As part of a UK-wide cultural programme to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, Manchester Art Gallery hosted a showcase of Manchester’s brightest upcoming creatives.

14-18 NOW is an extraordinary five-year programme of artistic experiences, connecting people in the 21st century with the First World War. Since 2014, over 140 new works have been commissioned all over the country and span many different genres – from the sea of poppies spilling out of the Tower of London (Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, currently on tour) to Welsh National Opera’s In Parenthesis, and the visual arts project Dazzle Ships.

Fashion and Freedom

In 2016, Manchester Art Gallery staged Fashion and Freedom, bringing together British designers to create new pieces inspired by the significant role played by women during the First World War and the evolution of women’s fashion at the time.

As Fashion and Freedom Creative Director Darrell Vydelingum explains, “The changes that occurred in style still resonate in today’s fashion. The tailored suit, jumpsuit, shorter hemlines, short hairstyle and trousers are all part of everyday wear in the 21st century, but their life began in the First World War.”

The exhibition draws attention to one of the most significant social changes in British history, namely the impact of the war on the roles and lives of women during the First World War. With the men away fighting, more than one million women went to work for the first time during the war years – in munitions factories and on the buses, driving ambulances and ‘manning’ the London Underground. These new responsibilities gave women new freedoms – and they also led to advances in fashion, as tight corsets and heavy skirts were replaced by more natural and fluid silhouettes.

“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,” says Vydelingum. Watch an introduction to the exhibition at the top of the page.

The show features work by both established and emerging fashion designers. Dame Vivienne Westwood references ammunition workwear with a reconstructed multi-coloured boiler suit, and 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.

You can watch the creative director of Fashion and Freedom, Darrell Vydelingum, and the curator Jenna Rossi-Camus discuss these pieces and others featured in the exhibition in the film below. 

Costumes on display in exhibition
Fashion and Freedom at Manchester Art Gallery ©

Jess Tozer


The designs are also accompanied by a series of films commissioned by Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio. Gareth Pugh, Craig Green and Phoebe English worked alongside filmmakers Marie Schuller, George Harvey and Rei Nadal to provide contemporary reflections on the impact of the social and cultural changes brought about by the First World War. These were screened across venues in Manchester as well as online. A link to the films can be found below.


Another important purpose of the exhibition was to showcase and inspire the next generation of designers. A selection of students from five leading universities were chosen to respond to the Restriction/Release section of the exhibition. Manchester Art Gallery also commissioned students from local sixth form colleges to develop their own responses, culminating in a fashion show take-over at the gallery. Watch a teaser film of the show below. Creative Consultants, a group of 14–19 year olds who meet monthly at the museum, also produced work inspired by the exhibition, creating photographs which represent a strong female influence in their lives and depicting what fashion and freedom means to them. Deshna Shah chose her great aunt Abha who founded the feminist organisation Jagori in Delhi in 1984, and created a photographic self-portrait in her honour. You can hear Deshna discussing the piece in the video at the bottom of the page. The historical garments featured in the exhibition are drawn from Manchester Art Gallery’s renowned costume collection. Over half a million visitors a year come to visit the gallery to experience a unique blend of historic and contemporary art.

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