With Manchester Art Gallery’s exhibition on the fashion legacy of WWI in full flourish, we grab a minute with its Creative Director, Darrell Vydelingum.

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If you’re looking for a bit of a culture fix this weekend and you’re lucky enough to be up North, then make sure you head to the Manchester Art Gallery: they’re staging an exhilarating exhibition which draws together a mixture of work by British female designers, both emerging and established, inspired by the groundbreaking historical roles that women played during the First World War. Serving as a part of the centenary commemorating the war, the exhibition presents designs by greats including Dame Vivienne Westwood, Holly Fulton and Sadie Williams, together with work by fashion graduates from colleges across the U.K. A range of fashion films have also been created for the presentation, underscoring the impact of the First World War on women’s roles in society that transformed the way in which they dressed.

The exhibition is keen to spotlight the fact that, while thousands of men went off to fight in the trenches, women stayed at home taking on new responsibilities in the work place, helping them define themselves through brand new styles of dress. These roles empowered women with new ways of dressing as they discarded previously restrictive items of clothing such as the corset; many of the silhouettes and wardrobe staples favoured by women today are rooted in that era, from the trench coat and trousersuit to current clubland faves like the jumpsuit.

The queen of punk Ms. Vivienne Westwood is the show’s indisputable highlight, and has restructured a multi-coloured jumpsuit shown in her Gold Label autumn-winter 2006/7 collection, endorsing the inmunition factory workwear piece with a touch of disco allure. Holly Fulton, meanwhile, fashions a yellow dress with appliques indicative of weaponry shells, and 2013 Wonder-fave Sadie Williams pays homage to the courageous nurses in the war with a floor-length gown in blue and silver with a large red cross across the bust. As if that wasn’t enough, the designs are accompanied by films commissioned by Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio. Heavy hitters Gareth Pugh, Craig Green and Phoebe English work alongside filmmakers Marie Schuller, George Harvey and Rei Nadal for this beautiful and intelligent series.

Wonderland caught up with the exhibition’s creative director, Darrell Vydelingum, who talked us through some of the themes of the exhibition, evoking a sense of significant historal change for women in Britain in the early twentieth century.

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Can you tell us a bit about the themes of the exhibition?

The exhibition sees leading female fashion designers explore the profound effect the First World War had on women, and the impact this in turn had on women’s fashion. It is part of 14-18 NOW, the UK-wide arts programme that marks the centenary of the First World War. I wanted to achieve a mix of new commissions by leading designers alongside emerging talent from fashion colleges, animated by fashion films.

How about the films being presented alongside the exhibition?

The exhibition features original films that are contemporary reflections on the experience of women before, during and after the First World War. These include shorts by emerging directors commissioned by Nick Knight’s award-winning fashion film platform SHOWstudio, and first by Luke Snellin, with a cast wearing specially designed uniforms by Manchester fashion label Private White.

What were the main roles women played during the Great War?

As men left home to fight on the frontline, women had to fill in the gaps in the workforce, and over a million women went to work for the first time.  They took on a variety of jobs – as bus conductors, ambulance drivers and window cleaners, as well as in offices and factories.

Can you talk us through the ways in which women’s fashion contributed to their roles at this time?

The new responsibility and freedom women experienced through working led to new ways of dressing, as the social codes started to change.

What was liberating about the styles adopted by women in the First World War?

Silhouettes started to change as women started to work, becoming much free flowing and boyish in style.  It was during this period that the corset gave way to the bra. The exhibition shows how the silhouettes that emerged a hundred years ago  – the jumpsuit, trousers, shorter hemlines, elasticated underwear, the tailored suit – are still the bedrock of our catwalks and high streets today.

Why is Fashion and Freedom important in the 21st century?

Fashion is often seen as a frivolous thing, but this exhibition shows the key role it plays in examining our social and political history. The exhibition tells an epic story about women’s rights and freedoms.

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Fashion & Freedom is at Manchester Art Gallery as part of 14-18 NOW until 27 November 2016.

Words: Ray Kinsella


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