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What did Mary Quant have to say about the vanguard?

The death, in April, of the British designer famous for her mini-skirts encouraged us to take a closer look at the vanguard and its significance.


Philosophers like to talk about “changing criteria”, while scientists prefer to highlight a “spontaneous break in symmetry”. These two expressions more or less refer, one with words and the other with equations, to the same phenomenon, this being the unpredictable and random occurrence of a change in a system that is, on the face of it, invariable. These breaks are often explained by imagining the existence of a new parameter, a differentiated structure. Fashion, as the ultimate realm of instability, lack of continuity and change, cannot help but take an interest in such notions, which are vital to understanding the world.


It feels somewhat instinctive that Mary Quant would exemplify this notion of a break. The work of the English designer, born in Blackheath, South-East London, in 1930 to Welsh parents who were both teachers, is well known. Her early career was notably marked by the opening of a hybrid store (part-restaurant, part-boutique) called Bazaar in 1950s London with her future husband. She is also well-known for her training in cutting, the sale of the first garments sewn at night in her workshop, her attraction to colour and light materials, and her exploration of new materials such as PVC. She was certainly not short on success, and Bazaar, with its cheerful windows displays (the designer even brought in sand to create a summer vibe and stacked dozens of milk cartons), became a firm favourite among young people and was even frequented by Brigitte Bardot, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.


Posterity, however, has highlighted a very specific moment in the designer’s career, back in 1962, when Mary introduced a very short skirt to her wardrobe. Three years later, this short skirt made a name for itself on the shelves of American retail chain JC Penney, which had invited the British designer to design a series of collections. Quant would ultimately stay there for 11 years. In the meantime, cutting out those extra few centimetres completely changed the look of a whole generation and went hand in hand with something of a moral revolution, a feat that would remain forever engraved in journalists’ minds.


Does ‘avant-garde’ refer to an ability to invent something that did not exist before? In her book entitled 100 Years of Fashion, published by Laurence King Publishing, author Cally Blackman recalls that André Courrèges created a very short model for his 1965 collection, while Pierre Cardin was also significantly shortening his skirts at almost exactly the same time. More than an isolated, localised stunt, it seems that a wave that simultaneously spread a new vision of the female look and of femininity was making its presence felt on both sides of the Channel.


Does this diminish Mary Quant's distinction or merit? No. In his essay The Empire of the Ephemeral, researcher Gilles Lipovetsky reminds us that fashion is not defined as an exclusive formal rule but as a process that ‘dignifies’ innovation and, more specifically, the dynamics of innovation. “Fashion allows us to broaden public questioning and to achieve greater autonomy of subjective thoughts and existence. The wisdom of modern nations lies in the folly of superficial fads. Fashion is the final stage of democracy”.


The author also postulates that fashion was born when a principle of immobility was ripped apart, and places this birth around the 13th century. During the fifteen or so centuries preceding this birth, a tunic dress worn by both sexes was an almost permanent fixture. This legitimacy of the new, this apology for disruption, this long unexplained (because it was little studied) desire to constantly renew forms of clothing, did not appear out of thin air; they were supported by various external factors, including better professional structures (with the birth of fellowships), urban development, progress in land, river and sea transport, and last but not least technical innovation.


This included the increasing popularity of the horizontal loom, which first appeared in Flanders around 1050-1070. This new type of loom made it possible to manufacture very large fabrics whilst also reducing the time spent installing the warp threads thanks to the emergence of treadles in the 12th century. As well as being easier to dye and of superior quality, these fabrics were also larger, allowing for a greater variety of cuts. Professionalisation, as part and parcel of a real production cycle located in towns and cities and divided across several different types of labour, would later emerge from this development. Fashion was born precisely because it questioned our relationship with the past and forcefully seized the possibilities that a new invention offered while at the same time maintaining a certain respect for previous generations.


Mary Quant’s work played its part in this saga. There was far more to her talents than simply removing a few centimetres of fabric from a garment; indeed, they gave her a certain aptitude for discussion between common practice and initiative, between respecting tradition and legitimising the outperforming thereof using all of the resources made available by industrial, technical and cultural innovation. It was indeed this same aptitude that characterised Vivienne Westwood, who enshrined in the traditional corset a look set with a certain element of nourishing subversion. It is also characteristic of Issey Miyake, who imposed his new vision of the world not by locking himself up in his own little world but by getting out and visiting the factories. Their respective careers highlight the true meaning of ‘avant-garde’ as an ability to explore the field, with each embodying a definition put forward by Rei Kawakubo that states that “Fashion is only real when it is stimulated”.


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