'North: Fashioning Identity': Exploring the style and influence of the north of England

Published 17th November 2017
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'North: Fashioning Identity': Exploring the style and influence of the north of England
Written by Joseph Delaney
There has long existed a divide in the UK between north and south -- an imaginary line drawn across the country that has incited very real rivalries, from the fiery Britpop debate (Blur or Oasis?) to how you say "grass" (there's no "r").
"North: Fashioning Identity," a new exhibition at London's Somerset House, curated by writer Lou Stoppard and academic Adam Murray, examines how life in the north and its depictions have influenced a new generation of creatives. Through a show of modern cultural artifacts from the likes of photographers Alasdair McLellan and Nick Knight, designers Virgil Abloh, Paul Smith and Gareth Pugh, and artist Jeremy Deller, the exhibition asks us to consider what that influence looks like today.

Images from the North

As a midlander, who shares short-vowel pronunciation with his northern counterparts but has culturally and geographically sat closer to the capital all his life, these distinctions seem arbitrary. Lumping together a multitude of identities and their nuanced characteristics is reductive. That said, there's something about the north.
For over a century, the evocative words of the Brontë sisters have carved out in the collective mind a vision of windswept life on the moors. The central narrative of our nation's struggles throughout the 20th century is littered with northern stories. Graphic visuals write the North's modern history, from tense news footage of miners' strikes to the depiction of northern communities in the papers after the Hillsborough tragedy.
Nowhere is this strange, fabricated identity more real than in culture. Art, music and fashion ebb with the language and visual codes of the North, bleeding together to influence one another.
Northern communities have long been intimately tied to the practical side of the fashion industry, through the mills and fabric factories that stood at the center of many towns.
But the impact of the strong subcultural scenes that have been spawned over the decades have left the loudest echoes. The Haçienda club in Manchester, a mecca for music from 1982 to 1997, housed concerts for the Smiths and Madonna. Bands like Einstürzende Neubauten were allowed to drill into the walls that surrounded the stage, and the venue's "anything goes" policy went on to see the rise of acid house and rave culture. Before this, its owners Factory Records had harnessed bands like Joy Division, whose collaboration with Peter Saville on legendary records such as "Unknown pleasures" laid the foundations for the graphic designer's prolific career.
This year, Hull is the country's city of culture, drawing eyes of the art world to focus in and take note. An exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of COUM Transmissions saw droves of industrial-loving southerners boarding trains to the port city for the occasion and breathed life into the often-forgotten story of the performance art collective.

The northern lure

Though easy to get carried away reeling off the receipt roll of names who have produced work rooted in their northern identity, it is important to note that the North exists as more than simply a mode of self-expression. For many on the outside, it is a vision of a people romanticized.
Throughout the history of his namesake menswear line, Belgian designer Raf Simons has flirted with motifs tied to the northern swagger. From the Parker to his unedited ode to the area's music through the appropriation of Peter Saville's era-defining graphic design at Factory Records, Simons's love of subcultures emanating from the North borders on fetish. The tentacle-like way these influences shape and inform his work are a perfect example of how this conversation cannot exist in a bubble (of say, fashion.)
It quickly becomes clear that the web of crossover genres, media and influences impacted by this "northernness" is not only ever-growing but endless. Perhaps more so when the internet now allows each of us to exist outside of our own geographical locale. Such a huge and changing idea, it goes some way to explain why an exhibition like the one at Somerset House falls short slightly. When forced to narrow focus to a prescribed fashion world, it's impossible to engage in the whole conversation.
"North: Fashioning Identity" is on display at Somerset House until Feb. 04, 2018.