Arts and Culture

Unpicking Couture: Fashion exhibition showcases designer labels at Manchester Art Gallery

A free exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery shines a fascinating light on the world of high fashion.

What really is haute couture? This extravagant style of dress making is definitely more than meets the eye.

Haute couture clothing is made only by hand, to create buoyant pieces, from extravagantly sequined or feathered evening gowns to plaid jackets with intricate stitching designs. To put it in short, it is exclusive fashion usually only found on the runway.

The avant-garde art of couture is a laboratory full of craftsmanship and elegance – which people in Manchester can now view for themselves.

The exhibition is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, in collaboration with London College of Fashion and University of the Arts London.

The gallery searched widely to track down examples by important fashion designers from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries. Pieces were bought at auction, chosen from dealers, selected from private vendors and, on one occasion, given by a private donor.

Garments by notable designers such as Alexander McQueen, Cristobal Balenciaga, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Paco Rabanne, Madeleine Vionnet, Paul Poiret, Pierre Cardin and Comme des Garçons are included.

In the middle of the hall stands a podium containing some especially flamboyant outfits. The lights are dimmed and a Vivienne Westwood interview is played via video.

Elsewhere in Manchester Art Gallery, you can find the gallery’s own collection of fashion items – some of which arguably push the boundaries even further than the haute couture pieces, such as a dress made of needles by Manchester designer Susie MacMurray.

The Unpicking Couture exhibition highlights the creative grandeur of haute couture and is an ode to the industry, challenging how people view what fashion is when it isn’t a ready-to-wear item. 

The exhibition will appeal to novices as well as fashion obsessives. International branded items are put on display that one could only ever dream of owning. 

Each piece is assigned a ‘couture code’ which references the tone of the attire. Balenciaga’s black lace ‘Babydoll’ cocktail dress, for instance, is described as ‘Sculpturism’, Westwood’s toga train dress as a piece of ‘Creativity’ and Cardin’s piece as ‘Futurism’.

Cardin’s polyester evening dress, representing what’s often dubbed the ‘Space Age’ look, has white flares around the hem suggesting flames before lift-off. The designer was fascinated by space travel, designing spacesuits for NASA and even trying on the moon landing suit worn by Neil Armstrong.

The Unpicking Couture fashion exhibition is open until January 2025.

With free admission, it is a fun thing to do in the city for anyone – even if you can’t afford a Vivienne Westwood dress.

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