Why Fashion Can’t Stop Looking North

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LONDON — What are the first things that spring to mind when you think of the north of England? The Beatles, cobbled streets and Manchester United? 1990s rave culture, rain and feisty women with fake eyelashes and bouffant hair? The part of the country that last year voted solidly for Britain to leave the European Union?

Few geographical areas have had the same outsize impact on popular culture and artistic imaginations as this small region, framed by Scotland, Wales, the North Sea and a hotly contested southern border. And that is made clear in a new exhibition, “North: Fashioning Identity,” which opened Nov. 8 at Somerset House.

The show explores representations and stereotypes of the North (as it is known in Britain) — and Northerners — through more than 100 photographs, garments, films and works of art. They range from pieces by the fashion designer Paul Smith and the photographer Alasdair McLellan, both of whom were born in the region, to designs by those who simply could not shake its influence.

In Yorkshire, “Curlers and Chips,” from a 1965 Sunday Times Magazine shoot by John Bulmer.CreditJohn Bulmer

“The North feels very familiar to people who have never actually visited it; they can connect to certain visual codes or motifs, or the individuals or songs from the region that contributed to the formative experiences of their youth,” said Lou Stoppard, the co-curator of the exhibition. She referred to parkas by the Belgian-born Raf Simons that feature prints by Peter Saville, the art director of the independent Factory Records company in Manchester (he also designed album covers and posters for Northern bands like Joy Division and New Order). And designs by Virgil Abloh, the founder and creative director of Off-White, were inspired by the Manchester megaclub Hacienda.

“Raf came from small-town Belgium and Virgil from the outskirts of Chicago, so both know what it feels to live outside cultural epicenters like London or New York when you are young,” Ms. Stoppard said. “For those who come from Northern England, or anywhere else in that vein, there is a shared sense that in order to be noticed, you have to work that much harder, be that much tougher. Much of what fuels the North-South divide in this country comes from the nonchalance and entitlement of London.”

From the exhibition, Agyness Deyn in a 2008 photograph.CreditAlasdair McLellan

The show, which first opened in February at the Open Eye gallery in Liverpool, was initially inspired by a resurgence of media interest in work that explicitly referenced Northern England and the realities of life in the mid-2000s, alongside the rise of Northern-born models like Agyness Deyn. But, said Adam Murray, a lecturer at the Manchester School of Art and Central St. Martins, who curated the exhibition with Ms. Stoppard, events like Britain’s decision to leave the E.U. have prompted fresh contemplation of what the North means to the country.

“I think people want to both recognize the North more and explore their visions of it again, alongside notions of Britishness and how those are also changing,” he said. “I want to prompt visitors into a revaluation of the country’s regional cities, in an increasingly disunited kingdom, at a time when London is becoming an increasingly impossible place for young people to live.”

One particular highlight is a room filled with the hallmarks of a Northern upbringing like bus seats and the working men’s clubs, church pews and a grandmother’s living room, where visitors can sit and listen to personal reflections on Northern identity from the milliner Stephen Jones and the designer Christopher Shannon. A grainy video of a magazine shoot starring Kate Moss with a pixie crop that was photographed by Corinne Day in a gritty bedsit in Blackpool, drew smiles last week from visitors, a medley of students and fashion types, tourists and curious passers-by.

Another stand out is “The Liver Birds” photo series shot by Alice Hawkins for Love magazine, exploring the unabashed more-is-more approach to personal style embraced by women from Liverpool (as in the late ’60s BBC series of the same name). In one shot, two girls have their hair wound around giant rollers before a night on the town while, in another, the model Abbey Clancy clutches a giant white handbag and a Yorkshire terrier, her beehive almost as high as the moon in the dusky sky.

The Northern lights, the exhibition seems to suggest, are shining brightly and more defiantly than ever.

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