed away on Thursday at her Surrey residence in southern England. Famously known as the mother of the miniskirt, she was 93 years old.
Her family confirmed the news in an official statement.
In 1955, as England was recovering from the aftermath of the war, Ms. Quant and her aristocratic partner, Alexander Plunket Greene, established a boutique named Bazaar on London’s King’s Road, situated in the heart of Chelsea. Ms. Quant stocked the boutique with the clothing and accessories she and her bohemian friends wore, a diverse assortment she described as “a bouillabaisse” in her autobiography, “Quant by Quant” (1966). The collection included short flared skirts, pinafores, knee socks, tights, distinctive jewelry, and colorful berets.
Young women of that era were rejecting their mothers’ corseted silhouettes with cinched waists and protruding chests – the Dior shape that had been the standard since 1947. They shunned the traditional attire that symbolized class and age, such as lacquered hair helmets, twin sets and heels, and matching accessories. Unlike the typical 30-year-old models of the time, Ms. Quant was a youthful gamine.
When she couldn’t find the desired pieces, Ms. Quant created them herself, purchasing fabric from the upscale department store Harrods and sewing them in her bed-sit. Her Siamese cats would often chew on the Butterick patterns she used.
Although profits were initially hard to come by, the boutique quickly became a sensation, with young women clearing out the inventory almost daily. Ms. Quant and Mr. Plunket Greene managed the store like a casual gathering place, similar to the coffee bars they frequented, complete with a jazz soundtrack.
Their window displays also became a spectacle, showcasing mannequins designed by a friend to resemble the young women shopping there – “the birds,” as Ms. Quant called them, using the lingo of the time. These figures featured sharp cheekbones, mod hairstyles, and slender legs, sometimes turned upside down or painted white, some with bald heads and circular sunglasses, dressed in striped swimsuits while playing guitars.
By the mid-1960s, Mary Quant had become a global brand, with licensing deals worldwide and sales soon reaching $20 million. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1966 for her contributions to British exports. When she toured the United States with a new collection, she was greeted like a fifth Beatle, even requiring police protection at one point. Newspapers eagerly published her insights and proclamations: “Quant Expects Higher Hem,” announced The Associated Press in 1966, adding that Ms. Quant had “predicted today that the miniskirt was here to stay.”
Mary Quant products could be found at J.C. Penney and in New York department stores. Mary Quant makeup, designed for both women and men, was sold in paint boxes, alongside eyelashes available by the yard, as well as lingerie, tights, shoes, outerwear, and furs. In the 1970s, the brand expanded to bedsheets, stationery, paint, housewares, and even a Mary Quant doll named Daisy, after her iconic daisy logo.
Jenny Lister, a co-curator of a 2019 retrospective of Ms. Quant’s work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, told The New York Times, “The celebrity designer is an accepted part of the modern fashion system today, but Mary was rare in the ’60s as a brand ambassador for her own clothes and brand. She didn’t just sell quirky British cool, she actually was quirky British cool, and the ultimate Chelsea girl.”
“I grew up not wanting to grow up,” Ms. Quant once remarked. “Growing up seemed terrible. To me, it was awful. Children were free and sane, and grown-ups were hideous.”
Born on February 11, 1930, in Blackheath, southeast London, Barbara Mary Quant was the daughter of Welsh teachers John and Mildred (Jones) Quant. Both her parents, who came from mining families, wanted their children, Mary and Tony, to pursue traditional career paths.
However, Mary was determined to study fashion. She eventually attended the arts-focused Goldsmiths College (now Goldsmiths, University of London) on a scholarship. She reached a compromise with her parents: She could attend the college if she pursued a degree in art education (she studied illustration). It was at Goldsmiths where she met Mr. Plunket Greene, a well-connected eccentric (philosopher Bertrand Russell was a cousin, as was the Duke of Bedford) who occasionally attended classes in his mother’s gold shantung silk pajamas and played jazz on the trumpet.
