Manchester is a city built on cotton. The import of the material from the US and Manchester’s production and distribution of it as a usable fabric was the core of the industrial revolution and the purpose of many of the massive Victorian warehouse still seen around the North West today.
Stylish is not a word that one associates with cotton. We use it for t-shirts, napkins and bed sheets, not cocktail dresses. Which means that despite its best efforts, the Manchester Cotton Board of the 1950s was not successful in its endeavour to prove to the world that cotton could be more than practical, it could be couture.
The series of terrifyingly tiny-waisted mannequins across the ground-floor room at the Manchester Art Gallery show a series of outfits made by leading couturiers of the age, “inspirational creations” to prove that cotton could be as equal in a ball gown as the finest silk. From dresses for debutantes, to office chic, to clinging red voile for the aspiring femme fatale, the designs try their best, they really do. The silhouettes are gorgeous, but the dresses still seem… lacklustre.
At the risk of getting too etymological, it is that ‘lack of luster’ that is at the root of why cotton never made it from durable to desirable. The shine of silk, the vibrancy of velvet, the sheer furriness of fur, all give off an immediate impression that the material would be a joy to touch, a pleasure to wear.
Cotton is just too dull, too everyday. The most glamourous in society are not interested in a ‘special occasion’ dress that is machine-washable. Delicacy equals transience, and transience equals value. To wear an outfit that looks like it would only survive one showing demonstrates that you’re rich enough to afford a dress that only needs to be worn once.
Of all places to have an exhibition on the untapped potential of cotton, Manchester is perfect. Despite the centuries since the peak of the industrial revolution, the city still has some grime under its fingernails; it works hard, and plays hard. London is a beautiful woman in silk, perfect and poised, manicured of hand and stilettoed of heel. Manchester is her fun-loving sister; she scrubs up well, but won’t let the fear of spilling ketchup on her pretty dress get in the way of having a good time.
After all, it’s only made of cotton, so she can just bung it in the wash.