At first glance, Unpicking Couture exerts a considerable attraction. In line with its subject matter, Manchester Art Gallery‘s new exhibition in its dedicated fashion space is a beautiful assemblage, designed in part to showcase recent acquisitions to its own collection of high-end contemporary clothing. Subsequent glances and more considered scrutiny, moreover, reveal a greater fascination a little deeper beneath its admittedly appealing surface.  

These are, after all, outfits which have outlived their fashionable moment, and, in some cases, their owner. As such, they stand to one side of the helter-skelter anxiety of fast fashion, affording instead the contemplative luxury of what the exhibition notes style as ‘slow looking’. Plucked out of their respective time streams, while irreversibly irradiated with nostalgic associations, each has an appeal uniquely its own.  

Dress, Pierre Cardin, 1994; Manchester Art Gallery; Photography: Michael Pollard.

For instance, far beyond its season, a striking Paco Rabanne jumpsuit in disreputable polyester now conveys a slightly kitsch decadence, the devalued luxury of Ferrero Rocher at a discotheque on Space:1999‘s Moonbase Alpha. Less arguably totemic is an outfit from Jean Paul Gaultier‘s line of corset dresses, a design which made its match with Madonna, whose personality filled out its empowering agenda to immaculate perfection.  

Ms Ciccone’s is not the only star whose ascendancy is illuminated by the exhibition. Rivalling both her charisma and her talent for controversy is Tintwistle‘s own Vivienne Westwood, represented here not only by a toga dress (indebted to Matisse) from her Nostalgia of Mud collection, but by some extraordinary footage, digitised from the times of VHS. Appearing on an episode of Wogan, The One Show of its day, she is pitted against the philistine laughter of its studio audience, jeering at her latest line with all the lazy self-satisfaction of Middle England at its most middling. Wonderfully, subsequent footage consists of her handwritten correspondence with Jacqueline Hayes who wrote to support her that day, Westwood concluding that the baying mob’s response arose from “ignorance and envy, making people scared of creativity”.  

The reverse is true of Unpicking Couture. Cross-creativity stitches its strands together. A centrepiece is the dress worn by the textile designer Celia Birtwistle for her part in David Hockney’s joint portrait with her then-husband and cat, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970-1. Displayed against the white backdrop of the photoshoot, and encircled by easels imprinted with artistic prompts, it stands as a symbol of the near-inseparable intertwining of fashion and art.  

Jacket and dress, Elsa Schiaparelli, 1937; Manchester Art Gallery; Photography: Michael Pollard.

Nor is this the only example of how the off-the-rack familiarity of display cases are accessorised with thoughtful flourishes, the result of an ongoing collaboration with Jeff Horsley from the Centre for Fashion Curation. Not the least of these is an animation set into the glass of the case itself in which the ergonomic elegance of the patterning of a Balenciaga evening coat reveals itself in a languid flutter of butterfly symmetry. 

Importantly, too, there’s an understated seam of sustainability sewn into the fabric of each pocket of the exhibition. A display case lays out a painstakingly restored 1930s Schiaparelli jacket beneath the same glass as an unbranded denim modern contemporary, given a new lease of life by Stitched Up, a Stretford-based cooperative which promotes mending and upcycling.  

Broader in scope than the surface attraction of its first impression, and deserving of more than the flirtation of a single visit, this is an exhibition to fall in love with. Make of it what you will. 

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: Cocktail dress, Madame Grès, c. 1950, Manchester Art Gallery, Photography: Michael Pollard.


Cocktail dress, Madame Grès, c. 1950; Manchester Art Gallery; Photography: Michael Pollard.

Unpicking Couture is at Manchester Art Gallery until  January 12, 2025. For more information, click here.