Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Accounts of Swinging London inspire the same cocktail of thrill and suspicion in me as promises of supercheap Airbnbs and waterproof phones: It sounds too wonderful to be true. Yet while the 1960s probably didn’t pass in a haze of Beatlemania and carefree chain-smoking for everyone, a fortunate few appear to have had a genuine blast. One such unicorn was Mary Quant, the fashion revolutionary who died this week aged 93.
Trailblazers are often credited with having been “ahead of their time,” but Quant was her time. Credited with popularizing the iconic miniskirt and sweeping away the dusty silhouettes of the 1950s, her eye for what young people might love to wear — and her interest in what excited young women in particular — spoke of an imagination so alive that it shaped the world around her. A genuine influencer who became a figurehead for a post-war generation determined to milk every opportunity that came its way, Quant’s life story reads like a celebration. From a 2023 vantage point, it’s hard not to walk away seething with envy.
Quant opened her London store Bazaar in 1955 when she was just 25 years old. The daughter of two teachers from mining families, she wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but she picked up a couple along the way. Her husband Alexander Plunket Greene, who she met while studying art at Goldsmiths College, was a cousin of the Duke of Bedford. Their friend Archie McNair was a lawyer-turned-portrait photographer who also owned a coffee bar (this guy walked so millennial hipsters could run) — and evidently, flush with cash too.
The trio decided to start a fashion business together, and in 1955, each of the men put up £5,000 to buy a whole building on London’s exclusive King’s Road in Chelsea. That’s close to £170,000 (well over $200,000) in today’s money — hardly small change, but for contrast, the property at that address last sold in 2021 for £7,525,000. No one’s suggesting that knowing wealthy people has ceased to be a popular business model in the seven decades since Bazaar opened, but Quant undoubtedly had the 1960s’ benevolent property market to thank as well.
During the first half of the 20th century, the fashion of youth wasn’t much different from that of later adulthood. What you wore denoted class, and silhouettes were largely stiff, corseted and uniform. Quant’s Chelsea shop exploded onto the scene brimming with the colorful pinafores, short skirts and tights that she wanted to wear, and was swiftly embraced by a generation that fashion to date had underserved.
Snobbery, she said, had gone out of style, and her designs were radical but underpinned by a through-line of logic. More young women than ever had jobs, and as Quant herself explained: “I liked my skirts short because I wanted to run and catch the bus to get to work.” For those unprepared to take a risk on a windy day, Quant made trousers — which had eluded mainstream chic until that decade. Women were making their own money, and as far as Quant was concerned, they should spend it on things that brought them joy. Sure, her colorful tights were three times as expensive as traditional stockings, but what did that matter if girls had the cash?
So much of Quant’s career reads like a modern entrepreneur’s fantasy. She seized upon the chance offered by new post-war technologies to mass produce cost-effective synthetic clothes, unburdened by the environmental concerns that dog today’s fast fashion makers. Kim Kardashian’s “cozy collection” for Skims famously struck gold during the pandemic, arriving just at the moment that people were confined to their homes.
Quant introduced the American idea of “loungewear” specifically for the home to Europe in the first place — and, like Kardashian, understood the power of her own brand. Where previous designers had sent their creations out into the world hoping they’d inspire consumers on their own merits, Quant was the living embodiment of the playful gamines she was courting — short-haired, kohl-rimmed and visibly reveling in the freedom offered by the clothes she made.
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Having an open-minded sense of adventure is all very well, but it’s no guarantee of happiness when that philosophy doesn’t dovetail with your environment. Quant was super talented and gifted with a precocious sense of empowerment and hustle that’d be familiar to today’s twenty-somethings, but crucially she hit a vein of luck that allowed her to translate those dreams into reality. As she put it, “I just happened to start when ‘that something in the air’ was coming to a boil.”