The onset of war in 1914 brought many significant changes across British society. As men left home to fight on the frontline, over a million women joined the industrial workforce, taking on jobs as bus conductors, ambulance drivers and window cleaners, as well as in offices and factories. New responsibility gave women new freedom and led to new ways of dressing, as silhouettes and social codes changed.
In May 2016, SHOWstudio commissioned three fashion films to go on display in Fashion & Freedom – an exhibition exploring the profound effect the First World War had on women – at Manchester Art Gallery. Nick Knight and the SHOWstudio team selected rising filmmaking talents; Rei Nadal, Marie Schuller and George Harvey. Each tackled a different piece of fashion pertaining to the changes caused by the war and was paired with a different designer whose work felt relevant to each topic. Nadal explored the fall of the corset in a film featuring custom designs by Phoebe English. Harvey looked at military wear and collaborated with Gareth Pugh. Schuller working with acclaimed menswear designer Craig Green and explored workwear.
The exhibition also features contemporary pieces by designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Roksanda and J JS Lee. Fashion & Freedom was co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, and Manchester Art Gallery, with support from the British Fashion Council.
Speaking on the exhibition, Jenny Waldman, director of 14-18 NOW, explains, ‘Perhaps it’s unsurprising that most exhibitions about the First World War focus on the impact it had on the male population, and especially on the young men who fought in it. By contrast, this exhibition looks at the often-neglected but profound effect that the war had on the lives of British women, and particularly the way it helped to advance their campaign for wider freedoms. The mass exodus of men to the battlefields during the war gave British women the chance and sometimes the obligation to try new roles and take on new responsibilities. With these jobs came a need for new clothing: freer, looser and more practical. This contributed to the evolution of modern fashion, a lasting impact which we still recognise today. Women’s activities during wartime also helped their fight for the right to vote, a vital freedom that some of them won just as the war ended in 1918.’
Darrell Vydelingum, creative director of Fashion & Freedom, adds, ‘Fashion & Freedom is first and foremost a celebration of women – their strength, creativity and resilience. Although the First World War had many negative outcomes for the United Kingdom, it fast-tracked women’s rights as they took over traditional male roles during the war.’
(Spanish director Rei Nadal unites with designer Phoebe English, stylist Ellie Grace Cumming and model Guinevere Van Seenus on a work exploring the way the war affected the traditional popularity of the corset and the expectations on women to wear one.)
Fashion & Freedom runs from 13 May to 27 November 2016 at Manchester Art Gallery. The opening coincides with the launch of this series on SHOWstudio.