North: Fashioning Identity


Written by Lucy Maguire
Photos and illustrations by Somerset House
13 Monday 13th November 2017

‘North: Fashioning Identity’, bridging the gap



Opening in its new London home following a successful stint in Liverpool's Open Eye Gallery, 'North: Fashioning Identity' explores the influence of northern England and northern identity on fashion worldwide. This move to Somerset House gives new context to the subject matter, in some ways redressing the North/South divide and giving Londoners a glimpse into life past the M25.


It all begins with some familiar scenes. The common motif of washing lines stretched between dark stone terraced houses in various corners of Manchester is a reminder that this exhibition isn't just about the new, but dissecting the commonalities of 20th century northern lives and how they, distinct from other modes de vie, have shaped and inspired creatives across the world, and across generations.


14. Untitled, taken from the series 'A Topical Times for these Times (2016) © Ken Grant (2).tif


Ewen Spencer’s Teenagers, shot at a party down the road from my school in Rawtenstall, paints an accurate picture of frustrated northern teens releasing small town life tension with a snog and a beer. I found myself wondering how this would all feel to a foreign eye, as to me many of the images were an homage to tropes and intricacies of my adolescence that I had maybe never considered before they were re-contextualised by their display in such an institution as Somerset House. Of course, the industrial rise and fall of the North, leading to towns of derelict factories, unemployment and boredom, gave rise to powerful subcultures that went on to revolutionise British identity as a whole. But the obvious tropes of Madchester and the like are interspersed with more nuanced analysis of the northern existence. 

10. Harry in Newcastle © Kuba Ryniewicz.tif


A particular point of interest is the curators' exploration of the northern family. Reference is made to shows like Shameless, The Royle Family and Gogglebox, which is until now some of the only insight Southerners may have into Northern family life. These shows create common (and in my view accurate) perceptions that Northern families are tight-knit, with very fixed, prescribed gender roles. Echoing this, the northern male, depicted in everyday setting from football stadiums to kerbs by Ken Grant, cuts a very particular shape of hetero-normativity, which is later developed by examination of the casuals movement and its evolution. Interesting that the current incarnations of the street wear surge can in many ways credit themselves to football hooligans in working class twentieth century mill towns and cities. This point is driven home by American designer Virgil Abloh's collection on show beside the Factory Records poster that inspired it.


5. © Alice Hawkins featuring Abbey Clancey, from the series ‘The Liver Birds’.tif 


As expected, Doncaster bred Alasdair McClellan's work features heavily. His film 'Infinity', brand new for the exhibition, is a captivating tribute to the setting of his adolescence. In fact, the audio-visual elements of this exhibition are where the real interest lies. The penultimate room, brought to you by SHOWstudio (studio of curator Lou Stoppard), presents a series of documentary videos from northern creatives such as Claire Barrow, Gary Aspden and Gareth Pugh, explaining the moments and movements that shaped their output.

8. Blaze from the Water's Edge, 2007 © Michelle Sank.tif 


In a climate where the working class are demonised, and the London-centric tendencies of our politics and commerce tend to leave a sour taste for those past the Watford Gap, this exhibition is a long overdue celebration of what it is to be Northern, and how deeply and widely the North has shaped every aspect of the fashion world.

11. Gino's Coffee, Leeds, 1969 © Eric Jaquier.jpg


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