fashion and freedom: manchester art gallery explores the feminist legacy of ww1

Bespoke designs by Vivienne Westwood, J JS Lee and Sadie Williams, films by Phoebe English, Craig Green and Gareth Pugh, and impressive student work fills this refreshing exhibition on a women’s history of war.

by Charlotte Gush
14 May 2016, 12:35am

sadie williams

You could be forgiven for being bored of war history. A frequent focus of both history and English curriculums at secondary school, the First World War is also the subject of the four-year-long 14-18 NOW centenary season, and is just about everywhere. Of course we should never forget the horrors of warfare, but attending the exhibitions set up to remind us often feels like a chore.

Not so at Manchester Art Gallery, where a fresh perspective focuses not on the many men whose grim fate in the trenches we have all been taught about before, but on the women who went to work in their place, taking on jobs from bus conducting to munitions manufacture, roles that eked out a new social place for women, eventually winning the right to vote in 1918.

The ambitious exhibition, titled Fashion and Freedom, is compiled of almost all newly-commissioned work, with just one exhibit on historical dress -- mapping the dramatic change in silhouette from the trussed-up and tied-tight 1910s to the free and easy styles of the postwar '20s.

Holly Fulton

Vivienne Westwood, J JS Lee, Sadie Williams, Holly Fulton, Roksanda and Emilia Wickstead have all created bespoke designs for the exhibition, taking influence from women's workwear of the period; for factory work, Red Cross nurse jobs, and munitions work with toxic chemicals that turned women's skin yellow and earned them the nickname 'canary girls'.

These topics are also reflected in the impressive creations by students from fashion schools in Manchester, Salford, Leeds and London. Responding to the theme of 'Restriction / Release,' student research uncovers the history of women's lunchtime football clubs — intended to build strength for manual labour; the treatment of women in workhouses and asylums during wartime; the design of dazzle camouflage warships; the restriction of corsets and crinolines; and the martial arts training undertaken by the Suffragettes.

Karin Human, University of Salford

A screening room shows three short films made by SHOWstudio in collaboration with designer-filmmaker teams of Phoebe English and Rei Nadal, Craig Green and Marie Schuller, Gareth Pugh and George Harvey -- poetic meditations on the restricted bodies and lives of women; perceptions of a woman's capacity to work; and military garb and medical dressings, respectively. A fourth film by Luke Snellin focuses on a woman's first day of work as a bus conductor.

Where other exhibitions dealing with the grave subject of a major war get bogged down with what it feels important to educate future generations about, the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery follows the path of natural curiosity and wonder to illuminate fascinating, and genuinely enlightening details. Having allowed contributors to follow their personal interests and research paths means that visitors are able to enjoy the same freedom of discovery, and to take a fresh vantage point on a much-mulled period.

Fashion and Freedom is free and open from today, Friday 13 May, until 27 November 2016 at Manchester Art Gallery.


Text Charlotte Gush
Photography courtesy Manchester Art Gallery

women’s history
14-18 now
fashion and freedom