For centuries, sweeping skirts and tight corsets dominated British womenswear. The war in 1914 changed this. As men left to fight, around 1.5 million women took up work, on buses, in factories, as ambulance drivers and window cleaners, and as their roles in society shifted, so – by necessity – did the clothes they wore. Fashion & Freedom, a new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, explores this transformation through fashion and film (read my review of the exhibition for Creative Tourist here).
Six extraordinary outfits, commissioned from designers Holly Fulton, Roksanda Ilincic, Jackie JS Lee, Dame Vivienne Westwood, Emilia Wickstead and Sadie Williams, sit at the heart of this event but it is the energetic designs by students from colleges across the UK that embody the conversation across the eras.
Students were invited to respond either to the theme of pre-war Restriction or post-war Release – or both. ’The idea was for [the students] to be as crazy and as contemporary as possible,’ says creative director Darrell Vydelingum. ‘What they did was incredible, more than I could imagine. Each piece tells a story.’
And what stories: a black and white striped tunic and leather boots by University of Salford’s Sarah Curtis is a homage to female factory workers who got together to play football. Up to 40,000 people would go and see these women play football at weekend. They asked FIFA whether they could be recognised; predictably, FIFA refused.
Karin Human was inspired by the ‘Suffrajitsu’, martial-arts trained Suffragettes who formed protective walls around Emmeline Pankhurst during marches. ‘Anywhere Emmeline went, the jiu jitsu’s would follow her,’ says Vydelingum. ‘If they were in a demonstration and needed to get her out quickly, they would surround her and march her out.’ Human’s dress of cotton, leather and nylon contains large pockets for tools and weapons – which the suffrajitsu would have needed.
Others were fascinated by pre and post-War shifts in fashion. Rebecca Lawton’s pink cotton sateen and nylon dress featured a large hole, cut at knee level to expose the limbs and inspired by a pioneering WWI article, encouraging women to roll down their stockings down and reveal their knees. Inspired by the daring women who did just that and who would even, on occasion, decorate their knees, Lawton used embroidery rings to frame formerly hidden body parts.
Manchester’s Elizabeth Thomas explored the notion that women were “an excellent ornament to man” by creating a dress of almost comedic over-decoration. The sheer weight of embellishment would logically restrict the wearer’s movement, another aspect of Victorian and Edwardian design that Thomas wanted to emphasis, incorporating frills and flounces and exaggerating the length of the dress and the height of the collar to suggest imprisonment within fashion and the stifling of women’s voices.
In her design, Toni Martin refers to the extreme corsetry of pre-First World War. The dress reform movement of the early 1900s sought to free the female body from constrictive clothing, which often caused women health problems and were unsuitable for modern life and work. Like Thomas’ work, there is a feeling of restriction: Martin’s piece sits between fashion and sculpture, where its wearer is immobilised.