North: Fashioning Identity at Somerset House is an exhibition of multifariousness. It melds and interrogates different art forms, mediums and means of display. Documentary photographs from Humphrey Spender, John Bulmer and Eric Jacquir depict the domestic backstreets of Bolton, Yorkshire and Leeds respectively, adorned with pillow-case bunting and nightdress decorations. The cobbled lanes, coal-blackened brick and smoking chimneys are recognisably Northern, imagery that has become symbolic of working-class industrial life – think Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Kes.
Yet these photographs, frequently featuring women fulfilling the traditional, conservative gender roles expected of them (hanging out washing, guarding children – these chores rarely seen performed in the company of men) are from the 1930s, before Thatcher shut down the mines and the sense of purpose that went with them. The bulk of the exhibition focuses on the post-industrial north and the identities which have developed from, bear traces of, and fashioned out of its industrial past. It investigates the identity of the individual within the communal – what it means to be northern, what the north means to being.
Jason Evans’ street photography from the early 1990s, unlike the work of Spender & co., focuses on the person in context, rather than a place contextualised by people. Documenting ordinary people’s style, framed by the landscape of urban highstreet, the homogeneity of this grey retail background forces the individuality of the subject to take precedence. Similarly captured in slightly awkward, self-conscious stances, the strangers’ similarities (displayed in a grid of magazine-sized prints, alluding to Evans’ work in editorial styling) suggests a kind of contemporary collective identity.
Northern fashion is here validated through the communal juxtaposition of persons, the lack of ‘fashion’ enabling some claim of authentic documentation. Amongst these visual chronicles of 90s northern identity (which Alaisdair McLellan’s film, ‘Infinity ‘17’, though specially commissioned for this film, invokes with its flickering, hypersaturated imagery, which oscillates between the eroticism of male youth and the charged starkness of the industrial landscape, and its soundtrack of Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’) is the fashion industry’s interpretation, use and manipulation of northern identity.
Editorial portraits of Agnes Deyn in British Vogue, who is described as ‘the face of a wave of interest in the North, driven in part by admiration for its perceived authenticity [and] cast as the quintessential Northern woman’, plays on earlier depictions of women in the North. Cast amongst this landscape, the feminine is presented as a position of hyper-fashion, the north pushing the feminine beyond the normal bounds, to a place of everyday coiffures and shining pink lycra (Alice Hawkins’ portraits of The Liver Birds and the Layton Institute Performers).
To claim ‘authenticity’ implies the possibility or desirability of a singular, consolidated identity – yet if the temporal, stylistic and formal disjunction of this exhibition demonstrates anything, it is that Northern identities are not unitary. In a video installation exploring the culture and importance of nightclubs in Manchester, the narrator comments how, though life in the north can be hard, and often bleak, going to a club gives a chance for escape – a chance to fashion, and refashion a new identity. The refashioning of identity is in the landscape and structures of the North itself, suggesting something of a symbiotic relationship between place and people, its fashions and the way it fashions the identities of its population.