At the fringe of its centenary year in 2023, Manchester Art Gallery, declining to trade on seasons past and with an a keen eye on the shape of things to come, is maintaining its position on the cutting edge by cutting the ribbon on a new fashion gallery.

As such, Dandy Style, Covid-delayed and – you might say – fashionably late, commands not only what was once the Clore Interactive Gallery, but a second exhibition space on the floor above.

It’s possible to see each room as representing separate volumes of a novel, both of them book-ended by six-foot tall plates, imaginary portraits by the Turner Prize-winning Lubaina Himid, upcycled from their original commission for what was then the Platt Hall Gallery of Costume and is now another work-in-progress. The ambitious scope of the story they aim to tell between them is that of a particular strand of men’s fashion over the past two-and-a-half centuries.

The opening volume, the life and times of what the curators call The Decorated Dandy, affords the first sighting of the fashion gallery itself, lit delicately in a way that draws the eye to the exhibits. These, moreover, are clothes which make an exhibition of themselves, with an extravagance of colour and design more typically associated – in these islands at least – with the performance of femininity. Wearing them at the wrong time or in the wrong place would require a certain courageous indifference to the possibility of ridicule or, worse, something of the sensibility that arch-aesthete Oscar Wilde wrote of when he observed that “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Naturally, he makes a photographic appearance here, decked out handsomely in a a double-breasted smoking jacket.

Although the space is apparently no larger than that of the fashion gallery, the chamber in which the displays making up The Tailored Dandy act as companion piece to the gallery below seems somehow that much roomier. If the opening chapters have been devoted to clothes which demand attention, those which complete the tale tell of those which require it. Returning to the beginning of the story, it marks out Beau Brummell, the proselytiser of the first days of Dandy, as the progenitor of the style press. This is clothing as a private language, in which to be attentive to nuance is to set oneself apart.

Across the divided spaces, the steps of high fashion’s dance are implied, a sort of tango between conformity and individuality, formality and self-expression. It certainly makes for an enthralling spectacle, a static carnival.

This lack of motion is, perhaps, where it falls short. In failing to embody the animating spirit that gives soul to the clothing, the exhibits are as beautiful in their display cases as a pinned butterfly, but, like decay arrested by formaldehyde, equally lacking in the spark of life. The well-chosen portraits, both painted and photographic, among which they are placed, go some way towards conveying this vibrancy, but it seems to me that Dandyism lies as much in the wearer as in the worn. Since it would be both impractical and unkind to keep live specimens in situ, notwithstanding a Dandy’s resistance to being paraded for anything other their own amusement, I was left wondering whether some judiciously-chosen videos might have more vividly suggested something of the alternating current of the Dandy personality.

Such are the threads which remain unpicked, ones which might find themselves woven into future exhibitions. For now, however, the fashion gallery’s debut collection is as bold a declaration of intent as that made by Adam Ant, the self-styled ‘Dandy highwayman’ of the 1980s, defining the ethos with admirable concision: “I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention.”

If not the flesh, here at least is all the flash you could wish for.

By Desmond Bullen

Images courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery


Dandy Style is at Manchester Art Gallery until May 1, 2023. For more information, click here.