In Sadie Frost’s documentary “Quant”, there’s a conversation that captures the essence and style of the subject, one of the most well-known 1960s fashion icons.
“Isn’t it rather obvious that the miniskirt is so obvious?” A male TV presenter asked Mary Quant, a British designer. “It seems that not many girls have the legs, hips, and most importantly, the panache to do it all majestically.
Quant, appalled, replies: “But…who wants to be majestic?”
This line is delivered with the right amount of contempt for the man in front and the male establishment at the time. It’s a mood and one of many moments from “Quant” that helps you see how the designer, who is known for making the miniskirt a global phenomenon and launching one among the first super brands worldwide, was not only a pioneer in fashion but also a voice of women in her generation.
Mary Quant and her models pose at Heathrow Airport, London, in March 1968. This was before she left for a European fashion tour. Credit: George Stroud/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Quant’s clothes are not for the elite of “stately women” as she emphasizes throughout the film. They were quite the contrary. They wore short dresses, bright tights, PVC pieces, and funky knits and offered a refreshing break from the rigid sartorial codes of previous decade, which included the polished style of Christian Dior’s “New Look” collection.
Quant’s designs symbolized freedom, empowerment, and rejection of the parents’ aesthetic standards. (She also said, in a quote that is eminently true, “The point of clothes should be one, that your attention is paid, two, that your body looks attractive and three, that it makes you feel good. It’s not clear to me that they are worn to keep warm.
Frost spoke by phone to say that Mary Quant “helped change the role for women in society and encouraged them express themselves,” Frost stated. “There were many fascinating parts to her personality and life that I wanted to bring up in the film.
Beyond the short skirt
Frost tells Quant’s tale through animation, archival footage and playful reenactments. Camilla Rutherford plays the role of Quant in a few vignettes, attempting to recreate the designer’s fun style. Frost doesn’t mention that she has seen the documentary, but Frost claimed that she enjoyed it.
Frost explained, “As we filmed during pandemic,” Frost said. “But I felt it was important to bring Mary to life onscreen, so Camilla played her younger self. It worked really well. She adds an entirely new dimension to the feature.
Interviews with industry insiders such as Edward Enninful of British Vogue, Kate Moss, and Terry Newman are also included. Quant is also interviewed with close family members, including Orlando Plunkett Greene (who doesn’t appear onscreen), and her friends.
Frost hired Camilla Rutherford as Mary Quant’s younger sister in a few scenes. Credit: Chris Lopez/Courtesy MQD Film Limited
The director has placed Quant’s legacy in a wider context. He says Quant was influenced by the “youthquake”, which shook the 1960s with music, second-wave feministism and sex. Quant explores how women gained greater control over their lives after the birth of the contraceptive pill.
This documentary follows Quant’s rapid career through these lenses — from opening her first boutique in London’s Chelsea neighborhood to the rise and fall of her retail empire which at its peak included clothes, cosmetics, shoes, and home goods. It places Quant at the forefront the era’s cultural shifts and recognizes her as the face of the radical 1960s.
It also highlights Quant’s lesser-known strengths: Despite her bold designs, Quant was a shy, reserved woman who managed to make her point through her soft-spoken, calm, yet decisive style.
Frost stated, “She was an extraordinarily dynamic character who hasn’t been recognized enough because of the role she played.” “I wanted her to be the best I could.”
The legacy of innovative looks
Whether Quant did in fact invent the miniskirt is a hotly debated topic — the documentary mentions French designer André Courrèges as the possible creator of the garment, while also pointing out that the introduction of “above the knee” skirts was a gradual process.
Quant, however, was undoubtedly responsible for making the ever-shorter skirt the era-defining garment in the 1960s (and coining it’s name after the Mini Cooper), and breaking down social codes along the way.
Her iconic look is also the symbol of a variety of other innovative looks: the Vidal Sassoon bob, the “Chelsea” coquettish style, the Peter Pan collars, and flat shoes she created, inspired by her childhood wardrobe; the bright tights that she designed to compliment her bold and vibrant collections; PVC outerwear (something which was previously only worn by fishermen); repurposed male knits into women’s sweater dresses; and pockets.
The documentary featured Zandra Rhodes, a British fashion designer, who was interviewed by Quant. Credit: Chris Lopez/Courtesy MQD Film Limited
She was among the first to venture into licensing, which allows a trademark owner (the “licensor”) to allow another party, called the “licensee,” to use their trademarks in connection to specific products or services. Her business expanded to include cosmetics — waterproof mascaras were not common until Quant arrived — housewares as well as dolls and wine.
However, it proved impossible to sustain the rapid growth. Quant lost its global appeal as the sexiness of ’60s was replaced with the hippie-punk vibes of ’70s and ’80s saw a revival in prim, formal dress. Archie McNair, Quant’s business partner, had already retired from the company by the end of the 1980s. Alexander Plunket Greene was Quant’s husband. He was one of her staunchest supporters according to the documentary. He died in 1990.
The designer quit her role as director of Mary Quant Ltd in 2000 and handed over the reins the Japanese venture, which still has the Quant licensing agreements. The brand still exists today in Japan, where it is still sold in over 100 stores.
Frost said that Frost’s legacy is still strong despite all the challenges. Frost said that younger people may not know her name or how much she influenced fashion. To me, it was vital to tell her entire story.
“Quant” is available in the UK right now.
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