Why Princess Margaret thought I was sleeping with Lord Snowdon – and how I saved British women from pointy bras
Fashion designer Mary Quant put the swing into the Sixties. Today, in the final instalment of our exclusive serialisation of her memoirs, she reveals the toll that fame took on her family life — and her sanity…
One day, a new fabric appeared on the scene. PVC was shiny, waterproof and unlike anything I’d ever seen before. As well as using it for batwing tunics, trench coats, sou’westers and smocks, I had the inside of our new conservatory plastered in the material.
Our old friend, Lord Snowdon, was so overwhelmed by the effect that he immediately arranged to photograph me in a PVC raincoat in the PVC room.
It was a Sunday in the Sixties, and my husband, Alexander Plunket Greene (known as APG) sensibly took himself off to the cinema. The shoot itself, meanwhile, was dynamic and fun — but it caused a lot of bother.
Influential: Mary Quant, pictured in 1967, has revealed the toll her fame took on her family life and sanity in the final extract from her memoirs
Every five minutes, Snowdon would be interrupted by a phone call from his wife, Princess Margaret, who was convinced that we were having an affair.
Now, I know Snowdon was one of the best flirts in London — but we truly were focusing only on the pictures. In retrospect, the gift Alexander had selected for him and the Princess when they married in 1960 seemed extremely apt. It was a pair of duelling pistols.
Most of my memories of the Sixties are ones of optimism, high spirits and confidence. ‘Swinging’ London had become the most provocative, influential city in the world, totally changing ideas in the arts, food, fashion, TV, photography, advertising, music — and fashion.
The results were such fun that the rest of the world came here to join in what seemed like the longest-running party ever held.
So it was hardly surprising there were sour grapes from some quarters — especially in France, where the couture world didn’t like all the attention going to London and a British designer. Indeed, when the Press told Coco Chanel I admired her beyond all others, she replied: ‘From her, it is a very small compliment.’
Other French couturiers said my designs were vulgar or gimmicky, and some said I was ‘a flash in the pan’. Trying to laugh this off, I began calling myself a flash in the pan — but I was, in fact, pretty upset.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to call anything new ‘vulgar’. I realised that you have to feel passionately about design and colour — and trust your instinct, often in the face of powerful men who have different ideas
Best flirt in London: Lord Snowdon regularly met Mary to talk about photos, but their meetings were regularly interrupted by Princess Margaret phoning as she was convinced they were having an affair
The amazing thing about being young, though, is that — yes — you’re scared, but you take it for granted that you can do it. And I did.
One thing I longed to do was to design a complete look, from head to toe, so I started a make-up line in 1966.
Back then, cosmetics were the preserve of middle age: lipsticks nearly always came in red, pink or orange, and eye shadows had to be blue, green or purple. The look was hard and lacquered, la Joan Crawford, and sold by dragon-like ladies who frightened people away.
Since going to art school, I’d been using my Caran d’Ache crayons and watercolour brushes to do my own make-up, merging the colours as I pleased. So I decided to develop a make-up collection that used different colours, different textures and different ways of application — and all in boxes that you could carry in your handbag.
It was the one time in my life I had total confidence in a venture.
Alexander came up with some wonderfully apt names. So there was Starkers foundation, Blush Baby blusher, Jeepers Peepers eyeshadow and Bring Back The Lash mascara, replacing all the bogus French names used at the time.
Instead of middle-aged harridans, I manned the sales counters with girls in mini-skirts and dashing young men in jeans.
It’s hard to imagine the impact of all this now, but the public was stunned. Soon, my make-up was being stocked all over the world.
Meanwhile, I was also designing clothes for mass production, proving conclusively that the future didn’t lie in laboriously hand-sewn couture.
Among my clients were 1,765 stores in the U.S., owned by JC Penney. They trusted me completely — unlike in Britain, where some manufacturers thought I was too young to be taken seriously, no doubt because I wore mini-skirts and over-the-knee socks.
Mind you, I had the same problem when I toured America with a group of models to show off the designs: everyone thought I was under-age. As no one would serve me a drink, Alexander had to take along a travelling bar.
