Manchester Science Festival 2014: Helen Storey’s Dress of Glass and Flame

Susie Stubbs
Photo of the dress of glass and flame, with a beaded skirt

Helen Storey, the fashion designer turned pioneering scientist, brings one of her most innovative creations to Manchester – for one day only.

Whisper the name “Helen Storey” to fashion lovers of a certain vintage, and their eyes inevitably widen. This was the British designer who sent women down the catwalk in ball gowns made from bin-liners, or wearing clothes that featured a foetal imprint. This was the designer who worked with Valentino, who won numerous awards for her innovation, and yet who, it seemed, was forever striking out against the constraints of the industry within which she worked. So when Helen Storey’s label closed in the mid-1990s, there was a kind of logic in the fact that her next move was not into fashion, but into science. And this month, for one day only, Helen Storey brings her latest scientific project to Manchester. The Dress of Glass and Flame is an artwork that explores the chemistry behind the making of glass – via a life-size dress at whose heart fire burns.

Beauty comes in many forms, sometimes benign and sometimes a kind of beauty that burns

Storey’s leap into science was not overnight. After her label folded in 1995 she found herself at a loss as to what to do next – but, at her developmental biologist sister’s instigation, she ended up creating a project called Primitive Streak. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, it set out to explain in visual form the first 1,000 hours of embryonic life – from that first dividing cell to the point at which arms and legs begin to form. It did so via 27 exquisite dresses, and it opened the door for Helen Storey to take her design talents into an entirely new direction. Between then and now, Storey has gone much further than those initial dresses. With the chemist Tony Ryan she has created nanotech jeans that purify the air, and dresses that dissolve in water. She’s been made a professor four times over; she’s currently Professor of Fashion and Science at The London College of Fashion. She has championed sustainability and set up her own foundation to explore creativity and innovation.

Back in Manchester, the Dress of Glass and Flame is the result of another collaboration between Storey and Tony Ryan. Like Primitive Streak, it uses fashion to grab the attention of audiences who might not otherwise show any interest in science – it’s no coincidence that the making of the dress was supported by both the Royal Society of Chemistry and London College of Fashion. But the dress itself isn’t really about fashion, of course. It’s completely unwearable. It’s not about catwalk adoration or conventional aesthetics. Instead it is, according to Storey, about the “alchemy” of glassmaking and the magic of scientific endeavour. And it’s a reminder too, perhaps, that beauty comes in many forms – sometimes benign and sometimes a kind of beauty that burns.

The Dress of Glass and Flame is part of Design 14 Manchester and Manchester Science Festival. It appears at Manchester Art Gallery as part of a three-way collaboration between it, Helen Storey and the Whitworth. Helen Storey will discuss her work at a special panel as part of Design 14 Manchester on Monday 27 October. 

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