Coco Chanel & Mary Quant
It’s a sad fact that most of us today are happy in faded denim or drab grey and blue athleisure-wear. Take a look, at any bus stop queue, at all those shapeless hoodies and baggie joggie bottoms. At work (and job interviews) it often pays to wear sober, sombre colours. However, it wasn’t always like this.
In Victorian times, new industrial revolution aniline dying techniques – especially for women’s long dresses – changed fashion radically. The new hi-viz fabrics would look glaringly intense to modern eyes. Then Prince Albert died and Queen Victoria set a fashion for mourning black.
After the shock of WWI, the 1920s Jazz Age saw a new enforced jollity reflected in a fresh silhouette for women. Giddy colours and patterns illustrated the era’s Cole Porter anthem ‘Anything Goes’.
The main arbiter of this new look for women with money was influential Paris couturier Coco Chanel. Her dropped waists and clinging fabrics were adopted all over the world. But in 1926 the designer revealed what was to be her boldest and most famous creation yet. The Little Black Dress. Sophisticated, sporty and slimming, it was the perfect accompaniment for that other 1920s essential. The Cocktail.
The original was made with no fastenings and just slipped over the head. Daring and dramatic the LBD went on to be a fashion staple gloriously reinvented throughout the 20th century and beyond - this summer’s big exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, Beyond the Little Black Dress, lands at the beginning of July.
Everyone from Hubert de Givenchy and Yves St Laurent to Lagerfeld and the high street chains to today’s cutting-edge catwalk looks have channelled the Chanel classic.
There is always something rather transgressive and rebellious about a young person (fashionista or fetishist) dressed in black. Every rebel wanted to make a statement in black from beatniks and bikers to bad boys and bohemians, to say nothing of goths and emos.
Dangerous black had connotations with death, the night, sin and sorrow. According to Alison Lurie in her book The Language of Clothes the colour also suggests ‘the symbolic denial of the sensual life… monks and misers, scholars and priests, all favoured black’.
While white implies innocence black says experience and knowledge. For men and women in the royal court of Spain in the late 16th century black was the go-to colour and the fashion spread to Holland and Elizabethan England.
For centuries the rich loved black velvets and veils (think of black-tie dinners). And the poor in their shawls and work clothes loved black too – it didn’t show the dirt.
Other colours have other meanings. Bridal white has associations not just with purity but with medicine and British colonialism and was long considered high status because at one time only the wealthy could afford the laundry bills to keep whites stain free. Purple is the colour of royals and popes, vulgarity and dreams. Grey is modest. Green for the nervous. Yellow is the colour of hope.
Just as Chanel was famous for black, another pioneering designer from a different era - Dame Mary Quant who died in April 2023 - was celebrated for her kooky colour combinations. Purple and orange (or ‘prune and ginger’ as she called it) being a spectacular example.
After post-war rationing and austerity young people with bulging pay-packets were hungry for the new, with the Mods going on to set the scene in the late 1950s. When Quant opened her Terence Conran-designed boutique, Bazaar, on the King’s Road in 1955 it swiftly beome a fixture on the Swinging London scene as the V&A’s major touring retrospective Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary confirms.
Quant was a rulebreaker who forged the ‘Chelsea girl look’ of the 1960s with simple tunic dresses. She gave her products fun names such as a range of tights called Starkers and a sporty dress called Footer, inspired by the 1966 World Cup. Her style was exported – and copied – internationally. And she was the best ambassador of her work wearing her own outfits and even having her hair bobbed by Vidal Sassoon. The result is the arrival of the V&A’s major touring retrospective Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Quant pioneered miniskirts, coloured tights, PVC macs, clinging dresses in Bri-Nylon and kinky boots in primary colours that the ‘dolly birds’ loved (there was even Daisy, a Barbie-style doll dressed in the latest Quant styles). There were cosmetics in quirky, ravishing colours in famous black-and-white packaging.
In the 1970s she had a make-up range for men so you could have smoky-eyes just like Bowie and Bolan. She always knew how to market fashions that old people really didn’t approve of.
‘The point of clothes,’ she once said ‘is to get you noticed, make you feel sexy and make you feel good.’ ■
Info: The National Museum of Scotland’s Beyond the Little Black Dress runs from 1 July to 29 October 2023. The V&A’s Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary is at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum until 22 October 2023
Twiggy modelling Mary Quant’s waistcoat and shorts ensemble 1966. Alexander McQueen’s take on the little black dress, Autumn/Winter 2017 Paris