Why a Hull shopping centre is hosting a new fashion icons exhibition

JS Lee wanted to produce an ensemble that helps "tell the story and celebrate these brave women who changed our futures".
JS Lee wanted to produce an ensemble that helps "tell the story and celebrate these brave women who changed our futures".
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It’s home to Primark and Next, so why is a Hull shopping centre providing the backdrop to a new exhibition featuring fashion icons like Vivienne Westwood? Lucy Oates finds out.

Princes Quay is much like any large shopping mall. There’s an Accesorize, there’s a Dorothy Perkins and there’s that Mecca to cheap, disposable fashion, Primark. However, for the next few weeks it’s also home to Vivienne Westwood, Roksanda Ilincic and a clutch of other top designers as part of the new Fashion & Freedom exhibition.

It was commissioned as part of 14-18 NOW, a major cultural programme to mark the centenary of the First World War, which also brought the Weeping Window poppy installation to Hull earlier this year.

Fashion & Freedom arrived in the city following a spell at Manchester Art Gallery, where it attracted more than 350,000 visitors and it will be on display in a vacant shop until next month. It’s the first time it has been exhibited anywhere other than a gallery and its visit to Hull is a precursor to the city’s Freedom Festival. The annual festival is the lasting legacy of the Wilberforce 2007 campaign, which celebrated the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, led by Hull-born MP William Wilberforce in 1807.

Fittingly, Fashion & Freedom’s visit to East Yorkshire also coincides with Hull’s year in the spotlight as the UK City of Culture.

Exploring the links between fashion and freedom, the exhibition draws inspiration from a period when British society changed forever following the onset of the First World War.

When men left to fight for their country, more than a million women went to work for the first time, becoming bus conductors, ambulance drivers, window cleaners and factory workers. These new roles triggered major changes in the way that women dressed but, as men returned from war, they faced a new struggle for freedom.

Several leading British, female fashion designers, including Holly Fulton, J JS Lee, Emilia Wickstead and Sadie Williams, were commissioned to create new pieces inspired by the social and sartorial changes brought about by the Great War. Their garments are displayed alongside the work of fashion students, whose designs were inspired by the theme of pre-war “restriction” and post-war “release” in a project and a series of specially commissioned short films.

14-18 NOW director Jenny Waldman says: “This exhibition looks at the often-neglected impact that the First World War had on the lives of British women – the roles they took on, the freedom they gained, and the resulting shift in fashion. These brilliant fashion designers, filmmakers and students bring modern-day sensibility to a landmark moment in women’s history.”

Jessica Lewis, who recently graduated from Northumbria University but grew up a stone’s throw from Hull just across the Humber Bridge, is among the fashion students whose work is featured. Thrilled to see her design on display in her home city, she says: “I’ve been away at university, come back and Hull is the UK City of Culture and there are all these wonderful exhibitions taking place here. It’s amazing to see my design alongside the work of top designers.”

Entitled Goddess of the Vote, her design was informed by her research into propaganda 
imagery used by the women’s suffrage movement and its opponents. The delicate floral print on the cotton fabric was inspired by the borders around the handwritten certificates of gratitude that Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement, sent to those who fought for the 
cause.

University of Salford student Toni Martin references the extreme corsetry of the pre-First World War period with a breath-taking design made of wood and wool, and the organza gown produced by Joana Almagro Bustalino, of Manchester School of Art, is emblazoned with slogans inspired by the suffragette movement, such as “A fearless indomitable womanhood”. Rebecca Lawton, of the University of Salford, has used embroidery rings to create a gaping hole in the front of her design, exposing floral decorations on the mannequin’s knees. Her work pays homage to women who dared to roll down their stockings and reveal their knees – a part of their body that had previously been covered – as an act of rebellion.

Mikey Martins, artistic director and chief executive of the Freedom Festival Arts Trust, reveals that he was determined to bring Fashion & Freedom to Hull after visiting it in Manchester last year.

“This exhibition really challenges our notions of fashion design and I felt it was really important to put it in a shopping centre,” he says.

“I’ve spoken a lot with people about how it relates to Freedom Festival. If we’re going to talk about freedom, we need to learn from the past, about cultural bias and the threads that are starting to tear us apart. The choices we make about how we look and how we dress are the beginning of a conversation about freedom.

“In 2017, I want to start a conversation about freedom, so this year’s programme includes a number of talks and debates, including one by the curator of this exhibition.

“If we don’t talk about what freedom means, nothing is going to change. In a city where so much change has happened – from Wilberforce to the Civil War to Brexit – it’s about saying ‘OK, what are we going to do next?’ and using that to bring people together.”

Mikey adds: “This year, I’d say to people, don’t just look for the obvious. Of course the programme will include all the things that people would expect, such as major night-time spectacles and a busy daytime programme, but there are lots of unexpected things too, such as work in odd places – like this exhibition in a shopping centre, a place where people think about identity. I’m obsessed with putting stuff in weird places.”

Fashion & Freedom, Princes Quay, Hull, to September 3. freedomfestival.co.uk