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Mary, Mary, Delightfully Contrary: Goodbye to a Leggy Fashion Legend

By Erin Moonyeen Haley

What would the Swinging Sixties be without the miniskirt? Come to think of it, what would feminism be without its liberating length (or lack thereof)? What would teen rebellion have been defined by? What would runways and springtime photoshoots have looked like?

Name your celebrity, past, present or future, and the miniskirt is going to be there. Tina Turner, Britney Spears, Ann Margaret, Dua Lipa, Dusty Springfield, Bella Hadid and a chorus line of others. Now, think back to your own personal style, your wardrobe as you came of age. Chances are, a miniskirt was there too, a staple as much as an article of clothing that operated as a rite of passage.

Chanteuses aside, the miniskirt has a specific icon, creator, engineer and jet setter: Dame Mary Quant. A fashion designer and pop culture pioneer, her name is forever entwined with the miniskirt (as well as with hotpants), and her peaceful death at her home in Surrey on April 13th only reminded the world of that fact. She was 93 years old.

"The sixties mini was the most self-indulgent, optimistic 'look at me, isn't life wonderful' fashion ever devised. It expressed the sixties, the emancipation of women, the Pill and rock 'n' roll. ... It was the beginning of women's lib."

On the outside, she was known for her fake freckles and her bob; for her wide eyes that were always painted and mascaraed. She emerged on the scene in 1955 when she and her boyfriend - aristocrat Alexander Plunket-Greene - opened a Chelsea-based boutique called Bazaar at 138a King's Road.

(Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Greene in a New York dance hall, 1962. Photograph by John Cowan Mary Quant Archive)

At this time, England was just beginning to emerge from post-WWII austerity with the youth leading the way in the worlds of music, design and fashion. Quant, who studied at Goldsmiths College of Art, took a cue from the boisterous demographic and channeled inspiration from the cropped pleated skirts and black patent-leather shoes that girls were wearing to dance class. On top of that, she was also inspired by her favorite car - the Mini-Cooper - and thus pop culture's favorite minuscule skirt was born.

It wasn't just that she brought the miniskirt into the public eye, it was that she did so at a time when mass production allowed fashion lovers who were buying Seventeen and Vogue to mimic their favorite model's wardrobe. She was a modern woman who could not be domesticated and who understood that women were joining men in defining themselves by their work. However, in that very same workplace, they would not tolerate stodgy uniforms. They were young and they wanted to look as much as celebrate it. Adhering to that giddy nonchalance, Quant also tapped into the youthfull market with her Ginger Group line, a readymade line of skirts and tops that were less expensive and ideal for those entering the workforce and party scene.

To complement the miniskirt, Quant also ushered in the world of tights, Crayola-crayon bright stockings that replaced the sheer delicacy of hose so favored by the previous generation.

While Quant herself was always been ambivalent about claiming sole authorship over the miniskirt, she was nevertheless instrumental in its popularity and making it a garment that encapsulated the essence of a time when boundaries were being pushed and eccentricities were being embraced as a way to liberate more than the feminine form. (While some believe that actual credit for the skirt goes to French designer Andre Courrèges, who, in 1964, introduced the minidress in his 1964 spring/summer collection, it was Quant who made the mini mainstream.)

Among the skirt's earliest champions were models whose very faces (and legs) were synonymous with the era's buoyancy. One of the biggest and starriest names was Twiggy, a megawatt-level fashionista whose gamine stature, teacup-wide eyes and insouciance aesthetic made her the ideal ambassador for a garment that was as much about flirtation as it was about the c'est la vie bohemian vibe. Looking at some of her more legendary shoots, it's hard to imagine her existing or reconfiguring the status quo without the mini skirt.

British supermodel Jean Shrimpton was another superstar model of the era who popularized the mini, becoming an unintentional poster girl for the daredevil skirt at a sporting event in Australia in 1965.

And then there was model, rock and roll groupie and Beatles babe Pattie Boyd who also made the mini part of her uniform.

If social media is a litmus test of one's popularity and cultural impact, then the outpouring of admiration, grief, and nostalgia that has been seen since Quant's death has overwhelmed Twitter, operating as a posthumous reminder that fashion will always stand out as a powerful historiographical tool that tells us who we were a long time ago, in a fashion boutique far, far away.

Victoria & Albert Museum: "It’s impossible to overstate Quant’s contribution to fashion. She represented the joyful freedom of 1960s fashion, and provided a new role model for young women. Fashion today owes so much to her trailblazing vision."

Dr. Kate Strasdin, Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Falmouth University: "The loss of a fashion icon today, #MaryQuant’s designs came to define a generation and influenced so many. Her clean lines, new materials and quirky details make her garments instantly recognisable."

The New York Times: "Mary Quant, the British designer who revolutionized fashion, died on Thursday at her home in England at 93. Known as the mother of the miniskirt, she epitomized the style of the Swinging Sixties."

Pattie Boyd: English supermodel who was also married to George Harrison (1966 - 1977): "Very sad news today to learn of the passing of the 60s daringly creative, fun genius, much-loved lady, Dame Mary Quant. Mary insisted on making George's and my wedding coats in 1966; his, Black Mongolian Fur and mine, Red Fox. A true icon. RIP."

*Images courtesy of V&A and Vogue


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