11 Dec 2021

Heather Tilbury Phillips: working with fashion icon Mary Quant

From Saturday Morning, 8:35 am on 11 December 2021

In the 1960s Mary Quant broke the mould of conventional fashion with her creative and playful designs that personified the energy of 'Swinging London'. Famously credited for creating the mini skirt, Quant also popularised brightly coloured tights and tailored trousers - revolutionising the way women thought about dressing. 

Mary Quant

Mary Quant Photo: Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A businesswoman as well as designer, Quant grew her brand so that it burst from her tiny boutique on King’s Road, her clothing finding its way onto shelves of department stores across the UK, US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Heather Tilbury Phillips was a director of Mary Quant Limited in the 1970s, and an advisor for the V&A exhibition Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary which is showing at Auckland Art Gallery until March.

Phillips tells Kim Hill that, while Quant is credited with inventing the mini skirt, it’s still up for debate.

Twiggy modelling waistcoat and shorts ensemble, 1966.

Twiggy modelling waistcoat and shorts ensemble, 1966. Photo: Photograph Terence Donovan, courtesy Terence Donovan Archive.

“Mary herself always said it was her customers that invented the mini skirt. She has fabulous legs and she used to wear short skirts way above the knee in the mid-1950s when she first opened the bazaar shop and the customers would come in and say, we want our skirts shorter, like yours.

“Gradually, as the time passed and we got into the 1960s, people were feeling much more confident after post-war austerity, so they were saying, shorter, shorter, even shorter. So Mary says it was the customer.”

There’s common myth that Quant said she loved the mini skirt but wished people with bad legs would stop wearing it. Phillips denies ever hearing it but says Quant came up with an elegant solution to imperfect legs and mini skirts.

Mary Quant Kangol beret advertisement, 1967.

Mary Quant Kangol beret advertisement, 1967. Photo: Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives

“I never heard her say that. One of the great ideas she had which, looking back on it one can only say was jolly well common sense, was that she persuaded the tights manufacturers to produce opaque tights in wonderful colours. They would clash or match her garments and the colours of the season and that helped whatever somebody’s legs were like because it gave it a silhouette and the colour could continue.

“Tights were absolutely essential, especially if you were sitting in the tube and the skirt sort of rode up a bit and, of course, they were much more comfortable. I’m old enough to remember how horrid stocking tops and suspender bolts were.”

Phillips says the 1960s, following the post-war austerity, was a fun time to be around and Quant’s garments contributed to the joie de vivre of the era.

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Heather Tilbury Phillips Photo: Supplied

“It was a fun time for everybody and Mary herself wanted people to get enjoyment out of her clothes. That was part of the essence of the mini skirt, you could run, jump, get on the bus, you weren’t hobbled any longer by long narrow skirts which, of course, was very much the style during the war – partly because there wasn’t a lot of fabric about.

“Mary’s concept of that wonderful a-line with the tights we just talked about was a very appealing look and it did actually create a sense of freedom. You could put all sorts of different accessories with it… there was great flexibility in the clothes.”

Flat shoes came into fashion with the mini skirt and Quant herself said she thought heels and mini skirts looked ‘tarty’.

“It was blissful wearing flat shoes, they were so comfortable.”

Despite her fun and freewheeling designs, Quant herself was very shy and diffident, Phillips says.

“It often took her quite a long time to be able to get into the answering of questions mode if she was being interviewed by a journalist, for instance. Often we had to put a question to her several times and then, suddenly, she would get into it and come out with the most wonderful expressions and soundbites then she would relax into it.

‘Stealing a March on the Guards’, 1961.

‘Stealing a March on the Guards’, 1961. Photo: Photograph by John Cowan © John Cowan Archive

“There is absolutely no doubt, and lots of stories, about her not enjoying the publicity side.”

Her husband Alexander Plunkett-Green, on the other hand, thrived off it and did a great job of promoting his wife’s work.

“He supported her all the time which was wonderful for her, leaving her to concentrate on her creative skills and he came up with very silly ideas which just captured the imagination.

“On one particular occasion, and this was an Alexander idea, they had the new PVC shoes and boots and so they had some of the models under the catwalk with a little hole and up would pop, through the whole and into the audience, were these magical new boots. It was so funny and, of course you can imagine, a gift for the photographers.”