Last week, the Vogue 100: A Century of Style exhibition opened in Manchester, after making its debut at London’s National Portrait Gallery. It showcases all of the iconic photography seen amongst the pages of British Vogue over the years, and of course all of the incredible dresses adorning those in front of the camera (see how many times you can spot Kate Moss). We were invited along for a sneak preview of this fantastic fashion event, kicked off by an introduction by Alexandra Shulman no less, and spoke to three of its key curators. First up is Natasha Howes, Senior Curator at Manchester Art Gallery…
Who’s your favourite photographer featured in the Vogue 100 show?
Lee Miller; she was so influential in a number of ways, she was a muse of Man Ray, she also worked with Man Ray and helped develop his particular style of photography through solarisation; she was part and parcel of developing that. And then she went and became a photographer herself and the work she did in the war was just staggering, the bravery; she was just fearless in terms of getting that shot, and it’s then the shot gets produced in the newspapers and everybody gets to see what’s going on. For me she’s a feminist icon, she’s amazing. She has such an interesting story with how she engaged with politics throughout her life, and she had a really interesting relationship with Picasso.
How vital do you think it is that an exhibition of this importance has been brought to the north?
It’s very important, it’s great when the shows are on in London, they have a national importance and lots of people go to see them. But lots of people from Manchester and the North West can’t necessarily get down to London, it’s expensive, so it was really important that we brought the show up to Manchester, and we made it free to the public as well, so that people could come and see it, and we think it’s going to be really hugely popular this summer.
Do you think it’s more of a recent thing, that people are realising the cultural importance that we have here in Manchester; do you think we would’ve been able to have something like this here a few years ago?
I think we probably could have, but certainly in the last few years Manchester has, in terms of the cultural side of the city’s life, really exploded. There’s so much going on, and in the past there might have been just one or two galleries, and now there are so many; apart from Manchester Art Gallery we’ve got the Whitworth down the road, with amazing exhibitions; we’ve got Home, which again has a really interesting programme; we’ve got lots of independent, smaller galleries, the Lowry in Salford, and we’ve got the Factory coming up which is a real big one, at Granada Studios, run by Rem Koolhaas, and I think it will spur a lot of development in that St. John’s area by Granada Studios. So I think twenty years ago people would have thought of it in terms of competition, “if there are loads of galleries then people aren’t going to come to ours”, and we don’t think that at all now; we think the more the merrier, and actually the visitors who come here will also visit all of the other spaces. Culture breeds culture; it’s great that we have so much and it’s brilliant for the people of the North West to have such a variety of things that they can come and see and experience.
One of the other things that is great about having Vogue here is we’ve also got this show Fashion and Freedom, there’s a really lovely relationship between the clothes on display in that exhibition, which are all newly commissioned by some of the top designers, and then the photographs up in Vogue. What we wanted to do in Fashion and Freedom is commemorate the First World War, but through contemporary pieces, so a lot of the designers have gone back and done research about what happened to women during the First World War, with men going off to fight in the trenches, then women took on a lot of the jobs that men were doing, so working in offices, in factories, in munitions factories, working on the trams, so women really sort of came into the workforce in huge numbers, and therefore their clothing changed. So what I think is really interesting about Fashion and Freedom is that it is about fashion but actually, it’s looking at these really profound changes that happened to women in the second decade of the 20th century, and women eventually won the right to vote. Another interesting parallel between that show and Vogue 100, is that Vogue 100 isn’t just about fashion, it’s actually about all these world events, and because you can look at the show decade by decade, you really get a feel of what was going on in that time, in the 40s with the war and the 60s with the Cold War, and it’s just bringing history to life in a way.
What is your favourite era to see depicted through art?
I think if we’re talking about Vogue 100, I really like the 1960s images. They’re so cool, and they seem very contemporary, and you could wear any of those outfits today and you’d be really fashionable. I love the silhouettes of the 1950s as well, the nipped-in waists and big skirts. Also the music of the 1960s is all part and parcel of it. I really like the image from the 1980s of a really young Naomi Campbell in the gold Chanel dress, and she just looks so happy, because now she has such a different reputation. There are some really iconic images in that show, and then there are the ones that aren’t as iconic but it’s brilliant to bring them to attention, because we’ve either forgotten them or didn’t know they existed.
What other fashion-focused exhibitions can we expect to see at Manchester Art Gallery?
We have this amazing costume collection here and that’s part of the reason for doing these shows, to highlight our costume collection. The gallery is down at Platt Hall in Rusholme, in a beautiful Georgian building, so because it’s part of our organisation, Manchester City Galleries, we really want to show the costume here, because it’s just as important as the paintings and the sculptures in our collections. In gallery four we have one of the pieces from Fashion and Freedom by Vivienne Westwood, inspired by the 17th century, with the figure holding a gun and lots of toy soldiers running around her feet, and we’ve put that against one of our famous war paintings called Retreat from Moscow. And it’s that really nice juxtaposition, which is what we’re really interesting in doing here, having these contemporary interventions within the historic collection to show that there’s this continuity. It’s not just art from the past that’s shut away but it’s really relevant to today, so you find this really interesting dialogue .
Read part two of our Vogue 100 series coming soon!