A Love Letter to Mary Quant and 60s Mod
In a red mesh tunic with a black cross down the front, black leggings, a black fisherman’s cap, and red patent leather boots, I arrived at my parent’s house for Christmas dinner last year. “You look like Mary Quant,” my Aunt Martha said—and this is where my fascination with mod dressing began.
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Mary Quant was born in England in 1934 and is known today as an instrumental figure in the London-based mod-movement of the 60s. She went to college for art and started designing clothing in her early 20s, using the cultural change post-WWII as her driving force. With a $10,000 investment from her lawyer husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, Quant opened a store to sell her designs—shift dresses, colored knitwear and A-line skirts. The shop, which Quant named “Bazaar,” was located on King’s Road in London’s Chelsea neighborhood. Quant’s unique pieces came to define the “Chelsea look.”
Quant was ahead of the curve, innovating this new way of dressing even before the 60s began. Quant holds an Order of the British Empire (OBE), a prestigious award gifted to individuals for influential contributions to the arts and sciences. In 1966, Queen Elizabeth awarded Quant the OBE for her contribution to British fashion. In addition to her position as undeniable fashion pioneer, Quant has a persona and an attitude toward life that make her a relatable, everlasting icon. In a 1985 interview with Thames TV’s Michael Barratt, Quant gives her reason for introducing such a new and contemporary design aesthetic, saying simply: “I didn’t like clothes the way they were.”
The idyllic Mary Quant girl stems from teenage dancers in the 50s. Sporting black knit sweaters, short pleated skirts, and black patent leather shoes atop white socks, these girls served as Quant’s inspiration. She translated this look into a collection of rib-knit bodysuits, colorful tights, and patent leather boots, calling upon theater manufacturers to produce the tights and bodysuits in an unconventionally bright color palette.
The Chelsea Look that Quant crafted not only counteracted Dior’s “New Look” of the 50s, which was defined by corsets and poufy skirts, but it served as a preface to mod subculture which emerged in the 1960s. Mods were generally working-class youth who sought to escape society through fashion and music after WWII, and Quant’s designs—affordable and alternative to what was available in department stores at the time—epitomized the attitude and lifestyle that mods wanted to achieve. Her boyish, edgy styles gave the 60s rebellious youth a voice within the fashion scene—a major contrast to pre-war notions that only the rich could be fashionable.
Due to the company’s mass marketability, Quant decided to sell her items wholesale and began a partnership with J.C. Penney in the early 60s. She shut down her retail store soon after. Because Quant eliminated her flagship store early on, and didn’t show her designs at fashion week, she has remained relatively unknown in the mainstream fashion industry. She also often fails to receive credit for two of fashion’s biggest innovations: the mini skirt and the Go-Go boot.
Both of these items are frequently attributed to André Courrèges, a designer who worked under Balenciaga in France, then opened an eponymous couture house in 1961. Courrèges, who died in 2016, developed a following for his futuristic silhouettes—skirt suits and dresses with A-line silhouettes, detailed with circular pockets. The Courrèges look was often completed with a pair of white patent leather boots.
Courrèges’ eye-catching white boots gained him notoriety from fashion publications, many of which have called him the creator of the Go-Go boot. Courrèges may have introduced the block heel on the style, but that doesn’t make him the Go-Go boot pioneer. Courrèges essentially added heels to Quant’s existing designs, which were flat patent leather boots of all different colors.
Another question that emerges when discussing the works of Quant and Courrèges is who created the mini skirt. Courrèges is commonly credited with initiating the design, but Quant shortened hemlines long before he did. Quant told Michael Barratt that she created the mini, and Courrèges slightly altered the style, making it more respectable within the high-fashion industry.
While Quant’s clothing was accessible, it was definitely not high fashion—Quant sold her clothes at J.C. Penney while Courrèges showcased at fashion week—and although their aesthetics are similar, maintaining a low price point is a crucial element to Quant’s work. She knew her audience and respected the mod lifestyle, so regardless of the prestige that comes with runway shows, maturing into a high-fashion brand was simply not her path to take. After the 60s, Quant phased out her affordable clothing and directed her business toward textiles and makeup. Courrèges, on the other hand, continued to produce high-end collections up until the 90s. Sébastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant decided to revive his label in 2015 and showcased new takes on iconic Courrèges pieces, including boxy leather jackets, knit bodysuits, and patent leather boots.
Perhaps one could argue that Courrèges appropriated Quant’s mod aesthetic—he took a style of dressing, rooted in affordability and powered by a counter-culture narrative, and made it unattainable by the very people it was created for. While the reborn Courrèges label continues to replicate its popular pieces at fashion week and is sported by Insta-personalities, Mary Quant’s clothing is preserved in London’s famed Victoria & Albert museum.
We have bloggers to thank for helping the mod trend re-emerge and become accessible once again at affordable price points. British-born Topshop appropriately leads the pack, followed by its European contemporaries Zara, Bershka and Mango. The trendy retailers are selling patent leather jackets, pants, boots and even bags, in addition to A-line skirts and dresses. Take a look at any patent leather item on Topshop.com, and chances are it is sold out in most sizes.
The aforementioned bloggers and even the women who sport Courrèges are emulating the look that Mary Quant popularized, but I can’t help but wonder how many of them actually emulate the attitude and lifestyle of the Chelsea girl. For Quant, who turned 84 on Sunday, fashion is a manifestation of her everyday life. The Chelsea look, while appropriate for many occasions, exudes style and originality yet remains practical and inconspicuous. Every time I put on my patent leather boots, an A-line skirt or a striped knit, I won’t think about Courrèges, Topshop, or British style bloggers—I will think of Mary Quant. I will treasure my mod-inspired wardrobe staples forever and will do my best to honor her legacy. We do share a birthday, after all.