The Dressmaker’s Library: “Mary Quant * Autobiography”

mary-3“Mary Quant * Autobiography”.  Published by Headline Publishing Group, 2012.

Much has been written about how Christian Dior revolutionized fashion with the New Look of 1947.  But modern fashion historians are thinking twice about the designation of “revolutionary” when applied to the actual elements of the 1947 New Look.  The concepts behind the fashions were a throwback to the early 20th century when wealthy women dressed several times a day for different events.  The importance was on conforming to the external standards of beauty which meant heavy corseting to achieve the so called ideal shape.

At the time Dior’s New Look came into vogue a young English girl with a keen eye for color was reaching adolescence.  Her name was Mary Quant and she had the sensibility of an artist even during the WWII years when the family lived way out in the countryside to escape the dangers that existed closer to, and in, the big cities.  Mary’s autobiography breathes with life in each short chapter that captures a part of her development and her progress towards becoming a real revolutionary designer, one who freed women from all trappings of the past and introduced a brash and bold sense of movement to clothing.


A little black dress with slightly flared flounces on the sleeves and an innocent Peter Pan collar in white by Mary.

Mary retells her story in a way that makes her total personality emerge.  She was passionate about changing fashion but did not live in the world with blinders on.  The first love and constant love in her life was her husband and business partner Alexander Plunkett Green.  She also loves her son Orlando.  Mary writes openly about the challenges of  getting over the loss of  a daughter and another baby due to miscarriage, her husband’s infidelities and the need of getting a good nanny for Orlando.  In doing  so she shows us the other side of her life, the one behind the praise of the press and the glitter of being at so many fashionable parties each week.

You will not get any sewing details or patternmaking insights from Mary’s autobiography but you will get inside the way her mind works.  As such, you’ll get some cues as to where she drew inspiration from and how she developed it into realized form.  Mary loves color from all sources in life.  She can see a black dress and think that white topstitching will help the design catch more attention.  The commonplace Peter Pan collar took on a new aspect when combined with her mini dresses that followed a fit and flatter princess line.  In Mary’s vision, a simple tubular dress becomes elegant with the addition of circular collar and circular flounces on the sleeves.


This dress was named “Daddy’s Girl” by Mary.  It was one of the popular styles in her early years as a designer.  The dress is distinguished by the circular flounces used for the collar and cuffs of the sleeves.  Modelled by Jean Shrimpton.

One insight and source of inspiration reveals how the seeds of the mini skirt developed inside Mary’s mind over many, many years.  As a young girl taking dance lessons, she saw a ‘tween age girl in the room where tap dancing practice was  in progress.  The ‘tween was wearing textured tights and white ankle socks along with patent leather Mary Jane styled tap shoes.  With this the little girl wore a very short pleated skirt.  Mary remembered that this expressed all the concepts she wanted to bring into real fashions for young women.  Something evocative of the freedom of movement and spontaneity young girls have.  If you look at the popular styles of the 1960s you will see how this vision came to fruition as women took to short skirts, ribbed knit poor boy sweaters, textured tights and stockings and flat shoes.

Mary thought that haute courture resulted in sad clothing for sad women.  The clothing was not used and worn and exposed.  It was measured, restrained and available only to a few.  The restrictive elements of couture clothing reduced women to elegant clothes hangers for the garment.  Mary wanted to make clothing affordable and available to the masses.  It is true her first customers were the Chelsea girls in London, but Mary’s positive outlook did not make her turn away American retailers who offered mass marketed clothing like J.C. Penney.

Where Dior was a revolutionary was in the way he developed his brand into many different product lines and entered into licensing agreements.  On the business side of fashion that was a forward development.  In terms of style he was inspired by looking backward.  Mary too looked to  her own past but brought it out in a way nobody had before.  She developed pantyhose which freed women from the use of girdles and garter belts.  Her loose fitting clothing did away with the need for restrictive under garments.

For these reasons I think this book is a good addition to any dressmaker’s library.  It’s not just sewing techniques that help boost your skills.  It’s also learning to look at the world creatively, like Mary did, and then let the magic flow forth.


1930s Sew-along with Norma: How to handle a flounce

Here’s a very quick update on my dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.

After some cold sweats and a worrisome night, I fixed the boo-boo I made with the flounce.  In my previous posting, I said I was going to try stay stitching by hand.  After doing that I pinned the flounce to the dress form to let the drape set in.

What a mess I made.  The delicate flounce stretched horizontally and was too big for the lower edge of the dress.  It was a good thing I cut the flounce much longer than planned.  I had to cut a few inches at the top off after stay stitching by machine about an inch below the edge.  I used three tows of machine basting for stay stitching.  Then I clipped the top of the flounce and gently pinned and basted to the bottom of the dress.  This solution worked.

Lesson learned—

  1.  Always stay stitch a flounce along the upper edge.
  2. Then stitch side seams.
  3. Finish side seams.
  4. Clip the edge of the flounce before basting so that the edge will go straight in to the other seam.
  5. Use lots of pins and baste with small basting stitches.
  6. Machine stitch along stitching line and then 1/4″ above.  Trim seam and finish according to what works best for the design and fabric.
  7. Now is the time to hang the dress or skirt with the flounce onto the form or a hanger so that the drape can set in.


Here’s the dress as I await the drape to set in.  Hemming will be next.  I think I’ll do a photo tutorial of how I make the fabric covered buttons.  I think I will make the belt myself.  A seamstress on Etsy does beautiful work for the kind of belt I want but it’s $30 and up.  That is more than what I spent on the belt fabric.  I’ll have to think of a way to make a belt that doesn’t need eyelets or a prong to close.  The gold or silver of prongs and eyelets will clash with the print and belt fabric.  I do not find a prong and eyelets to match the green fabric for the belt so a creative workaround will be developed.

The dress needs a pressing but so far I’m getting more pleased with how late 1920s it is looking.  Once the belt is made it will be more early 1930s.