Exhibition review: Fashion and Freedom @ Manchester Art Gallery

Photo Credit: Sadie Williams for Fashion and Freedom @ Manchester Art Gallery

Photo Credit: Photography by Jez Tozer and design by Sadie Williams for Fashion and Freedom @ Manchester Art Gallery

Fashion is an area of the arts often dismissed as superficial and frivolous. The tyranny of size zero and unrealistic ideals of beauty often associated with the fashion industry can seem at odds with feminist values. However, Fashion and Freedom at the Manchester Art Gallery takes a fresh look at the relationship between women’s rights and fashion, exploring it as a means of self-expression and a way for women to exercise their freedom.

Fashion and Freedom is a multi-media exploration of the link between fashion and women’s social history, organised as part of the 14-18-Now WW1 Centenary Art Commissions. The exhibition examines how the work women undertook during the war and the new freedoms they enjoyed was reflected in changing fashions.

Starting with a collection of period pieces loaned from Manchester City Galleries’ costume collection, the exhibition traces the evolution of women’s fashion from the Edwardian period to the mid-1920s. The shift from Edwardian dresses, which where cumbersome, corseted and restrictive, designed to emphasise a small waist, to the shorter, looser more androgynous silhouettes of the 1920s exemplifies the changing ideals of femininity.

In perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition, students from five universities were asked to design pieces inspired by the theme of Restriction / Release and women’s experiences before, during and after WW1. They take inspiration from a range of interesting stories about women in the wartime period, from female football teams set up by women working in factories to the ‘Canary Women’, whose skin turned yellow from TNT poisoning while they were manufacturing munitions, to suffragettes who practiced jiu-jitsu. These pieces are accompanied by a video where the students explain their design process and the inspiration for their pieces. This is a great opportunity to see pieces by young designers who would not normally be able to show their work in such a well-known gallery.

As well as the fashion students’ designs there are contemporary pieces designed by leading female designers Vivienne Westwood, Roksanda, Holly Fulton, J JS Lee, Emilia Wickstead and Sadie Williams. They show how styles which became available to women during the war, such as jumpsuits and tailoring, have influenced today’s trends. Sadie Williams re-imagines a Red Cross uniform as a glittering gown while Emilia Wickstead takes inspiration from dazzle ships to create a graphic print dress.

The exhibition also includes four films which use different approaches to explore the connections between changes in women’s lives and fashion. Fashion filmmakers SHOWstudio have created 3 short films, The Fall of the Corset, Military Fashion and Workwear, while Luke Snellin imagines a young woman’s first day at work as a bus conductor in a short narrative film, First.

Fashion and Freedom offers a great opportunity to learn more about women’s social history, see some great garments and discover new young designers and is running until 27 November at Manchester Art Gallery.