Fashion and Freedom with 14-18NOW - Part Two



Following on from a fantastic evening of events, it was time to find out more about the Fashion & Freedom exhibition. If you haven’t had chance to read my previous blog post, then Fashion and Freedom is part of 14-18 NOW a five year programme of events that aim to get us involved with the centenary of the First World War and bring us closer to the people and events that took place and impacted on the way we all live now.  

This particular exhibition looks at how fashion evolved before, during and after WW1, something I’d never had the chance to think about before. Although a big fan of history, especially the history of fashion, I’d never looked into the early 20th century before. I’d obviously known about the revolutionary flapper girls, and the even the social strategies that got women out of the house wife roll and into men’s work during WW2. But WW1 had never caught my interest. Well I can honestly say, after the two days of events, I’ve never felt more inspired by an era of British history. Not only by the brave soldiers that fought for our freedom so bravely and at such a young age, but by the women that stayed behind and kept the county afloat in an age where we couldn’t even vote.    



14-18 NOW commissioned 6 designers (Holly Fulton, J JS Lee, Roksanda, Vivienne Westwood, Emilia Wickstead and Sadie Williams) to create looks inspired by the women of the First World War. Based at the Manchester Art Gallery; you see these stunning pieces as soon as you walk into the exhibition room. Each outfit is breathtaking beautiful, and for me, the beauty of the clothing was discovering what inspiration the designers had drawn on for their particular piece, as you couldn’t immediately tell. My favourite has to be J JS Lee’s stunning look. She was inspired by the end of war and how women had transitioned from long restrictive into more male forms such as trousers. She references this by adding leg warmers under the skirt in her design. She kept a neutral palette and concentrated on recycled textures.

“It was a time for women to celebrate and embrace their new found freedoms whilst fighting to retain this new independence and their place within society” - J JS Lee  




As well as the designer pieces, 14-18 NOW also worked with 5 Universities to create the Restriction/Release collection (Leeds College of Art, London College of Fashion, Manchester School of Art, the University of Salford and the University of Westminster). This collaboration aimed to showcase up and coming talent as well as highlighting the social changes that took place during WW1. Some of the designers used the abolishment of the physically restrictive corsetry that women wore before the war and “broke free” from due to the new roles that were forced upon them. They incorporated them in to their designs to show it wasn’t just metaphorical restriction that existed at the time, but every day garments made life difficult for all women, whatever their social status. 


Along with the garments, the exhibition also consisted of 4 thought provoking films, that were all beautifully shot. I was lucky enough to view Luke Snellin’s film, that was shown on the big screen in Exchange Square. The film centre on a young woman starting her first day as a bus conductor. Luke mentions that the idea focuses on the feelings of the young woman not just her new clothing; 

“…initially it came from the clothing, but then thinking emotionally about a narrative I started to consider what it must be like to face a first day at work when you are thought of as inferior or inadequate to do that job”  

The uniform in the film was designed by Manchester brand, Private White VC who were named after WW1 hero, Private Jack White. Much of their collection has a nod to military, so they were the perfect match to get involved on the project.


The other 3 films are being shown at the Manchester Art Gallery, and are equally as fascinating and incredibly moving. My favourite has to be the film by Show Studio, directed by Rei Nadal which shows the freeing of women wearing corsets. Having touched upon this theme in both the designer and student pieces, it was wonderful to see how this translated to film. You can watch all of the films here

The final event that I attended was the one day ‘Fashion is Work’ symposium which was again held at the gallery. The focus of the day stemmed from the Fashion & Freedom exhibition, and made a great talking point. The day was filled with talks from experts in the industry, from Caroline Rush, the Head of the British Fashion Council, to photographers and stylists (Jez Tozer and Kim Howells). The day was hosted by Darrell Vydelingum, Jenna Rossi-Camus and Senior Curator at the gallery, Natasha Howes. It was an incredible day, and such a valuable experience, especially for people who want to get into the fashion industry. Hearing from the exhibitions designers was truly insightful, I loved finding out the inspiration for each piece, and in turn, how the project had inspired them and their work continuing after their initial involvements. Like many, WW1 wasn’t something they knew a lot about, so when asked to look at it from the angle of the women, many found it an empowering subject.


I’d like to thank the team at 14-18 Now for inviting me to take part in such an education and inspiration few days of events. I have a new passion for history and women’s rights and have even gone on to do my own research about women and WW1. If you’re in town and can spare 20 minutes, I definitely recommend you go and see the exhibition which is on until the 27th November. Let me know if you do go, I would love to hear your thoughts!

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