At the time, we all looked about 16, whereas young American women dressed to look like actress Barbara Stanwyck — or as frightening as possible.
Our shows changed the whole way fashion was presented. Before we came along, they were still modelled by paralysed-looking, middle-aged women in corsets and frozen ‘beehive’ hairstyles, with male presenters who’d say: ‘Here comes Melissa in a pale blue dress with un-pressed pleats’ — as though you were blind.
Now, 3,000 people turned up for our wild shows. The models — all debutantes in minis — danced with bobbed hair flying as a pop group played. Hearing the racket, the police and fire brigade would usually arrive in a panic.
Everyone knew the models’ hair had been cut by Vidal Sassoon. So, at the end of the shows, 50 or 60 girls would besiege our hotel, blocking the entrances to our rooms and demanding Vidal Sassoon-style haircuts.
MY DIVORCE SUMMIT WITH DIANA
It was novelist Shirley Conran’s idea. To help Princess Diana decide what she could or should do after her divorce from Prince Charles, she brought together five wise women in April 1997.
The other four women were: historian Lady Antonia Fraser, novelist and screenwriter Lynda La Plante, actress Sin Phillips and me. Shirley filled us in on the brief and we waited outside the restaurant Le Caprice in London’s West End for Diana to arrive.
As the Princess stepped down from her car, Shirley did a magnificently correct curtsey to the floor. The restaurant was electrified; but as most of the diners were British, they were determined not to show this.
Of course, before meeting Diana, we’d all realised what an impossible position she was in — but it was only after listening to her that we discovered it was actually disastrous.
She was trapped, she told us. She could never take another husband or she would lose her children.
Any man in the world would happily have lunch with her, but none would dare launch into a full public affair. It would be tantamount to treason.
Furthermore, the state would ensure the safety of her children only at the royal palaces, and would not allow them to live anywhere else. So if she left the country, she would also lose her children.
Five wise women went home wiser.
Diana died four months later.
Sorry, Vidal — the models and I did the best we could, cutting their hair there and then in the corridor. I’d discovered Vidal Sassoon when I was dashing past the wrong end of Bond Street one day and saw a photograph of a haircut that stopped me in my tracks. The salon was miles upstairs, reached by a tiny, rickety lift — but up there he ruled, cutting hair and performing, rather like a four-star chef.
One night, he was cutting my hair to promote his new five-point geometric bob, in the presence of my husband and various Press photographers.
Spurred on by the vast audience, he went whap! — and cut off my ear. Just the fat bit — and nothing bleeds more.
Five-point, asymmetric or spiky ‘en brosse’ haircuts — I had them all. They quite simply liberated women from hours of being par-boiled under the bonnet of a hairdryer, with fat rollers skewered to their scalps.
Soon, I was also helping to liberate women from pointy bras. Indeed, somewhere, there exists a photograph of me, very small and mini-skirted, lecturing some very charming large American men about the shape of breasts.
I remember, with some embarrassment, quoting the French novelist Colette to them: ‘Breasts are shaped like half a lemon — the interesting half. They are not tennis balls.’
Another favourite memory is of showing my incredibly lightweight, natural-shaped bras in Frankfurt at the deadly serious underwear trade fair. We had exquisite top models dancing to The Supremes; the rest of the fair consisted of stout middle-aged models in stays and corsets. Chaos ensued.
The bras and other collections for JC Penney were so successful that I went on designing for them for many years. I stopped only when I became pregnant again after a heartbreaking miscarriage.
Alexander had always said he didn’t want any children. So when I became pregnant the first time and had a dramatic miscarriage, this was fine for him but threw me into despair.
When I became pregnant again in 1970, I kept the news to myself as long as I could, by wearing colourful clothes to draw the eye. No one noticed I was getting bigger until I was past the risk of miscarrying.
I bought no baby things at all, trying not to challenge fate. Then, one day, I realised the baby was on its way.
