John Vane’s London Stories: Mary Quant – how pop met posh on the King’s Road

John Vane’s London Stories: Mary Quant – how pop met posh on the King’s Road

The plot of my novel Frightgeist roams promiscuously all over London and down several avenues of its pop culture history, including Chelsea’s King’s Road. I made it the scene of a march to Sloane Square by “green goddess” environmental protesters (think Extinction Rebellion), who include an undercover cop called Alev and a charming Italian with a moustache. I sum up Alev’s background research as follows:

“Pop stars, actors, fashion designers, Oswald Mosley, King Charles II, James Bond and the man who wrote Rule, Britannia were all part of the history of King’s Road. A lot of dressing up had gone on down there over the years – a bit saucy, some of it.”

I didn’t name check Mary Quant, who died earlier this month. Perhaps I should have. Her impact on British fashion and the emergence of Swinging London has been rightly celebrated. But I hadn’t appreciated until turning – as I often do – to Barry Miles’s history of the post-war London counterculture, London Calling, that Quant’s success preceded the 1960s by a whole five years. Miles writes:

“In October 1955, Mary Quant, her boyfriend, later husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, and Archie McNair, a former solicitor turned photographer, opened a dress shop called Bazaar on the King’s Road, Chelsea.”

Yes, 1955. Just ten years after the end of World War II, when a blitzed and broken London had hardly started rock ‘n’ rolling, let alone swinging.

On his 21st birthday, Plunket Greene, who died in 1990, had inherited £5,000. He joined financial forces with McNair to buy a lease on Markham House, 138 King’s Road, at its junction with Markham Square and almost next door to the Markham Arms pub.

McNair had already opened London’s second ever new-style coffee bar, called Fantasie, at Number 128. He also lived and worked at that address, where he ran a photographic studio and a team of snappers which included Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who later married Princess Margaret – an early example of posh meeting pop.

The plan was that Number 138 would also have multiple uses: a jazz club in the basement, workshops in the upper floors and, at ground level, a shop. The shop, called Bazaar, was where Quant found fame. Born in Woolwich to Welsh parents who had moved to the capital from coal mining communities to become school teachers, she had met Plunket Greene – who she would later characterise as “a great wit and a dish” – at Goldsmiths College. She’d studied illustration and art, but fashion was her first love.

Miles tells us that Quant moved from a bedsit in Oakley Street to rooms above Fantasie, where she lived and worked on her own clothing designs. Both they and the shop were instant successes. Not everyone considers Quant to have invented the miniskirt, but no one doubts she was central to establishing its popularity. She would later attribute its creation to “the girls on the King’s Road” who demanded shorter and shorter hemlines. Miles writes:

“Quant arrived at a time when English girls left school and dressed like their mother. As George Melly put it: ‘Only tarts and homosexuals wore clothes which reflected what they were.’ Quant chucked all the accessories in the dustbin and enabled young women to look young. Away went the white gloves and the hat and the matching bag and shoes. She was a precursor of sixties ideas and attitudes.” 

King’s Road would become synonymous with Swinging London and the Markham Arms was a watering hole of the so-called Chelsea Set of that period. On the scene at that time was Andrew Loog Oldham, who worked for Quant and became, in 1963, aged 19, the first manager of the Rolling Stones. Loog Oldham also had a small connection with a future British fashion giant. In her newly-published autobiography, Free Spirit, Tanya Sarne, founder of Ghost, recalls holding out the hat for Loog Oldham and her French boyfriend of the time when they went busking outside the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead.

Sarne’s book begins in January 1969 and her recollection of an unexpected proposal of marriage:

“We were eating in our favourite restaurant, Arethusa on the King’s Road, Chelsea, where a host of celebrities like Michale Caine, Mary Quant and even the odd Beatle could often be spotted. From the dining area on the first floor, one could gaze down at the pageantry on the street below, as people expressed their individuality in outrageous costumes. A kaleidoscope of colours paraded up and down the road, all vying for attention in what was then the epicentre of the swinging sixties.”

Small worlds and wheels within wheels along the street whose past inhabitants have included Thomas Arne, composer of Rule, Britannia, who lived at Number 215. In 2016, Quant, who had been made a Dame the previous year, described Queen Elizabeth II as the living person she most admired. Posh meets pop in London again.

John Vane’s novel Frightgeist – A Tall Tale of Fearful Times can be bought directly from him or from Pages of Hackney bookshop, Lower Clapton Road E5. Follow John on Twitter. John Vane is a pen name used by On London publisher and editor Dave Hill. The video is ITV’s coverage of the V&A’s 2019/20 Mary Quant exhibition. Main image is from this CBC footage.

Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

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