Fashion and Freedom

As well as the Vogue 100: A Century of Style retrospective currently showing at Manchester Art Gallery there’s Fashion and Freedom, an exploration of how fashion shifted as a result of the first world war.

“Fashion is often dismissed as a frivolous thing, but it is interwoven into our social and political history”

Caroline Rush CBE, CEO British Fashion Council

The exhibition charts women’s fashion, starting from the 1910s with some exquisite Edwardian pieces from the Manchester Gallery of Costume – straight out of Downton. We move into the war years with women’s uniforms and drop-waist flapper dresses that represented shifting styles and freedoms for women into the 1920s and 30s.

Students at the nation’s fashion schools were also commissioned to answer a brief on either Release or Restriction, using a range of materials to tell their stories about women’s fashion and their role in society in the early 20th century.

Two of my favourites were by Rebecca Lawton and Toni Martin (both University of Salford) as they used structure and material in unique and brilliant ways.

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Lawton (left) and Martin (right)

Lawton’s Roll’em Girls dress supposedly plays the Release brief and a fad in the ’20s of women rolling their stockings down to reveal their knees. She highlights the model’s knees with beautifully embroidered stockings and a cut-away hole in the dress to frame them too. However, embroidery rings have been used to structure the hole and the neck, which I believe plays nicely into the Restriction brief too. Women were encouraged to crochet and embroider in the evenings when the housework was done, the family was fed and the husband was listening to the wireless and reading – signifying that a “women’s work is never done” – a women was restricted by duty.

Martin’s sculpturesque piece Breathe in, represents the restriction of women’s corsetry and in wider society. The model’s arms (not mannequin’s as here) are literally stuck inside the dress. When worn, her mobility is impaired. Other works used ruffles to hide women’s mouths and prevent speech in a similar way.

As well as the students’ work, there are beautiful commissions from the likes of Vivienne Westwood, a regular contributor to Manchester fashion exhibitions, as well as Roksanda, J JS Lee, Holly Fulton and more that explore similar themes and some SHOWStudio film commissions too. Manchester’s Private White V.C. brand supplies uniforms for first, Luke Snellin’s story of a female bus conductor. The fall of the corset is explored in the moving film, Edith, by Rei Nadal. Maria Schuller’s women is bold and brilliant and Gareth Pugh collaborates with George Harvey in Untitled.

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