The North Of England's Fashion Legacy

Some visitors to London are surprised by what they find. After watching TV programmes such as Downton Abbey and The Young Victoria, they somehow expect it to be all royal palaces and cups of tea. This, if you like, is the ‘idea’ of Britain. And though there is truth in the cliché, London also has skyscrapers like The Shard, multi-ethnic communities such as Brixton, and a lively nightlife scene.

And there is an ‘idea’ of the North of England as a dark, industrial landscape where the men wear flat caps and drink their lives away with little joy – but that is far from the reality. 

Inside Somerset House’s Exhibition
North: Fashioning Identity (from 8 Nov) is a new exhibition at Somerset House (which, admittedly, is a building as grand as a stately home, where you can get a jolly good cup of tea) that aims to investigate and explode this ‘idea’ of the North. 

‘The show is trying to unpick ideas of what the North is really about,’ says Claire Catterall, the director of exhibitions. ‘The idea of the North is incredibly interesting as a concept: it has a distinct and romantic identity. Some of it is built on cliché, and some of it on truth. We’re trying to explore what’s truthful, and how clichés are used and why.’

What is ‘the North’?
The idea of the North became cemented in Victorian times, when the North became industrialised and working class: red-brick buildings blackened with soot, cloth caps and whippet dogs, Wigan Pier, Gracie Fields, TV’s Coronation Street, and recently Joy Division and ‘Madchester’ and those bare-legged coatless women out on the lash [getting drunk] in freezing January,’ Catterall continues.

The exhibition is largely photographic but there are videos, artworks and clothes by designers such as Nottingham-born Sir Paul Smith. Northern designers speak about their roots, too.

‘When people talk about their experiences of growing up in the North and what it has meant to them and their work, you get a great feeling of it as being very diverse,’ Catterall says. ‘Some came from leafy suburbs, some from beautiful seaside towns or rural areas. Not everyone was working class, and there are all sexualities and genders.’

‘One of the stereotypical ideas of the North is that it’s quite masculine and heteronormative [an assumption that everyone is heterosexual]and white. Most of the new work tends to be documentary, featuring other aspects like the black, Indian and Chinese communities.’

Tom Wood, whose Liverpool street photography is represented in the exhibition, says that there is no such entity as ‘the North’ at all. ‘Liverpool is like a different place from the rest of the North, 
a different country altogether,’ he says. ‘Preston and Sheffield always seemed much more like “the North” to me: chimneys, ironworks, mills. There’s a big gap even between Liverpool and Manchester, even though it’s only a short train ride away.

‘There’s a huge Irish influence in Liverpool, 
but also a lot of Welsh, and Polish, and people from Africa. Women have always traditionally been very strong in Liverpool, and given a lot of respect. Manchester is more gritty, aggressive, a man’s town. Liverpool is softened by different races and by the sea. There’s a sense of humour that is particular to Liverpool, and which I miss since I have moved away.’

That warmth and sense of humour is evident in the reaction to his work. Wood says that although he took photographs in all sorts of places, including markets where only women would go, and football matches where the male aggression and energy were off the scale, he seldom got hassled. In fact, locals took him to their hearts, calling him ‘the photie man’.

One thing is for sure. If London doesn’t quite disabuse visitors of the notion that Britain is all stately homes and cups of tea, North: Fashioning Identity definitely will.

Peter Saville
You could count all the famous graphic designers in the UK on the fingers of a cartoon character’s hand. One of them is Peter Saville. As a director of Factory Records, he defined the aesthetic of Manchester bands at a time when the city was the epicentre of the music universe. 

The Joy Division cover for Unknown Pleasures that spawned a thousand T-shirts? That was Saville’s. The die-cut cover for New Order’s Blue Monday (above) that became the best-selling 12-inch single of all time, but was so expensive to print that the label lost 5p with each sale? Saville’s too.

SHOW studio editor-at-large Lou Stoppard, who co-curated North: Fashioning Identity, says: ‘The North of England has not only produced myriad cultural moments and creative talents, but it also serves as an inspiration to those who live far beyond England. Raf Simons [chief creative officer at Calvin Klein] finds beauty and inspiration in the ‘Madchester’-born graphics of Peter Saville.’

Shirley Baker
Shirley Baker is best known for her street photography 
of Greater Manchester. She trained as a photographer and shot professionally for magazines and newspapers before becoming a lecturer at Salford College of Art in 1960. But it was for her passion project that she is best known.

For 15 years, inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, she documented her city. Though the surroundings were grim, depicting families and children in extreme poverty during a time of massive slum clearance, her subjects were anything but: the warmth, joy and sense of community shine through.

Catterall says of Baker: ‘She just took photos of everyday life – men loitering on streets, kids playing – but they really capture the essence of life up North. They are also absolutely beautiful.’

Sir Paul Smith
Few fashion designers are more closely associated with London than Sir Paul Smith. He learned his trade on Savile Row, and opened a shop in Covent Garden before it was trendy. The Design Museum in London has devoted two exhibitions to him, in 1995 and 2013, and his flagship store is at 9 Albemarle Street in the heart of Mayfair. Yet Sir Paul Smith is, in fact, a proud son of the North – he grew up in Nottingham and opened his first tiny store there in 1970.

North: Fashioning Identity features unseen garments from a Paul Smith range available only in Japan. New Bold is inspired by Manchester and its music scene. As Catterall says: ‘For an idea of Manchester to translate all the way to Tokyo speaks volumes.’

Agyness Deyn
Agyness Deyn was, for a few years in the late Noughties, London’s most famous young model, the heir to Kate Moss. Not a day would go by without her appearing in the gossip pages of the Evening Standard or Metro, let alone in ad campaigns and fashion magazines. Yet she began her working life in a fish and chip shop up North.

‘People have mythologised where she was discovered,’ says Catterall, explaining the inclusion of Deyn in the exhibition. ‘Alasdair McLellan did a photo spread on her in i-D magazine called So Much to Answer for [from a lyric by Manchester band The Smiths]. Tim Walker’s shoot covered post-war stereotypes in a Vogue spread, Angel of the North, which had a moody-looking Deyn standing next to a line of washing.’

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