Museums & Heritage

Ossie Clark & Celia Birtwell at the Gallery of Costume

Sarah-Clare Conlon, Literature Editor
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Ossie Clark outfit gallery of costume manchester

Get a taste of 1960s British design in this retrospective show that features Clark’s cuts alongside Celia Birtwell’s pattern.

Fashion changes with the seasons, and the Gallery of Costume is no slouch when it comes to following that trend. Hot on the heeled pumps of Christian Dior, the gallery hosts a brand new exhibition, one that again spans a ten-year career. And this time it’s the turn of influential local-boy-made-good Ossie Clark to be the star of the show. So, for spring, it’s out with the old and in with the new, as the gallery fast-forwards from the post-war Dior to the peak of Ossie Clark’s career in the 1960s and 1970s.

“We wanted to do something British this time,” the gallery’s senior curator, Miles Lambert, tells me in his book lined, glossy magazine-strewn office. “We also wanted a show that would connect with what ordinary, fashionable women bought – it will hopefully engage with women who might have actually worn the outfits.”

Indeed, because, by the late 1960s, Clark was a designer whose clothes were within reach of upwardly mobile women thanks to his launch of one of the first-ever diffusion lines. From 1968, Ossie Clark for Radley ran alongside the more exclusive Ossie Clark label, which had been picked up by Alice Pollock for her Kensington boutique Quorum after Clark’s graduation collection featured in Vogue. Miles Lambert shows me a photo of a Quorum-era piece he has just acquired: a pale pink mini-dress with a sporty trim (think Mary Quant on the tennis court), apparently designed for the American market.

I’m a master cutter; it’s all in my brain and my fingers

It was at Quorum that Clark began to collaborate with the Bury-born textile designer Celia Birtwell, herself back in vogue thanks to several recent collections at TopShop and John Lewis. The pair had met while Clark was studying at Manchester School of Art; they later married, the terribly fashionable newlyweds famously captured by David Hockney in the painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.

Birtwell’s cutting-edge prints feature heavily in the Gallery of Costume retrospective, mainly on Clark’s renowned flattering, feminine chiffon dresses and blouses, some complete with medieval princess sleeves. They are also present on a beautiful, brushed cotton and Biba-esque number and a fitted, quilted jacket. Clark was an expert with the scissors, famously saying “I’m a master cutter; it’s all in my brain and my fingers,” and his precision can be best seen in a structured jacket owned by fashion journalist Suzy Menkes, perhaps purchased after she’d seen his 1971 show, which she described as “the most extraordinary moment in fashion history”.

Miles Lambert and I discuss fabrics: the jacket looks to be a treated satin, but I’m informed it’s more likely polyester as Clark enjoyed using “modern” materials. Moss crepe was another favourite with the designer, and seven of his trademark draped maxi evening gowns take centre stage in the first floor dining room at Platt Hall. “It’s a swirl of colour,” says Lambert as he describes the installation, showing me a rainbow of single-shaded dresses showcased together. They include a bold mustard-coloured dress – another trademark, if the multiple yellow outfits here are anything to go by.

Many of the 25 pieces are on show in Manchester for the first time, although all are part of the gallery’s permanent collection. British Fashion Genius continues in the changing exhibitions gallery downstairs, with short films featuring Ossie Clark designs worn by Swinging 60s Chelsea girls alongside contemporary magazines, such as a 1973 Cosmopolitan whose cover model poses in one of Clark’s plunge dresses. “It’s the only cover I could find,” Lambert sighs. “A blast of light and then it’s gone.”

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