North: Fashioning Identity at Somerset House review: A fantastic show exploring the myths and reality of life up north

 
Steve Dinneen
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North: Fashioning Identity
5.0

Northerners like me love to whinge about how London overshadows the rest of the country, but in cultural terms – alas not economic – the north has an identity far more distinct than anything daan saaf.

There’s a visual language that immediately brings to mind the great industrial cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds: lines of clothes billowing over cobbled streets, urchins smoking cigarettes outside corner shops, teens in baggy trousers with dilated pupils. This smashing little show manages to capture both the myth and the reality of the north, presenting more than 100 photos and objects that transport you to the grimy terraces of the 1960s or the glory days of the Hacienda in the 1980s.

Pop culture inevitably plays a large part, with the sounds of Morrissey and the Stone Roses accompanying the assorted ephemera. Alongside the brilliant photographs – a black and white shot of a young lad with his overweight mother sitting in a cafe is a personal favourite – are installations, including a locker overflowing with leisurewear and a proper northern living room, complete with crocheted throws over the chairs.

The Hacienda, with its world-famous FAC51 posters, gets an entire room (there’s also a limited edition pair of Adidas FAC51 trainers, which are currently listed on eBay for £2,000) – it’s a reminder that only three decades ago, Manchester was a true global design and style hub.

There are also clippings from dozens of fashion magazines, which mine the grainy, chip-shop chic associated with northerners, with their oversized tracksuits and fuck-you attitudes. These magazines tell the story of a north that’s only partially real, grotesquely exaggerated but still viewed with a real affection. And while the show is largely an exercise in cosy nostalgia, the negative implications of “northern” imagery – often overwhelmingly white; tending to feature ‘blokes being blokes’ and women in domestic settings – are also explored.

If you’re from up north, this show will make you want to book a ticket home. If not, get down there to see what you missed. It might be grim up there, but we have style to put you to shame.

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