Quant and the Return to Quality
“The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone,” said British designer Mary Quant, who is credited with the invention of stylish, youthful clothing that cleverly took advantage of post-war manufacturing technology -- but at what cost?
Instead of the usual resolutions to eat better and exercise more, this year began with a new self-improvement fad: Kondo-Mania. Initiated by the launch of Marie Kondo’s Netflix series, Tidying up with Marie Kondo, which launched on January first. Instead of focusing on shedding lbs. in the weeks following the festive season, Kondo inspired many on both sides of the Atlantic to shed possessions, keeping only those items that ‘spark joy.’ The idea of paring down and learning to properly store and fold what we own appeared so timely that it was almost universally embraced, until her suggestion that we limit the number of books we keep led to an online backlash. Perhaps it is telling that it was this category that sparked anger rather than joy? We don’t all collect books to the same degree, but those who do, tend to love, revere, and respect them. It is perhaps equally telling that her advice for editing down our closets was much more enthusiastically received.
Struggling with the volume of our possessions is a relatively new phenomenon but the success of Kondo’s 2014 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up, and this year’s TV series are a testament to the size of the problem, and fashion, not fiction, is at the very heart of it. According to Greenpeace’s Timeout for Fast Fashion, released on the eve of Black Friday—the busiest shopping day of the year—in 2016, “The average person buys 60% more items of clothing and keeps them for about half as long as fifteen years ago.” Spanish retailer Zara is credited as inventing fast fashion, which essentially reduces design and production times from months to days, responding extraordinarily rapidly to trends and creating and feeding a constant cycle of consumer desire for new items.
Fast fashion exaggerates fashion’s built-in obsolescence and promotes overconsumption. Its ethical and environmental impact is truly alarming, from the inhumane working conditions in factories to the pollution created by production, transportation, and eventual consumer waste, fashion is now the second largest polluter in the world. In his documentary, also from 2016, Slowing Down Fast Fashion, musician, Alex James, claims that the UK throws-out one million tons of clothing every year and replaces it with two million tons of new clothing, and 50% of what we cast aside ends up in landfill because the amount of clothing produced has outstripped our capacity to recycle it and not all used clothing has value in the second-hand market. We may be more comfortable with the Kondo-style editing of our closets but discarding what does not delight us is clearly not the solution to the problem of twenty-first-century consumer gluttony.
Last summer, before the Netflix-inspired second wave of Kondo-mania, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum launched a closet-raiding campaign of its own with the hashtag: #WeWantQuant. The curators of the first exhibition to celebrate the iconic fashion designer, Mary Quant, for fifty years used social media to ask women “to help us tell these incredible stories, we are asking people to check attics, cupboards, as well as family photo albums, for the chance to feature in our exhibition.” Quant revolutionized high-street fashion in the 1960s, as Harriet Hall noted in The Independent: “It’s difficult to imagine that before Mary Quant (b.1934), girls dressed like children and women dressed like their mothers: there was no in between; no “teenage” fashion that signaled youthful expression.” Quant is credited with the invention of stylish, youthful clothing that cleverly took advantage of post-war technological and manufacturing advances as well as the relative affluence and social freedoms of her target market. As such, she is also the starting point of the high-street fashion cycle that has lately been spiraling out of control.
The exhibition, which opened this month and runs until March of 2020, has been drawn from the V&A’s extensive collection and Quant’s personal archive, as well as thirty-five examples from the thousands of responses to the #WeWantQuant call-out. The exhibition begins by quoting Quant in 1966: “The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone.” Availability, meaning affordability is often cited as the one positive of Fast Fashion and the very thing that feeds continuous consumption; many of these retailers offer items of clothing for sale for less than the cost of a paperback, so perhaps it’s logical that we value them less. We now spend an average of 3% of our annual income on clothing compared to about 10% in the 1950s, and that 3% buys us far more.
Quant’s clothes and accessories were not inexpensive, one of the public lenders to the exhibition, Angela Bailey, notes that a pair of Quant’s brightly-colored tights (pantyhose) cost £1 in 1966, when her salary was £6 a week. Quant’s clothing was available via her Chelsea boutique, Bazaar, and then also as a cheaper line of separates under the label Ginger via licensed manufacturers and retailers such as JC Penny, and to sew at home using Butterick patterns. Regardless of which price point you could afford, these clothes and accessories meant something to their consumers, which is born out in the huge response to #WeWantQuant and the testimonials of lenders like Bailey who also notes, as reviewers of the exhibition have done, how contemporary the clothing feels when she says, “I’d still wear it if I could get into it.” All of which suggests that Quant’s clothing may have come along at exactly the right time once again.
Over the last few months, a number of prominent fashion journalists, bloggers, and Instagram influencers have begun to change their approach to discussing fashion. Last October, Jess Cartner-Morley of The Guardian announced that her long-running weekly ‘How to Wear’ column would shift its focus from new purchases to styling what she owned with the occasional new item and vintage find, citing the environmental impact of Fast Fashion as the reason for the change. Exploring what motivates us to participate in this rapid cycle of consumption she argued that “there is a self-worth gap in our culture, and clothes dumped as landfill is the consequence.” If this is the cause, and an emphasis on experimenting with individual style is the answer, Quant was a forerunner of this, too. She reminds us that high-street retailers were, and are, capable of innovation and experimentation — not just rushing through the production of cheap copies. Her customers admired not only what she produced but also what she represented: she was both a style icon and, as a prominent, celebrated businesswoman, a role model.
The correlation Cartner-Morley points out between what we wear and how we feel about ourselves might also be reexamined following Quant’s example. She designed the building blocks of style and individuality and made them available to a wide audience, unlike her high fashion peers. In so doing she gave each of her customers the luxury of choice, which thousands of them valued so much they kept items for decades and revered them enough to respond to a museum on a different continent. Even at their cheapest, all of these clothes and accessories cost far more than a book at the time they were bought, but it’s not their price but how much they are cherished that is reminiscent of bibliophiles that criticized Kondo. Whether you call it love, nostalgia, or ‘sparking joy,’ the emphasis here is on quality, which is a good first step on the journey to rethinking a problem based on the quantity that has repercussions for us all.