Northern identity, from a Northerner’s perspective

As Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery opens a new exhibition challenging Northern ideals, we investigate how the English region inspires fashion

The ‘grim North’ mundane everyday life of the working-class living between Nottingham and Scotland has long inspired Northern cultural clichés, exploited in TV shows such as Geordie Shore, Benefit Street and The Royle Family. 

Fashion designer Glenn Wigham believes stereotypes like the ones the media showcase for entertainment are impractical as well as small-minded. “In my experience,” she says, “Northerners do fulfil a certain stereotype of being friendly and chatty, but there are plenty of us who don’t like gravy on every meal we eat.”

The Northern identity is a complex one and has been a focus of the creative work of designers and photographers in the fashion industry over the past decade. From photographer Alasdair McLellan, to avant-garde designer Gareth Pugh, Northerners continually deliver ‘Northenerness’ as a collective culture, leaving an artistic mark in the diverse landscape of fashion.

Image courtesy of Tom Mannion

Following the emergence of Gosha Rubchinskiy, Demna Gvasalia and Lotta Volkova, the rawness of Eastern European sensibilities has had the fashion industry lusting over scaly aesthetics over the past two years. With a visual identity similar to that of the North of England, the Eastern-bloc creatives have taken inspiration from their own surroundings and upbringing and turned that into creative success. 

It’ a lifestyle described as “very Edward Scissorhands” by Scouse menswear designer Christopher Shannon – the industrial landscapes, the terraced houses, the kids hanging out on the streets and the rebellious nature of the Northern everyday has found itself being translated into the catwalks of Paris and New York.

Raf Simons’ Autumn/Winter 2003 collection for example, iconically referenced the Mancunian music scene of the 1980s, with Peter Saville’s New Order imagery stamped on the back of Simons’ parkas and hoodies. Bands such as Joy Division, The Smiths and New Order are continually referenced in streetwear, finding their way into the collections of Simons and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White.

Tom Mannion, a Scouse creative who recently relocated to London, believes there is a toughness and edge to the Northern identity. “The oppression from the Tories in the 1980s inspired the great music and style to follow and the boisterous, careless, reckless and ‘rough around the edges’ image has come naturally to Northerners since.” According to Mannion, “the intent to be unintentional is what the fashion world finds so fascinating.”

This ‘rough around the edges’,  hard-working personification of Northerner preservation took effect in the times of  Margaret Thatcher. Glenn Wigham, born-and-bred in Durham county, is a fashion student at the University of Westminster.

Challenging political and controversial ideals in his Punk infused designs, Wigham believes “the North has a very strong feeling of solidarity, still felt in the way most people hold disdain for the conservative party.” He feels living in the North has made him politically conscious, which is a feature in most of his fashion design work. Inspired by Punk, Wigham’s work epitomises the true Northern aesthetic. The materialisation of the everyday has formed recognisable subcultures, born out of the creative rebellion of the 70s and 80s. “One of the reasons I chose to do fashion in the first place was to use it as a platform to have a voice,” Wigham says.

Image result for raf simons winter 2003

International designers in Milan, Paris and New York continue to find inspiration in British subcultures, such as Punk, Mod and Goth – styles that where born in the streets, as groups of youths congregated in parks, street corners and underpasses, using fashion as their medium of expression.

Their styles and trends were born through a sense of unity and shared self-expression. In the golden age of social media all of this may have changed, however subcultures up-North prevail.  Politically driven Skinheads and Punks still walk the Northern streets, whilst the North-East’s coastal town of Whitby still hosts its notable Whitby Goth Weekend Festival twice a year, attracting Goths and Punks from all around the world. From the scaly nature of the cliché northern lad, to the Doc Martens wearing Skinheads, styles originating from the North are continually inspiring the contemporary fashion industry. After all, we do more than just eat gravy and sip tea.

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