The inseparable pair enjoyed pranks and the attention their outfits attracted. Mr. Plunket Greene once painted his bare chest to resemble the buttons on a dress shirt. Passers-by, Ms. Quant recalled in her memoir, scoffed, “God, look at this Modern Youth!” a moniker the couple embraced: “Shall we be Modern Youth tonight?”
Soon, they met Archie McNair, a lawyer-turned-portrait photographer who operated a coffee bar beneath his Chelsea studio. The trio decided to start a business together. Each man contributed 5,000 pounds, and they acquired a building at 138a King’s Road. Ms. Quant, who was employed by a milliner, left her job.
Bazaar turned King’s Road into the epicenter of British fashion, with London becoming the nucleus of the so-called youthquake, as Vogue described it at the time. Ms. Quant was its emblem, adorned in her characteristic playful outfits and boots, with large painted eyes, a pale face adorned with imitation freckles, and a unique bob that made Vidal Sassoon, its creator, as renowned as she was. His easy-care cut was as revolutionary as the miniskirt, putting an end to the laborious bouffant. “Vidal put the top on it,” Ms. Quant often said.
Ms. Quant was an early adopter of mass production, synthetic materials, and affordable, disposable fashion designed for the young women who wore it.
Fascinated by PVC plastic-coated cotton, she crafted raincoats that appeared perpetually wet. She designed vividly colored molded plastic boots with transparent “ice cube” heels and detachable tops.
In a 1967 interview with The New York Times Magazine, Ms. Quant said, “Why can’t people see what a machine is capable of doing itself instead of making it copy what the hand does? We ought to blow clothes the way people blow glass. It’s ridiculous that fabric should be cut up to make a flat thing to go ’round a round person.”
She continued, “It’s ridiculous, in this age of machines, to continue making clothes by hand. The most extreme fashion should be very, very cheap. First, because only the young are daring enough to wear it; second, because the young look better in it; and third, because if it’s extreme enough, it shouldn’t last.”
Ms. Quant and Mr. Plunket Greene married in 1957, and he passed away in 1990. She is survived by their son, Orlando Plunket Greene; her brother, Tony Quant; and three grandchildren.
In 2000, Ms. Quant stepped down as director of Mary Quant Ltd., after being bought out—or pushed out, according to some reports—by the company’s managing director. In 2009, she was honored by the Royal Mail with her own postage stamp, featuring a model wearing a black Mary Quant flared mini. In 2015, Ms. Quant was made a dame. The storefront once occupied by Bazaar is now a juice bar, above which a plaque commemorates Dame Mary Quant.
In spring 2019, when the Victoria & Albert Museum showcased its retrospective of her work, the vibrant exhibition included 120 pieces from her heyday, as well as a montage of photographs and memories from thousands of women who had responded to the curators’ call to share their beloved Mary Quant pieces. The compilation recounted how these women had worn the garments as liberated young women going to job interviews and first dates—a powerful tribute to Ms. Quant’s legacy and the burgeoning feminism of her era.
“I forget all my clothes, but I still remember my first Mary Quants,” Joan Juliet Buck, the author and former editor of French Vogue who grew up in ’60s-era London, said in a 2021 interview for this obituary. “The pumpkin jumper and the aqua lamé miniskirt culottes and the falsely-little-girl beige crepe dress with puffed sleeves and pansies scattered below the smocked band under the breasts that drove men mad, while I had no idea. She locked into that woman-as-little-girl ethos that made the miniskirt inevitable, and indisputable.”
But did she invent it? Andre Courreges, the space-age French designer, long claimed credit for its creation, and it is true that he was steadily raising his hemlines in the early ’60s. However, as fashion historian Valerie Steele has noted, Ms. Quant had been cutting her hems from the moment Bazaar opened in 1955, primarily in response to her customers, who demanded ever-shorter skirts.
“We were at the beginning of a tremendous renaissance in fashion,” Ms. Quant wrote in her 1966 autobiography. “It was not happening because of us. It was simply that, as things turned out, we were a part of it.”
“Good designers—like clever newspapermen—know that to have any influence they must keep in step with public needs,” she wrote, “and that intangible ‘something in the air.’ I just happened to start when ‘that something in the air’ was coming to a boil.”