In 1937, seven-year-old Mary Quant attended a small dance class that would change the future of British fashion. Mary hated her outfit – frumpy hand-me-downs from a distant cousin – but she couldn’t keep her eyes off a slightly older girl with an elfin haircut who was dressed in a skinny black sweater, a short black skirt, black tights and patent flat Mary Jane shoes.
It was with this story that Jasper Conran began his eulogy at Dame Mary Quant’s memorial service, which was held on Tuesday at the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace. Later, Conran went on to talk about how a working-class girl born to two Welsh teachers had a thrilling new vision for dreary post-war Britain and how, when she opened Bazaar on the Kings Road in 1955, she would keep the memory of the skinny, black-clad girl in a short skirt firmly in her mind.
Unlike the memorial services for other fashion legends who have died recently – Karl Lagerfeld, for example, or Dame Vivienne Westwood – Mary’s send-off was a quieter, more family-focused affair. Yes, Zandra Rhodes and Pattie Boyd were there and Conran – who was the godson of Alexander Plunket-Greene, Mary’s husband – spoke beautifully, but the majority of the guests were people who had worked with her, carers from her final years, family members and friends (more than one of whom carried a five-petal daisy handbag or a printed scarf in tribute).
Given the memorial service took place on the final day of Paris Fashion Week, this was clearly intentional – and yet the grandeur of the surroundings at Hampton Court showed the extraordinary impact Mary had – not just on fashion but British culture.
No designer’s work has been quite so synonymous with the boldness and bravery of youth as her – a woman who celebrated the young but who also outlived most of her peers, dying peacefully at home in Surrey at the age of 93 in April this year.
A few months before her death, Mary was appointed a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour – an award bestowed on those who have made a major contribution to the arts, science, medicine, or government over a long period of time. The members, of which there are only 65 at any one time, include Sir David Attenborough, Dame Judi Dench, Sir John Major and Dame Maggie Smith.
One privilege membership offers is the right to have a funeral or memorial service at any royal chapel – and so on a remarkably sunny October afternoon, the 70-odd guests walked through the grounds of an entirely empty Hampton Court into the beautifully ornate Chapel Royal.
The weight of history was everywhere: the chapel’s vaulted ceiling was installed by Henry VIII in the 1530s, while in 1710, Queen Anne commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to remodel the interior of the chapel. A choir sang magnificently and red-robed priests oversaw the event. Although, as one woman I sat next to observed, Mary would have loved it – but she also would have roared with laughter at the idea that her memorial would be held somewhere so grand.
Throughout both Conran’s eulogy and her son Orlando Plunket-Greene’s short but excellent speech, Mary’s irreverence and humour were referenced. Plunket-Greene talked about her mischievous sense of camaraderie and how, even at the end, her carers would enjoy her feisty essence. With a smile, he too noted that she would have been bewildered as to how she had found herself in such a glorious royal chapel.
Not that anyone would probably agree. To my mind, such a setting felt entirely fitting – for while Mary will mostly be remembered for the miniskirt and for shocking the British establishment, she will also always be the woman who democratised fashion and gave women the freedom to wear clothes in which they could run for a bus or dance all night.
She believed in this right up until her 70s. I know this because my mother worked for Mary in the 1990s and early Noughties. I was at school at that time and when my classes ended I would sometimes traipse down to their Brompton Cross studio and listen to the two of them talking about names for lipsticks and eyeshadows – the more outlandish the better.
Her daisy-printed, bubble-shaped nail polishes and silver bullet lipstick cases lined the walls of her studio and she would urge me to try on the colours. Through her I learnt that make-up could be outrageous, fun and very personal, and not just a way of making boys think you were pretty.
It was this outlook that distinguished her from many of the other fashion greats. At almost the exact same time as her memorial service, the wider fashion industry flocked to the Chanel show in Paris and in his eulogy, Conran nodded to the fact that both Mary Quant and Coco Chanel liberated women from the claustrophobic fashions of the past. But while Chanel continued to work exclusively for the richest women in society, Mary was in essence an industrial designer who was never happier than when visiting a factory that was churning out clothes for normal women to buy.
Even in the grandeur of an ornate royal chapel, this wonderfully democratic side of her shone through.