Mary Quant: The Wet Collection

The UK’s recent heatwave has seen temperatures in London reach 34C or above for six consecutive days – the longest run of such temperatures since 1961. As this weather breaks, torrential rain approaches and we all reach for our umbrellas, we’ve been thinking about past methods of keeping dry.

While the term ‘raincoat’ doesn’t always conjure up images of glamour, Mary Quant’s PVC raincoats of the 1960s were an undeniably stylish combination fashion and function. As early as 1963, Quant had shown great interest in new plastics; the fabrics of the future, of the Space Age. She particularly liked the properties of the plastic Polyvinyl Chloride, better known as PVC.

In April of ’63 Quant launched ‘The Wet Collection’ at the Hôtel de Crillon, Paris. Inspired by Op Art, the collection’s designs combined the effects of optical patterns with the wearer’s movements, to create kinetic illusions. The collection was a great success, earning the designer her first cover of British Vogue.

While orders for the rain-and-shower-proof designs flooded in, initial production issues, caused by the innovative nature of the fabrics, prevented the collection from hitting the high street until 1965. These problems were resolved through a partnership with Stockport-based Alligator Rainwear, who had previously collaborated with well-known designers such as Balmain and Pierre Cardin.

Having traditionally produced waterproof coats in classic shades of black and brown, Quant’s dramatic, brightly coloured coats and capes presented a new challenge for Alligator. However, the experimental new designs were a success for both brands, with their striking colours, zips and contrasting collars and cuffs proving extremely popular. Produced in large quantities and retailing for around £10, this collection also helped to fulfil Quant’s desire to make her clothes available to the widest possible market, at prices affordable to most.

Quant’s fascination for the implications of the Space Age and newly developed plastics didn’t stop with raincoats, and eventually lead to her involvement with the work-boot manufacturer, G.B. Britton of Bristol. Her plan? To produce inexpensive moulded plastic footwear. However, the ‘Quant afoot’ range, as it was known, had a short life. The drawbacks, such as plastic’s lack of insulation in the cold of winter and the sweaty heat the material generated in summer, far outweighed any advantages of style.

So, while we might personally be able convince ourselves to suffer cold or sweaty feet for the chance to wear a pair of Mary Quant boots, we concede that they might not be making a big comeback any time soon. However, as a perfect example of practical style, and as the UK’s rain continues to fall, we see no reason not to expect the imminent return of the PVC cape.

We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation to help us continue our important work, showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design.

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