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London museum looks at fashion’s role in rebellion

Display of dresses that formed part of Quant’s famous ‘ginger group’ collection. (Amy Goodman/YJI)

LONDON – Fashion is more than skin deep.

There is a dichotomy within fashion. It has damaged bodies and battered self esteems, from corsets to skin whitening products, to a general overwhelming pressure to fit an ideal.

Yet simultaneously, fashion has enabled people to express themselves, and perhaps break or change the status quo.

When we look at society through the lens of fashion, we can gain a new insight into how people live and their priorities.

History is full of examples where either clothing has been changed by society, or more interestingly, where society has been altered by the clothing itself.

The suffragette movement and its famous “Votes for Women” campaign started as a clothing movement.

Women wanted to move away from restrictive corsets and into freeing clothing they could wear comfortably. Known as the ‘rational dress movement,’ the small beginnings of a huge campaign started with clothing because what they wore was so important for their lives.

The difference between a restrictive corset and comfortable dress affected what women could do and, in turn, who they could become.

An exhibition about British designer Mary Quant at the Victoria and Albert Museum inspired me to think more about this.

Quant’s early bold and colorful dresses. (Amy Goodman/YJI)

Quant opened a London boutique in the ‘60s. Her designs were different, masculine, and quirky. She made fashionable, affordable clothing for a new generation that did not want to mirror their parents in lifestyle or dress.

Quant ushered in a new way of thinking about women’s clothing in Britain, and, eventually, the western world. Rather than high end designers dictating what was in vogue, Quant wanted to allow the ‘working woman’ to set the trends.

Her clothes took inspiration from men’s clothing, styling an androgynous look and rebelling against the neat long dresses of the previous decade.

Colorful Chelsea boots made from plastic, a new material for shoes at the time. (Amy Goodman/YJI)

For a new generation of women more career focused than ever before, Quant had hit the nail on the head. Eventually, her pieces were linked to brands like JCPenney, making her designs accessible and affordable.

She not only changed the game, but she allowed everyone to play.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from learning about Quant. I’m not someone who is typically interested in fashion.

I couldn’t care less who designed your handbag or where your shoes are from.

But, with all design, the things in our lives reflect what we and those around us value and need. Quant has given me a newfound appreciation for those who test the boundaries of fashion and society.

Quant’s later work. Her dresses were made more comfortable and sleek by having no seams. (Amy Goodman/YJI)

Since Quant’s daisy-stamped designs, we’ve seen other game changers for the times that followed.

Recently, the rise of ‘influencers’ have changed the way we view fashion. Figuring out when we are being sold something is becoming harder and harder.

Advertisements are now guised as people talking about their own lives. It can feel difficult to distance yourself from trends and products being thrust your way.

But while social media made fashion more restrictive in some ways, it’s also proved to be instrumental in breaking boundaries.

Just like Quant’s ambition of putting the power of fashion into the consumers’ hands, social media has enabled the same vision, but on a larger scale. Editors of fashion magazines and directors in casting rooms no longer are the only ones who define what is worthy.

Instead, those with disabilities, who are not the desired Hollywood size zero, or who simply want to express themselves outside the mainstream trends, are able to create content about themselves for a large audience.

In turn, huge parts of society are able to see themselves reflected in the media around them, perhaps for the first time.

Just like Quant, there is a new generation defining fashion for themselves.

Amy Goodman is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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