After going to work as usual, I left early, buying two white towelling dressing gowns and a meat pie on the way home. I hovered over Alexander while he ate the pie, before finally bursting out: ‘It’s all happening — drive me to the hospital!’
We grabbed a bottle of champagne and
drove to St Teresa’s, a Roman Catholic maternity hospital. Opening the
bottle — and making jokes about my current pubic hair shape (trimmed, as
always, by Alexander) — we downed the champagne.
Orlando was born, I took him with me nearly everywhere I went. When we
started a wine-importing business, he even accompanied us on visits to
chateaux all over France. I remember him, aged two or three, sitting
through long lunches in a baby chair, with six wine glasses in front of
him while he ate coq au vin.
Social calls: Mary met with Harold Wilson for drinks in his private office while she also met Margaret Thatcher for dinner
As a child, his view of work was grown-ups spitting out wine, sniffing perfume spills, testing make-up or trying on sample clothes. I followed the principles of the Japanese, whose children have to live in this grown-up world, not the other way round. My growing fame, meanwhile, was opening unexpected doors. Invitations to have drinks with prime ministers were irresistible — unless they were from Edward Heath.
In 1971, I was forced to wait for him for an hour-and-a-half at the Guildhall — only to hear his booming voice ringing down the corridor: ‘I don’t want to talk to anyone here except the man of the Church.’
An invitation from Harold Wilson in the mid-Sixties was much more rewarding. We had drinks in his tiny office alone — and, to my surprise, the man was utterly charming and rather flirtatious.
I enjoyed my dinner with Margaret Thatcher the best. Terribly nervous, I was early when I rang the bell at Number 10 — and, to my amazement, she opened the door herself.
‘Oh Mary!’ she said. ‘I’m so glad you came. I thought perhaps I’d forgotten to post the invitations.’
The energy and enthusiasm that emanated from her was greater than any I’d ever experienced from another human being. But my fame had a negative side, too. Once, in Italy, people tried to grab bits of me as I left my limousine — a terrifying experience. All that summer, I had nightmares of being torn apart.
Love: Mary pictured with her husband Alexander Plunket-Greene shooting in Surrey in 1969
Three visits to my analyst sorted me out, but I could understand how celebrity can easily lead to drug-taking. Personally, I’ve found a good wine is the best way to prolong one’s tolerance to the few ill-effects of fame.
So what happened to the Quant empire During the three-day week recession of the Seventies, part of Mary Quant Cosmetics was sold to Max Factor, who rather neglected the brand. Then Revlon bought it, and that was the end of that.
At least the Japanese went on manufacturing the cosmetics — and they sell them to this day.
As for my other designs, for a long time I couldn’t stop. In fact, there was a stage when the more I did, the better the ideas turned out. This is probably a sign that one is at the peak of one’s ability. Certainly, I could not continue designing up to 18 clothes collections a year for ever.
In 1988, I was told by doctors that Alexander wouldn’t live longer than two more years. The shock was appalling.
I’d come home from a business trip to Japan to find an ambulance in the drive and Alexander going off to hospital again. Time after time, he’d escape, saying he couldn’t live without wine and vodka.
At home, I sometimes had to beg him to breathe, as I pumped his chest and gave him oxygen. But, after two years, he petered out. I can’t bear to write any more about Alexander’s exit because I will never get over it.
After his death, two of his greatest old friends, Lindsay Masters and Antony Rouse, came at weekends to keep me company.
Then Antony — once praised by historian Lady Antonia Fraser as ‘the most beautiful man at Oxford’ — just gradually moved in.
We’d flirted on and off for years, and he said we had unfinished business. I was so used to him being around that I could only be delighted.
When I look back on my life, I can’t help recalling a phrase that used to be said to my generation as children: ‘You wait until you’re grown up, when you have to face real life.’
This made me want to avoid ‘real life’ and live a sort of fantasy life. In many ways, that’s what happened
Adapted from Mary Quant: My Autobiography, to be published by Headline on February 16 at 25.
2012 Mary Quant. To order a copy for 18.99 (p&p free), please call 0843 382 0000.