A weekend away in London, and a chance to take in some exhibitions and meet up with up friends. The outcome; a great weekend but some contrasting cultural experiences. Amongst the things we saw were the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery and the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A.
A lifetime ago, well 1972 to be specific, my parents took me to the last Tutankhamun exhibition in London. I am not sure how much I took in, and it was my first time in London, so that was perhaps the more memorable experience, but the gold mask is an abiding image. The mask of course is not part of the current ‘show’ but the artefacts on display remain a very interesting collection. A memory this time though was the commercialisation on display. Having to line up on entry to have your photo taken to be ‘shopped’ onto an Egyptian background of your choice is just tacky. The obligatory shop at the end of the exhibition was no better, being stuffed full of the most inappropriate uses of Egyptian/Tutankhamun imagery possible. The Tutankhamun sunglasses were only one such abomination. It felt crass beyond belief. I am clearly not the target market, or if I am, this range of products missed badly.
The Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A by contrast, despite dealing with the supposedly ephemeral 1960s fashion, was a genuine reflection on an era and one of its leaders. (You can take a peek into the exhibition here.) The displays (like some of the clothes) were deceptively simple, but it was the legacy and trailblazing that came foremost to mind. The use of contemporary film and interviews allowed a real sense of place and time. Done simply and tastefully, but inviting discussion and reflection.
From a retail perspective, the artefacts of retail (products, labels, bags, signs, invoices etc.) were of interest but it was the focus on the King’s Road shop – Bazaar – that stood out for me. Its early use of visual merchandising and design were clear and there is some great film of the store, the window displays and the interior layout and merchandising. Other films show the high streets and retail brands of the time and the contrast is entertaining. Throw in links to Conran and other stores (Biba etc.) and the cutting edge and creativity of the period were reinforced. The pop-up shop next to the exhibition (note not end, and you could exit without visiting the shop) had some thoughtful products too. The contrast with the Saatchi approach to Tutankhamun was stark.
Quant’s ground breaking fashion and retail status was more than I imagined, and started earlier than I supposed in the 1950s. I was also taken by the way in which in the 1960s she worked with UK manufacturers to produce products and to pioneer techniques. The contrast to the fast fashion offshoring of today was clear, but in many ways her approach, to democratise clothing, fashion, design and production, is a straight line to today’s global factories. “The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone” (Mary Quant). I thought it was a really enjoyable and provoking exhibition (runs to February 2020), nicely showcased by some of the V&A clothing/fashion collection through the ages in the associated gallery.
For anyone interested in Dame Mary Quant and her legacy then there is a thorough and interesting exhibition book available, which includes a chapter on Bazaar as well as other retail interests.
Lister J and contributors (2019) Mary Quant. V and A Publishing. ISBN 9 781851 779956. Available online here.