The eponymous popularity of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s sell-out exhibition, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, needs little explanation. The escapist splendour of Dior’s dresses and the ethereal showrooms, which feature ceilings gloriously adorned with billowing blossom petals and a dimly lit hall-of-mirrors evocation for the evening wear pieces, conjure the mood of escape that the designer cultivated in his collections. His joyful and fantastical sartorial creations incarnate themselves as a stark contrast to the horrors of the second world war, (his sister, Catherine Dior, survived imprisonment in a concentration camp), and even his copious use of fabric broke free from the necessarily restrictive nature of war-time rationing. Though no world war is raging today, modern visitors can perhaps similarly appreciate a magical escape into the designer’s visual world of pure beauty and unreality, a momentary flight from the political turmoil of pre-Brexit Britain.
However, much less covered is the V & A’s smaller Mary Quant exhibition, displaying the 1960’s designer’s mass-produced, affordable, short-hemlined pieces for the young working woman who wants wear fashionable clothes that let her move freely. While Dior draws on visions of the ‘other place’ for his inspiration (looking to the visual cultures of Mexico, Japan, China, Egypt and Renaissance France, as well as the female deities of Ancient Greece), Quant brought fashion away from the fantasy of femininity evoked in haute couture, and back to the real woman living, working, breathing in her clothes. Escape is still an integral part of Dior’s rhetoric, the 2015 advert for Miss Dior perfume features Natalie Portman running away from her own wedding. But breaking free is an integral element of fashion design in general, and Mary Quant is no exception; the difference is that her clothes embody an inverse escapism, escape from the escapism of Dior’s fantastical imaginary world of the idealised feminine. While Dior designed for the likes of Princess Margaret (who herself could also be seen as escaping the constraints of royal propriety), Quant designed for the real woman who is condemned to (or free to?) live in the real world.
During my time at the London College of Fashion on a summer course in Fashion Design, I could not help but notice the stories of escape that broke through in the design work of many of the members of our international group. From using clothes to break free from the allegedly constrictive atmosphere of Japanese social behaviour, or playing with the expectations of modesty in female dress in Malaysia, to drawing on fantasy narratives of female runaways from 19th century literature, escapism, even if unintentional, framed much of our artistic expression.
In response to a 1966 male interviewer who asked her if many girls had enough ‘panache’ to carry off one of her miniskirts ‘majestically’, Quant perplexedly replies ‘But who wants to be majestic?’. If Dior runs away from the harsh realities of a war-torn world, Quant runs away in turn from the fantasy of femininity he created. When Yves Saint Laurent became creative director of Dior the designs almost become what one could imagine to be what you would get if you mixed Dior and Mary Quant together: shorter hemlines and trendier cuts but retaining Dior’s regal elegance. It could be said that Saint Laurent’s fashion philosophy was closer to that of Quant; he claimed fashion ‘has to help people to play’, Quant makes fashion a game to play in the world, not a place to escape from it. She escapes from the imaginative function of fashion and breaks free, instead, into the real world.