‘Fashion and Freedom – 14-18 NOW‘ is now showing at Manchester Art Gallery in Manchester’s City Center. Taking us to the First World War, the exhibition celebrates women running the world in a time when men were away from home, and explores the radical changes in fashion that are now staples in women’s wardrobes: the jumpsuit, trousers, shorter hemlines, elasticated underwear and the tailored suit.
Fashion is not a frivolous and empty luxury, but rather “a look into the social and political forces that shape our society and who we can be as people”, explains Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth, University of Manchester and Manchester City Galleries, which includes Manchester Art Gallery and Gallery of Costume.
World War 1 brought hardship and pain, but it was a time that launched the emancipation of women who took off their corsets and stepped into the workplace. As mentioned above, the country was run by proud and strong women releasing themselves and their bodies from the shackles of pre-war restriction.
The unique show features pieces by Vivienne Westwood, Roksanda, Holly Fulton, Emilia Wickstead, J JS Lee and Sadie Williams. Film-makers including SHOWstudio, fashion students, and photographers also come together to create new pieces of work on the subject of women’s role, attitudes and ways of dressing during the First World War. All of the collaborators were answering the brief “Restriction (pre-war) and Release (post-war).”
Roksanda Ilincic was inspired by the yellow skin of the “canaries”, caused by TNT poisoning.
Vivienne Westwood took inspiration from the comfortable and practical clothing women wore to work.
Sadie Williams was inspired by nurses on the front line.
Karin Human took inspiration from the story of the group of Suffragettes who trained in martial arts. The textile design re-interprets the Suffragettes’ colours of green and purple.
Revekka Georgiadou, like Roksanda, was inspired by the “canaries”. The choice of colour, materials and silhouette in this design are all symbolic tributes to their experience and contribution to the war effort.
Wheiman Leong took inspiration from the traditional trenchcoat, widely adopted by British officers during WW1. The design references notions of ‘Restriction and Release’ through the pleating, draping and choice of hardware details, exposing the shoulder and arm to represent the liberation of women through voting rights.
Elizabeth Thomas explored the notion that “women were an excellent ornament to men” (Lapide, 1638), and how this was exemplified by excessive decoration in Victorian and Edwardian fashion. Her design emphasises the roles of ornament in creating restrictions on the female body.
Rebecca Lawton’s piece addresses body taboos that have historically governed women’s dress and behaviour. Inspired by the daring women who embraced the rolled stocking, and even, on occasion, decorated their knees, she used embroidery rings to from the formerly hidden body parts – referencing both female rebellion and the domestic practice of embroidery.
Toni Martin references extreme corsetry before the First World War in sharp contrast to how the pendulum of fashion would swing towards the liberation of the body after the war. The pieces sit between fashion and sculpture and addresses social and cultural issues while offering a surreal vision of a controversial fashion item.
Darrell Vydelingum is the Creative Director of Fashion & Freedom
Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and Manchester Art Gallery, supported by the British Fashion Council
The exhibition will be running from the 13th of May to the 27th of November 2016.