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Fashion & Freedom, Manchester Art Gallery, Preview

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Im a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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Pushing the hemline
Dame Vivienne Westwood is amongst the designers recruited to create work for a new exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.

Fashion & Freedom will explore how the changing role of women in the First World War had a profound impact not just on their working and home lives but also on the clothes they wore.

Dame Vivienne presents an iridescent Laundry jumpsuit, inspired by those worn by women working in factories during WWI, a Propaganda uniform coat, and a 17th century inspired camouflage dress and boots.

Manchester Art Gallery Fashion & Freedom, Dame Vivienne Westwood
Sketch by Vivienne Westwood

With men called away to fight, women replaced them in occupations traditionally only open to males, including 'manning' the London Underground, toiling in munitions factories and driving ambulances.

The demands of the workplace also created a demand for a different style of dress. Tight corsets and heavy skirts were replaced by looser garments.

Manchester Art Gallery Fashion & Freedom, Toni Martin
Breathe In by Toni Martin (student), c. Layla-Sailor

Darrell Vydelingum , Creative Director of Fashion & Freedom, said: "When the men came back from the war and tried to take on these roles, a lot of them did, but the genie was out of the bottle."

These profound changes in women's dress will be the inspiration for the new contemporary pieces. Alongside Dame Vivienne's exclusive designs, there will be others by Belgrade-born, London-based designer Roksanda Ilincic and J. JS Lee who was born in Seoul, Korea and graduated from Central Saint Martin with an MA. J. JS Lee has chosen work-wear as her focus, looking to men's tailoring and the trouser.

Holly Fulton and Roksanda take inspiration from the women who worked in the munitions factories and often suffered TNT poisoning resulting in yellow skin.

Emilia Wickstead is inspired by the experimental graphic camouflage patterns of dazzle ships. The dazzle technique of camouflage, was employed to make it difficult for the enemy to estimate the type, size, speed and direction of travel of ships.

Sadie Williams celebrates women who worked as Voluntary Aid Detachments on the frontline.

Manchester Art Gallery, Fashion & Freedom, Holly Fulton
Sketch by Holly Fulton

Caroline Rush CBE, CEO British Fashion Council, said: "The role fashion has played in our social and political history is often forgotten. And the First World War is no exception - women went to work in factories and drove buses for the first time and as ever fashion was at the heart of this story."

Manchester Art Gallery Fashion & Freedom, J. JS Lee
Sketch by J. JS Lee

Work by the major ranks of the fashion world will be complemented by designs from students at five British fashion colleges, working to the theme of Restriction and Release. The participating institutions include Manchester School of Art, University of Salford, Leeds College of Art, University of Westminster and London College of Fashion.

In addition to the new creations, Manchester Art Gallery will present wartime selections from its own costume collection.

Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW, said: "We wanted to look at the often-neglected impact that the First World War had on the lives of British women the roles they took on, the freedom they gained, and the resulting shift in fashion. Our partners Manchester Art Gallery and British Fashion Council have made this an exciting and rewarding journey."

Maria Balshaw, Director of the Whitworth, University of Manchester and Manchester City Galleries, said: "It's not right to see fashion as simply a frivolous thing. It of course reflects the social and political forces that shape our society and who we can be as people."

Manchester Art Gallery has also commissioned original short films from Nick Knight's award-winning SHOWstudio. Knight's work has been exhibited at international institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum and Saatchi Gallery.

Manchester Art Gallery Fashion & Freedom, Joana Bustalino
Women Voters Conquer Freedom by Joana Bustalino (student), c. Layla-Sailor

Screenwriter and director Luke Snellin, has written and directed First, which reimagines a young woman's first day at work as a bus conductor, with uniforms designed by Salford-based fashion label Private White V.C. The films will be shown in the gallery and across digital screens in Manchester, as well as online.

Fashion & Freedom is a co-commission with 14-18 NOW: WW1 which promotes art, music, poetry and other forms to connect people with the First World War.

Manchester Art Gallery Fashion & Freedom, Jessica Bachman
Passing the Dress-Code (in memory of the Suffragettes) by Jessica Bachman (student), c. Layla-Sailor
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Why? Fashion and history combined in one exhibition
Phone: 0161 235 8888
Where: Manchester Art Gallery
Cost: Free
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