Originally published in 1966, Quant by Quant is the hugely entertaining story of fashion designer Mary Quant’s early career and life with her husband and business partner, Alexander Plunket Greene. After opening the groundbreaking Bazaar boutique on London’s King’s Road in 1955, Quant soared to international fame with her brand of witty style that fitted perfectly with modern life. Just as her signature styles have become synonymous with the pop culture of the Swinging Sixties, her joyful, evocative autobiography captures the world in which she found inspiration—and which she ultimately helped to define and change.
I spotted this in the fashion section of my library and decided to read it mostly because I like Mary Quant’s clothing from the 60’s and I wanted to know more about her life. As it turns out, this isn’t the best book for learning more about MQ, except maybe if you wanted to know how she wrote (and probably talked).
See, it’s somewhat flighty. There’s no dates, no hard retrospection of introspection or anything of that kind. It’s pretty much just “we did this and then we did that and everyone was fantastic,” and while I like that sort of thing in small amounts it’s very frustrating to read a whole book that seems to be made of nothing but air and PVC.
The best bits were when Mary talked about how she started her business(es) and when she talked about her views on what makes a good fashion designer. I liked how she talked about young people like they were important (which they were, of course), and not just proto-adults that didn’t matter, as most people in fashion then seemed to have thought. I also really liked when she explained what it was she did that was so different and new and interesting compared to the Old Fashion World. It gave me an idea of what fashion was like in the early 1950s and before, which was extremely helpful because I honestly have no idea about that sort of thing except vaguely in the area of fads. And the comparisons between British fashion businesses and American fashion businesses were super interesting: apparently Americans were more hardcore and now-now-now (and rude) and the Brits were more laid-back (and politer).
The worst bits were when she dropped a buttload of names around and I had no idea who any of those people were, because while they may have been household names in the 60’s they certainly aren’t so today. I also was annoyed by her writing sometimes, because she always seemed to focus more on the parties and the people she met instead of the actual design process or where she got her inspirations from. I think there was maybe four paragraphs worth of that in the whole book.
I think the main issue with Quant by Quant is that it was written in 1966, at the height of Quant’s popularity and yet nearer to the end of the mod than she’d probably have liked. So there’s not that sense of distance and thoughtfulness that you get in memoirs that have been written decades after the thing has happened. It’d be interesting to read a new memoir written today, especially if it took into account the lasting impact her designs had on fashion.
I wonder how popular this book was when it was first published– I can just see young fashionistas grabbing onto it and reading it over and over again. It does have a vibrancy about it that’s very addictive and attractive, and reading it today I can see why people liked MQ so much back then. She comes off as a very Modern Woman, at least in the 60’s sort of way, and I’m sure she was a lot of fun to be around. Her book feels like a very 60’s thing, especially in the language (though it has a lot less slang than you’d think) and the way it’s set up with the no chapters and so on. Sort of free-spirited and exciting.
If you do end up reading this, you should probably supplement it with a Quant biography or a 1960’s fashion history. I think you’d get more out of Quant by Quant if you had some background info ready beforehand, because while MQ gives you some fashion history it’s not nearly enough to understand the whole impact she had on fashion and so on. And I’m sure some important things were left out, or just needed to be explained in greater detail.
All in all, it’s not a bad book, necessarily. It does give you a very good idea of what things were like in the 50’s/60’s if you were British and into fashion, and it has a charm about it that I like. But I wouldn’t depend on it for an absolutely definitive look at 60’s fashion, or at Mary Quant herself. You won’t get the whole picture and that’d be a shame.
Read: January 13-16, 2010
Interesting Mary Quant links:
Mary Quant: A New Approach Chelsea 1955–1967
Fab Frocks: Focus on Mary Quant (sort of a modern-eyed view of her and her work)
A short video featuring swinging London and some MQ stuff.