Fashion & Freedom, an exhibition displayed at Manchester Art Gallery, explores the profound effect that the First World War had on women. The onset of war in 1914 brought many significant cultural and social changes across British society. As men left home to fight on the frontline, the women of Britain joined the industrial workforce, taking on jobs as bus conductors, ambulance drivers and window cleaners, as well as in offices and factories. New responsibility gave women new freedom and led to new ways of dressing, as silhouettes and social codes changed. Spanish director Rei Nadal unites with designer Phoebe English, to explore ‘The Fall of the Corset.’
As the film begins, we are greeted with a slow and harmonious orchestral melody – the music instantly struck me with sad undertones that made my soul sting. As the motion picture progresses and the music continues, we are introduced to a young girl who is wearing little else but a corset, being tugged and pulled into it by several men. A lot of the threads are bright red in colour and very frayed, instantly conjuring the subconscious image of lacerations. The makeup choice is also very poignant, the pale complexion and red-rimmed eyes tell the tale of a woman who is tired and in pain.
The girl’s expression is world-weary throughout the film, portraying a character who has been in pain for a long time and is too tired to fight what she is being subjected to. Once the corset has been tied, the men tie strings to the girl’s limbs. They begin to pull and manipulate her, as if they are puppeteers and she is a puppet, further conveying the girl’s lack of power over herself. Scenes of the girl sat on a child’s rocking horse and a swing are pictured, all the while the men are still acting as puppeteers and the girl is still looking weary. By this point, the robbery of the character’s innocence and lack of her control is so hard hitting that I have to wipe tears away.
Despite the character’s obvious fatigue, she eventually pulls the threads from the puppeteers’ grasp and begins the arduous process of removing the corset, concluding with her exhausted naked body sprawled across the floor. I love how this part of the video is choreographed. To me, it reads as a metaphor for the women of the war who began their journey to freedom and independence. Although the act of removing a corset may seem like a simple task on paper, it is portrayed as a long and soul wrenching process that is a great struggle for the already drained young woman. For me, this is an accurate and respectful demonstration of what the women’s suffrage had to endure – a lonely, gruelling battle that wasn’t always appreciated for the heroic act that it was, to get to the point at which we are at today.