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The designer’s ability challenge gender norms is evident in Collection. Mary Quant, the V&A’s latest major retrospective, opens Saturday. It doesn’t start and end with the miniskirt. The curators insist that Quant didn’t “invent” miniskirts – French designer Andre Courreges holds that honor. However, she did help popularize them. Quant’s exhibition offers a wider view of Quant’s career, charting her first 20 years from 1955 when she opened her Bazaar shop on King’s Road to 1975 when she established a global fashion empire.

Stephanie Wood, co-curator of the exhibition with Jenny Lister, said that they are focusing on the historical and social contexts at the time. “Quant opened her shop one-year after rationing was ended. In many ways, her bright and playful designs are a response to the austerity of postwar London.”

Mary Quant follows the success of several high-profile fashion exhibitions at the V&A, including the critically acclaimed Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion in 2017, as well as Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, which received a seven-week extension after selling out earlier this year.

women's red coat

The museum has a collection of over 120 Quant garments. This is a testimony to her ability to break with fashion and gender norms. Wood says that visitors will be amazed to discover that trousers play such an important role in the story. “Quant was among the first designers to advocate trousers for fashionable, sexy womenswear. This was at a time when pants were primarily worn by women at home and for casual occasions.”

There are other examples where tailoring cloth for military uniforms or suits for men was repurposed and used by Quant, who “didn’t have the time to wait for women’s lib” to make fun and casual clothes for women.

The first pieces that visitors see aren’t immediately identifiable as the work by the now-legendary fashion designer. They feature below-the-knee gowns with pleats and polka dot pyjamas. The exhibition becomes more Quant when you turn the corner. There are minidresses, pinafores, and other pieces from the Ginger Group collection, 1963. This group was known for its lower prices and mix-and-match possibilities.

Wood says that Wood considered her the “godmother of affordable, accessible fashion.” “Her Bazaar boutique was so innovative in terms of transforming retail experience: she would open late at night, serve drinks and play lots of music. It was like Topshop.”

people near car during nighttime

Mary Quant’s basement floor is made up of a series boxed-in display spaces that represent a row high-street shops. However, upstairs are free-standing glass cases that have been reconfigured to reflect the five petals of Quant’s iconic daisy logo. This space reflects Quant’s varied legacy. She expanded her brand to include underwear, cosmetics and home furnishings, as well as Daisy doll toys.

The V&A attempted to find Quant clothing items from the public last June. A call received more than 1000 responses. Upstairs, a digital “carousel”, featuring images and memories of those who have contacted them, takes center stage.

Wood says that couture has always been a major focus in the museum world. “This is very different because there’s a lot of attention on the women who wore these dresses. Mary Quant is a complement to the Dior exhibition [at V&A], in that it’s the opposite of the same period in fashion history. Quant is all about egalitarian, democratic fashion. It’s a relatable, accessible story.”

Mary Quant exhibition runs from 6 April 2019 – 16 February 2020.