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Essay: The Constructed North

by Adam Murray on 4 November 2015

Curator Adam Murray explores the way the North of England has been presented in fashion imagery, referencing editorials involving Corinne Day, Kate Phelan, Alasdair McLellan and more.

Curator Adam Murray explores the way the North of England has been presented in fashion imagery, referencing editorials involving Corinne Day, Kate Phelan, Alasdair McLellan and more.

Tim Walker, British Vogue August 2008

The last decade has seen an increased cultural, social and political focus on Northern England. During the latest period of austerity within Britain, the Conservative government is aiming to build support in Northern English cities with their proposal for the Northern Powerhouse. Simultaneously, regional councils are arguing the case for greater devolution of power and the proposed election of regional city mayors.

Television programmes such as Benefits Street, People Like Us and 999: What’s Your Emergency? have been accused by many as exploiting and sneering at specific, sensationally-edited elements of life in Stockton-on-Tees, Harpurhey and Blackpool respectively. Other media outlets take a more positive tone, realising a renewed interest in Northern cities as young people eschew the capital due to the high cost of living.

This attention has not gone unnoticed by the editors of fashion print titles such as British Vogue, i-D, Dutch, Arena Homme+, Purple Fashion and System. Eager to reflect the zeitgeist, editors and contributors have been making more explicit references to Northern England in the imagery that they produce.

Initial resurgence in interest by the fashion system occurred in 2008 at the height of fame of British female model Agyness Deyn. A permanent fixture in the style press, she was also the subject of many stories in mainstream newspapers. Headlines at the time were quick to portray Deyn as a chip shop worker plucked from obscurity in the town of Rawtenstall in Lancashire.

- How Laura from the Village Chippy became Agy the Vogue cover girlDaily Mail, 3 June 2009

- Exclusive Fish Shop Girl Who’s the New £10m Supermodel - The Mirror, 12 March 2008

- ‘The hype world, also, prefers the idea that she was talent-spotted while working in a chip shop in Stubbins.’ – The Independent, 5 March 2008

The latter of these statements acknowledging of course that the industry had created this rags-to-riches narrative, when actually Deyn probably just had a low-paid job whilst studying, much like most teenagers in Britain. Deyn was employed as the focus for two editorial stories published in the summer of 2008 in British Vogue and i-D.

Angel of the North photographed by Tim Walker and styled by Kate Phelan depicts Deyn in a series of familiar settings that hint at a confusing juxtaposition of early to mid 20th Century English ways of living; wealthy rural meets low income semi-urban. Oh Manchester, So Much To Answer For photographed by Alasdair McLellan and styled by Francesca Burns and Kim Jones, sets Deyn much later in the 20th Century in a more defined context. A house, college and bus are used to construct narratives hinting at the domestic, family relationships and the mundane repetitiveness of life as a young adult in Northern England.

As with the biographical image of Deyn, the narratives within both these editorial features are completely constructed and as usual the makers of these images are relying on the reader’s pre-existing visual literacy. Even with a quick glance, most readers will be able to recognise some of the supposedly ‘real’ elements of life. What may be less clear is where and how this understanding of visual language has originated and in some cases quite how literal the interpretation has been.

Text dominates imagery and the titles of these editorials are used just to make sure the reader knows what they are looking at. Although a piece of public art near Gateshead by Anthony Gormley, Angel of the North has become a clichéd phrase used to romanticise any hint of feminine prominence and a symbol of the millennial glory years of New Labour and investment in regional cultural projects. Oh Manchester, So Much To Answer For is a lyric from a 1984 song by one of Manchester’s biggest cultural exports, The Smiths – incidentally the college which is the subject of this shoot is in Rawtenstall, as close to Preston as it is Manchester. The easy monotony of the setting works regardless of accuracy.

just swap Northern England for Japan or Rio and immediately it is obvious that most people get a sense that they feel familiar with a place having never actually visited it.

