Review: Fashion & Freedom

On Thursday 12th May, I headed up to Manchester for the launch of Fashion & Freedom at Manchester Art Gallery. The exhibition is part of 14-18 NOW, a five-year programme of arts events connecting people with the First World War. Working in partnership with cultural organisations across the UK, 14-18 NOW is commissioning “new work by leading contemporary artists across the spectrum of the visual arts and design, theatre, film, dance, digital, music, poetry and mass-participation events, inspired by the period 1914-1918”, and each event explores a different theme. Fashion & Freedom takes a look at the changes in British women’s lives during and after WW1, through the lens of fashion.

One of the most radical changes at home during the war was the huge change in women’s lives and work. With the men away fighting, more than one million women went to work for the first time during the war years – in munitions factories and on the buses, driving ambulances and even ‘manning’ the London Underground. These new responsibilities gave women new freedoms – and they also led to a new look, as tight corsets and heavy skirts were replaced by more natural and fluid silhouettes. A century later, this era has inspired Fashion & Freedom, an ambitious, multi-faceted exhibition that examines the fashion legacy of the First World War for the 21st century.

Historic dress on display at Fashion & Freedom at Manchester Art GalleryThe exhibition space is relatively small, but its used to good effect. Visitors are treated to a cabinet of historical garments at the start of their journey, showing the silhouette of women’s fashions before and after the war, alongside examples of the undergarments which helped to create these shapes. The theme of ‘restriction and release’ (which was given to the fashion students whose work appears in the exhibition) is clearly visible here, with the long heavily corseted Edwardian gowns contrasting beautifully with the loose and flowing ankle-revealing frocks of the mid-1920s. The intricate beading and embroidery on all of these dresses contrasted further with a military uniform that is also on display here.

There is a screening room in this area of the gallery space, showing four short films commissioned for the exhibition, offering contemporary reflections on the social and cultural changes brought about by WW1. The films are: ‘first’ by Luke Snellin, which re-imagines a young woman’s first day at work as a bus conductor; ‘Edith’ by Rei Nadal and Phoebe English, which looks at the corset; ‘Untitled’ by George Harvey and Gareth Pugh, which explores military wear; and ‘These Women’ by Marie Schuller and Craig Green, which looks at workwear. These are available on the exhibition website and via SHOWstudio.

London College of Fashion students' work on display at Fashion & Freedom at Manchester Art GalleryAs part of my job at London College of Fashion, UAL, I was lucky enough to attend the opening night with colleagues because two of our BA (Hons) Fashion Design Technology: Womenswear students had their work featured in the exhibition. I chatted to Cherry Ng and Xenia Telunts about their work (pictured right) and was impressed with their two outfits each – one depicting restriction, the other release. Cherry had taken her design inspiration from dazzle ships, breaking up the silhouette on both designs with blocks of colour, while Xenia looked at the women who suffered mental distress during the First World War plus the lives of working women during the war.

Each of the students featured – from Leeds College of Art, London College of Fashion, Manchester School of Art, the University of Salford and the University of Westminster – had interpreted the theme differently and a video on display in the gallery space allows visitors to hear the students speak about the inspiration for their designs. This gave even greater insight into the creative process than the already interesting wall text next to each piece.

Garments on display at Manchester Art Gallery's Fashion and Freedom exhibitionThe main reason that many people will have heard of this exhibition, however, is the commissions from high profile designers including Vivienne Westwood and Roksanda Ilincic. Before visiting the exhibition, I was suspicious as to how Westwood’s shimmering jumpsuit, Roksanda’s bright yellow silk dress, and Emilia Wickstead’s bold woollen design could possibly have been inspired by the First World War, but reading the object text – and, since returning home, the amazingly in-depth exhibition website – it’s now clear how the designs came about.

I was particularly impressed at how many were inspired by the Munitionettes, who worked long hours in the hazardous conditions of the munitions factories. Those who worked with TNT famously developed yellow skin, leading to the nickname ‘canary girls’, which explained the yellow outfits in the exhibition! One of the students, Sarah Curtis from the University of Salford, who looked at the women who played football to keep fit while undertaking this work. The Guardian mentions this in their coverage of the exhibition:

The “munitionettes” formed their own teams; the star player was Lily Parr, who scored over 1,000 goals. Parr acted as Curtis’s muse for her shorts and boots, combined with a smock top that transforms with movement: the ultimate combination of fashion and freedom.

Overall, this exhibition is a wonderful example of how fashion can be used to convey complex messages and can render old stories more accessible for contemporary audiences. Creative Director Darrell Vydelingum and Producer Jenna Rossi-Camus have made an engaging and enjoyable exhibition out of themes which could have been tricky to address in a creative or positive way. I left feeling inspired, uplifted and extremely grateful for all that the women of the First World War achieved.

Fashion & Freedom is on at Manchester Art Gallery, Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3JL until 27th November 2016. Entry to the exhibition is free.

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