New fashion and film inspired by the women of the First World War @ at the Manchester Art Gallery.
The onset of war in 1914 changed British society. As men left to fight in Europe, over a million women went to work for the first time. New responsibility gave women new freedom and led to new ways of dressing, as silhouettes and social codes changed.
There were many upsides to Britain’s victory in the first world war – most notably peace, albeit of a temporary sort, in Europe. Less often noted is how the war liberated women from their corsets and full skirts when they were drafted in to run the country while the men were dying in muddy ditches across northern France. After finding that you can’t conduct a bus or forge steel in a floor-length silk day dress very well with a full bustle, these emancipating women started to experiment with far more practical clothes and hairstyles as they carried out their new roles in society.
A new exhibition in Manchester celebrates the outfits that were worn by women from 1914-1918. Fashion and Freedom explores how many of the silhouettes and wardrobe staples favoured by women today have their origins in that era, from the trench coat to the trousersuit and the jumpsuits worn by young women on dancefloors today.
Curated by fashion PR Darrell Vydelingum, the show chooses not to simply look back with the help of period costumes. Instead, he has persuaded top designers including Vivienne Westwood, Roksanda Ilincic and Gareth Pugh to create new works inspired by WWI for the exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery.
Westwood, the star of the show, has repurposed a multi-coloured sequinned jumpsuit she showed in her Gold Label autumn-winter 2006/7 collection, adding a shock of disco glamour to the workwear used by women inmunitions factories.
Roksanda’s canary-yellow dress with transparent stripes, meanwhile, pays tribute to the women who suffered TNT poisoning while manufacturing weapons, which turned their skin the same colour. She pairs the striking dress with trousers, a nod to the gradual acceptance by society of women abandoning skirts and dresses as the war dragged on. Holly Fulton also works with yellow, fashioning a dress from satinised organza with digital embroidery and appliqués in the shapes of weaponry shells.
Emilia Wickstead, a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge, who worked at Armani and Proenza Schouler before starting her own label, has come up with a wool dress using a pattern inspired by dazzle camouflage, which was used to disguise navy vessels during the war. “Once I looked into dazzle ships I found that they were not used purely for camouflage; their main purpose was not to conceal but confuse,” says Wickstead in the exhibition catalogue. “This, to me, represents the changing attitudes to, and perceptions of, women after the war as society and its restrictions were shifting.”
Up and coming designer, Sadie Williams, chooses to celebrate the courage of nurses in the war, creating a spangly, floor-length gown in blue and silver with a large red cross across the bust. “I wanted to steer away from practicality, and instead create an angelic, glistening gown as homage to these superwomen, complete with the Red Cross symbol proudly adorning the chest, like a superhero emblem,” she says in the programme.
Pugh has collaborated with filmmaker George Harvey on a short film exploring military wear, while hotly tipped designers Craig Green and Phoebe English look at workwear and corsetry in their film co-productions.
Fashion students from five institutions – Leeds College of Art, London College of Fashion, Manchester School of Art and the universities of Salford and Westminster – were also invited to create new works responding to the themes of pre-war “restriction” and post-war “release”. Perhaps the most playful design comes from Salford’s Sarah Curtis, who discovered that women played football to stay fit while working in munitions factories during WWI. The “munitionettes” formed their own teams; the star player was Lily Parr, who scored over 1,000 goals. Parr acted as Curtis’s muse for her shorts and boots, combined with a smock top that transforms with movement: the ultimate combination of fashion and freedom.
• Fashion & Freedom is at the Manchester Art Gallery from 13 May – 27 November 2016. Then touring.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010