Walker and Phelan then use very literal interpretations of well-known studies of Northern English culture; Mass Observation and Kitchen Sink Cinema. The former being clear in the site of washing lines freely hanging in back alleys. Commissioned by the Mass Observation project, photographer Humphrey Spender made this a central motif of thirties Bolton, representing notions of domesticity, gender roles and communal use of space. The latter, meanwhile, seems to have provided direct reference for the overall styling of the shoot. The narratives in sixties films such as A Kind of Loving by John Schlesinger and A Taste of Honey by Tony Richardson still hold up as being quite radical today, yet the clothing worn and appearance of each character certainly has a heritage feel.

McLellan, Burns and Jones’ use of the bus, the white plastic chair and the home decoration style give a hint that while this character is by no means in the depths of poverty, they are certainly not wealthy. The casting of the young adult male introduces two things; the aesthetic of masculinity is something that McLellan has cultivated and explored throughout his practice, yet the relationship between Deyn and him appears to be more domestic than romantic. Television programmes such as Shameless, The Royle Family and Gogglebox have firmly placed the Northern Family as a tight unit in the general consciousness.

Although it could be argued that both examples maintain cliché, essentially they do exactly what most fashion imagery does, employing cultural citation to introduce a dialogue between past and present. The other examples in the accompanying editorial gallery vary in the extent that they either continue to accept or challenge cultural myths.

If, as I believe, fashion publications are important cultural documents, then what does all this say about Northern England today? In 50 years time what conclusions will cultural analysts be able to reach? The definition of where Northern England actually is will always be contested. For some it is anywhere North of Watford Gap, others will argue Derby and Nottingham provide adequate border cities, many will require the credentials only provided by the Peak District National Park and above. Beyond the geographical debate however, there seems to be issues to do with our collective cultural understanding of Northern England, how it is perceived and portrayed in the media and what, rather than where, actually is Northern England.

Most of the editorial shoots, with the exception perhaps of the Dee/Travis work from i-D in 1990, seem to employ elements of former glory, such as industrial triumph, pioneering modernist architecture or musical and sporting icons. Undoubtedly these are all fundamental elements of Northern identity and provide valuable cultural capital at an international level. But if The Smiths and Factory Records are still the only icons, what has been happening for the past 20 years?

In his book Looking North, the academic Dave Russell points out that, ‘Most of the people outside of the North and many within it have come to know the region not through personal experience but via the versions they encounter in the field of culture.’ Not a particularly complex statement and one that could be applied to most locations; just swap Northern England for Japan or Rio and immediately it is obvious that most people get a sense that they feel familiar with a place having never actually visited it. These pre conceived media generated assumptions may have some foundation in real life, but most will be challenged within hours of actually being there.

Some of the practitioners responsible for the work in the accompanying gallery do have links to the North, for example, McLellan grew up in Yorkshire and Hawkesworth completed his photography degree in Lancashire. Each therefore do have strong personal experiences of Northern England, but both now live in London where their industry exists. Experiences of Northern England today for these practitioners will inevitably be limited due to time constraints and consequently their personal archive of experiences is likely to be from many years ago.

This is not a problem per se if this work was one element in the cultural dialogue with the North. People who have the media power as gatekeepers of cultural imagination and understanding – editors, photographers, stylists, writers – certainly seem keen to engage with the North. However, with the industry infrastructure as it is being so London centric, any mass of coverage of the North will inevitably seem like cultural nostalgia or tourism.

North is a project that intends to explore what impact place has had on the work of important practitioners within fashion culture. It offers a space for new writing exploring elements of culture and society and work with students studying Fashion Communication at Liverpool John Moores University to develop a visual understanding of what Northern England is today. Mythologised? Constructed? Faded? Homogenous? We shall see.

As Russell states, ‘The real skill will be in learning to look beneath the clichés and habits of imagination that lie at the heart of these myths.’

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AnOther A/W 14
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British Vogue August 2008
Tim Walker, British Vogue August 2008
Tim Walker, British Vogue August 2008
Tim Walker, British Vogue August 2008
Tim Walker, British Vogue August 2008
Dutch May/June 2001
Dutch May/June 2001
Dutch May/June 2001
Dutch May/June 2001
Dutch May/June 2001
i-D June 1990
i-D June 1990
i-D June 1990
i-D June 1990
i-D June 1990
i-D May 2008
i-D May 2008
i-D May 2008
i-D May 2008
Author:
Adam Murray

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