Fashion & Freedom at Manchester Art Gallery

Bel Jacobs
Designs by Emilia Wickstead, Holly Fulton and Sadie Williams
Designs by Emilia Wickstead, Holly Fulton and Sadie Williams. Photo: Joel Fildes.

Fashion & Freedom at Manchester Art Gallery, City Centre 13 May — 27 November 2016 Entrance is free

For centuries, long sweeping skirts and tight corsets dominated British womenswear. Women, this mode of dressing suggested, were essentially passive animals. The war in 1914 changed this. As men left to fight, around 1.5 million women waved an abrupt goodbye to their previous lives and took up work, on buses, in factories, as ambulance drivers and window cleaners.

It was a seismic shift in the perception of what women could do and, as their roles in society changed, so did the clothes they wore. Fashion & Freedom – a fascinating new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s art programme for the First World War centenary – explores this transformation through a broad spectrum of creatives, from leading female fashion designers and students to pioneering fashion filmmakers.

Designs by Sadie Williams and students
Designs by Sadie Williams and students. Photo: Joel Fildes.

Clothes prove to be an enormously effective way of telling the story of women in WWI, conferring a visual and physical reality to the constrictions suffered – and new freedoms enjoyed – by women at the time. “To tell this story through fashion is a completely new way,” explains Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW. “Fashion highlights the fact that, with work, women had to change how they behaved, how they felt about themselves, their attitudes, and also their attitudes to what they wore. Before the war, it was almost impossible for women to do much. They were just decorative. By having to go out to work, they had to be immediately much more practical.”

Six extraordinary outfits, specially commissioned from Fashion stalwarts Holly Fulton, Roksanda Ilincic, Jackie JS Lee, Dame Vivienne Westwood, Emilia Wickstead and Sadie Williams, sit at the heart of this event. Flamboyant and restrained, all intricately researched, the dresses are the designers’ response to stories around women during the War.

Installation image of design by Vivienne Westwood
Installation image of design by Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Joel Fildes.

These are often immensely powerful. The deceptively delicate laser-cut appliques on Fulton’s organza tunic have been inspired not by florals, but by mounds of shells in munitions factories; Wickstead’s demure frock (the silhouette itself a reference to a residual post-war conservatism) is covered by dazzle camouflage: a graphic design used on navy vessels to conceal and confuse.

Dame Vivienne Westwood presents an iridescent jumpsuit inspired by women working in factories during WWI, a Propaganda uniform coat and a 17th century-inspired camouflage dress and boots. “Vivienne was vital to the project,” says the exhibition’s creative director Darrell Vydelingum. “When we’re talking about women in WWI and their rebellious spirit, Vivienne is the person we needed.”

Student designs
Student designs. Photo: Joel Fildes.

Placed next to a selection of gowns from the Gallery’s renowned costume collection – sumptuous late Edwardian dresses and a daunting Jenyns corset – the contemporary outfits gain an added poignancy. Energetic designs by students from five fashion colleges across the UK, inspired by the theme of ‘Restriction & Release’, continue the conversation between the eras.

A series of original short films complement the garments on display, including shorts by directors from Nick Knight’s award-winning SHOWstudio. “This exhibition is about women’s movement, physically and politically,” says Vydelingum. “It was important to tell that story through digital as much as through static pieces. The films do that.”

Designs by Holly Fulton and Sadie Williams.
Designs by Holly Fulton and Sadie Williams. Photo: Joel Fildes.

No punches are pulled, particularly in the film Edith, in which a young woman struggles with a corset. “It’s really affected a lot of people because it’s quite heavy,” admits Vydelingum. “And that’s good because it shows what women had to go through at the time. The film’s about her breaking those bonds and becoming free. That’s what the war gave women.”

“What’s so extraordinary is how the things that happened to women and the clothes they were wearing influenced fashion, not just immediately after, but now,” says Waldman. “Trousers, boiler suits, looser, much more fluid and unrestricted silhouettes – just being able to move in your clothes, this all started in the First World War.”

Bel Jacobs was formerly Fashion Editor at Metro.

Fashion & Freedom at Manchester Art Gallery, City Centre 13 May — 27 November 2016 Entrance is free

What's on at Manchester Art Gallery

Where to go near Fashion & Freedom at Manchester Art Gallery

Salut Wines
Bar or Pub
Salut Wines

Salut wines pride themselves in offering “wider horizons beyond the safe choices.” With 42 wines by the glass and a regularly changing selection of bottles in their Enomatic wine preservation machines (or  “wine jukebox,” as they’re colloquially known), this is one of be best bars in Manchester for exploring new vintages.

Manchester Central Library
Manchester Central Library

The stunning Manchester Central Library is now back open for all visitors who wish to browse the enormous collection or simply relax in this magnificent building.

St Peters Square Manchester
City Centre
St Peter’s Square

St Peter’s Square is a public space in Manchester – home to the city’s iconic library, town hall, Pankhurst statue, art gallery and famous Midland Hotel.

Manchester Art Gallery Cafe

Summery bakes, seasonal salads and fresh light meals at Manchester Art Gallery’s in-house café, courtesy of highly-regarded Head Chef Matthew Taylor.

The Alan

This high-end city-centre restaurant has an excellent afternoon tea option that more than matches up to the superb main menu.

Contemporary Six, art gallery in Manchester
City Centre
Contemporary Six

Contemporary Six is an independent commercial art gallery in Manchester city centre, set up by Alex Reuben in 2010.

King Street Town House Hotel in Manchester
City Centre
King Street Townhouse Hotel

Boasting Manchester’s first rooftop infinity pool, the King Street Townhouse Hotel offers visitors panoramic views across the city. And, with so much to choose from, all Manchester needs now is a little sunshine…

Siam Smiles

Now based at the Great Northern, Siam Smiles is a food stop that’s hot on everyone’s lips.

Yang Sing

One of the most well-known Chinese restaurants in Manchester, Yang Sing has been feeding Mancunians for forty years.

City Centre

Elegant cocktail bar in the centre of Manchester, with a relaxed atmosphere and wonderfully friendly staff.

What's on: Exhibitions

Culture Guides

Kiss Marry Kill at The Lowry
Theatre in Manchester and the North

Affecting contemporary performances and fresh, relevant takes on enduring classics, we pick out shows that help us scrutinise the world we live in.

Festival-goers at Green Island
Music in Manchester and the North

Gazing longingly towards the good times that will accompany the surely imminent sun, we take a look at the best music festivals coming up in Manchester and Salford.