Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is particularly proud to host the Mary Quant: Fashion Revolutionary exhibition because it is one of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s typically elaborate shows.
This major retrospective of the pivotal British fashion designer Mary Quant, lauded with the invention of the mini skirt in the 1960s, highlights the years from 1955, when she opened her innovative boutique Bazaar in Chelsea’s King’s Road through the Swinging Sixties, to 1975 when Quant was awarded an OBE. She died in April this year.
I was excited to see how Kelvingrove presented Quant’s fashion pieces, created throughout her long and varied career.
As a person with a visual impairment, I often avoid visiting museums like Kelvingrove because the lighting is too dim for me to see the exhibitions. However, I was looking forward to visiting this show to learn more about Quant’s career, and to be able to offer insight into the visiting experience with a guide dog.
The exhibition chronologically showcases the evolution of Quant’s style and brand, combining physical examples of her clothing and fashion accessories with video interviews featuring Quant and others who worked with her.
The interviews, alongside the interpretation and object labels, include quotes that explore the conception of new design ideas, capturing Quant as a designer, as well as giving visitors insight into the production processes that have made her brand so recognisable.
Off to a good start
On arriving at Kelvingrove with my guide dog Mitch and a friend to help, we were greeted by kind-hearted staff who helped us to access a table for lunch. What few nerves I was experiencing before walking into the museum quickly washed away as staff found us a big table with space for my guide dog to lie down. As we waited for our lunch, my friend and I discussed our experiences of accessibility in museums and the impact that tactile exhibitions have for enabling a good experience of displays using senses other than sight.
Walking into the show, staff were friendly and, when asked about tactile displays or audioguides, kindly explained that neither were available for this exhibition. Instead, large-text booklets featuring the display labels were available on request from each gallery attendant.
On entering the first room, you are engulfed by timeless pieces of fashion, accessories and a captioned video – indeed, all videos in the exhibition are captioned. The audio from the video echoes throughout the room.
Divided into seven rooms, with each space carefully curated in a chronological and thematic manner, the exhibition as a whole is physically easy to navigate either with a white cane or guide dog. I think it would also be easily navigable in a wheelchair.
As Quant states, “the whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes for everyone”, which is exactly what you witness in the glass display of mannequins dressed in her designs. However, while the exhibition was easy to walk around with the support of Mitch and my friend guiding me, this first room was particularly hard to view due to the low lighting.
I loved the interpretation panels that featured large font text, but the object labels in comparison are difficult to read due to the bright coloured headlines and small font. Besides the pieces in the display, the upbeat music and voiceover on the video brought the room to life.
Unfortunately, there are no arrows or audio directions between rooms, making the show impossible to navigate independently, so my friend guided me to the next room.
The next space showcases the evolution of Britishness in patterns during the 1960s. What is unique about this room is that it also shows the evolution of hairstyles through the years that it focused on.
The fashion pieces are brightly coloured and would attract any museum visitor from a mile away, so my eyes were caught by the almost luminous miniskirts. The rest of the clothes and hairstyles on display are hard to see, however, as the room is dim, colours are too dark and some are behind glass.
One of the interpretation panels was printed with the phrase: “Fashion as we knew it, is over; people wear now exactly what they feel like wearing,” which resonates with the fashion items, accessories and make-up on show in the rest of the rooms.
As you travel through the physical exhibition space, you experience the revolutionary evolution of Quant’s fashion career and the wider impact she has had on the industry.
As in previous rooms, some of the displayed outfits and labels are hard to see due to the lighting, but we came across more colourful outfits in the final rooms, including the Red Frilled Maxi Dress, which was one of my favourite pieces.
There are also large prints of photographs and advertisement posters on the wall. One that particularly drew my attention was an advertisement with the large text “Cry, Baby” on a close-up photograph of a woman’s face – its colours are sublime and complement the contrasting bold black letters.
Quant said: “I wanted to design clothes for real people.” Her designs liberated and revolutionised women’s fashion. However, as a visually impaired museum-goer, I did not feel this exhibition captured the core values of her inclusivity.
While the exhibition was a joy to visit, it is one that people with visual impairment would not be able to attend on their own. If it were not for my friend guiding me and reading the labels, I would have missed most of the displays.
When I think of fashion and clothing, I think of the multisensory experience of touching and getting close to the garments, which this exhibition lacks. Quant herself said that clothes were meant to feel good, yet this exhibition did not “feel good” in the sense that there are no braille or tactile features, such as fabric-swatches to give the full experience.
Although it is a beautifully put-together exhibition, showing pieces in glass cases does not help the visual element. Furthermore, all the rooms are dimly lit or dark in order to conserve the pieces, but that was an additional hardship for me as I am night-blind, which means my vision becomes bleak in dim spaces.
Similarly, the low lighting means it is not possible to read the large-font booklet containing information from the interpretation panels and object labels without using the light from display cases. As a guide dog user, I would not be able to hold the booklet up while holding onto my guide dog’s lead.
One of the quotes that resonated is that Quant “created a new look for women” and you can see this throughout the rooms. Yet, it felt as if the museum was more focused on conserving the pieces than manifesting Quant’s ideology of fashion fitting everyone.
Even so, what the exhibition lacks in terms of accessibility, it gains in the rich array of exhibits. I may well visit again, but wonder if my experience might be improved next time.
Zein Al Maha Oweis is a visually impaired Jordanian PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow with a special focus on disability representation in Jordanian media