Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary

Questions of transposition through both historical time and geopolitical space spring out of the Bendigo Art Gallery’s exhibition of ‘Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary.’ The show is enjoying its sole Australian staging in Bendigo, having travelled to rural Victoria from London's Victoria & Albert Museum.

The show’s Australian curators have been meticulous in thinking through the relationship of the British designer to Australian domestic audiences, both in the mid-twentieth century and the present. One hallmark of Quant as a designer is the international reach of her brand; she’s marked out, in this show, as one of the earliest global fashion designers and retailers. In the 1960s, when her affordable, practical, and defiant designs streamed out of King’s Road, Chelsea, they reached Australian consumers in the department stores which still, then, were set at the core of the Australian retail landscape, and in the centre of the imaginative lives of metropolitan, often working, women. An ominous note might be heard within this rightly celebratory  telling of Quant’s creative and commercial life, in the ears of contemporary listeners. If Quant, as the exhibition compellingly contends, was at the helm of one of the earliest lifestyle brands,  what do we make of the systems of global production and consumption which are our inheritance from her innovations? 

There is a wonderful attentiveness to detail in the structure of the show, and a brilliant array of Quant items to be enjoyed. Many of the objects on display were loaned or donated by those who owned or inherited them themselves, thanks to a public collection initiative by the V&A. The exhibition works in part chronologically, weaving through Quant’s development as a designer and a businessperson, and part thematically, dealing with her varied social and political concerns, and interventions. Many of these will be pertinent to contemporary audiences: she experiments with gender beyond the binary, and her emphasis on affordable, accessible, and practical womenswear emerges from an engagement with the second-wave feminism of her day, as well as from her own working-class upbringing. 

There is the question — asked and answered differently by Quant herself and by critics cited throughout the show —  of the particular relation between Quant’s work and the feminism which it is seen as related to. Was Quant a precursor, or a respondent? Did she make clothes for women already liberated, or engineer this liberation herself, sartorially? Quant claims, in bright wall text, that she didn’t have time to wait for women’s lib – but nor would she really have to, speaking in the late 1960s. Perhaps, we might think of Quant’s clothes as a permeable membrane between the designer and the times: the scene of encounter, where cause and effect commingle. 

Quant’s feminism is concerned with women’s participation in the workplace, and in the institutions of (British) civic life. Women wear waistcoats, and in a manner at once entirely camp and entirely serious, go to office jobs and practice a newly-enabled sexual freedom. Audiences in Bendigo might wonder about the relationship of this historical feminism to the feminism they know today, and the show opens these questions without prescribing answers. Would Quant’s global brand, in the twenty-first century, have responsibly employed women to make garments at a fair rate of pay? How would she have dealt with the environmental implications of global distribution? What new frontiers would she be dressing women to cross? 

There are resounding lessons still to be learned from Quant, even in this time and place removed from her own. Perhaps the key lesson might be one of attitude. The show is brightly executed, as Quant’s work was. There is irreverence, cheek, and a touching attentiveness to detail, form, shape, and texture — and to the lives lived through and within these wonderful garments.

Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary
20 March – 11 July 2021
Bendigo Art Gallery, Vic

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