In 1986, 31 years before the Tory conference set up camp to bury Theresa May alive in its industrial shell, the G-Mex centre in Manchester hosted the Festival of the Tenth Summer. Commemorating the Sex Pistols’ 1976 date at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the unofficial starter-gun of punk parochialisation, top billing was shared between a royal flush of local heroes: the Smiths, New Order, A Certain Ratio and The Fall. The audience wore a detailed array of micro-tribal uniforms in their honour – tattered Levi’s, national health specs, secondhand car coats, Adidas Gazelles, flicks, quiffs, short back and sides – through which you could identify their record collections, drinking habits, library cards, football clubs and sex drives. All the important stuff.
I was a tatty 15-year-old south Manchester schoolboy at the time, looking among the glorious rabble for an identity that might fit. A couple of mates and I hung around outside in Nike cagoules, breathing in the solemnly euphoric, superior air of northern style, flecked back then with the scent of Breaker lager, Benson & Hedges, Paco Rabanne and deadheaded flower arrangements plucked from the beds of Whitworth Park to slip into back pockets, just like Morrissey. We identified songs by reverberating bass lines and cheer alone. Piling out late into the night, every man looked amazing, in his own tastefully wonky way.
In the narky breeze before Madchester’s acid reign, a particular hotbed of northern style subcultures found their forum. It was the first time I had consciously clocked the parochial wardrobe rhythms of the fiercely proud men of my hometown. Everyone who cares about the way northern men dress has their own Damascene equivalent of that afternoon spent sloped on the G-Mex forecourt. If I had been 16 a decade later, no doubt Oasis at Maine Road or DJ Harvey’s first set at the Electric Chair would have provided a similar contrapuntal menswear touchstone of Clark’s Wallabees, 6876 macs and Carhartt workpants. Ten years earlier, it would have been a skinny old-school tie, bleach and pin badges, the Buzzcocks or Magazine at the Russell Club, or a pair of voluminous pleated slacks to accommodate a fleet-footed whizz around the final hours of the Twisted Wheel. Twenty and it might have been something a little snugger and more sartorial at a Salford matinee of A Taste of Honey.
“When you say northern style to people, they know what you mean straight away,’ says Lou Stoppard, co-curator of the exhibition North: Fashioning Identity, which opens at Somerset House in London this week. “When you say it, they see it, like Paris or Rio.” The exhibition was a word-of-mouth sensation when it opened at Liverpool’s Open Eye gallery last year, attracting over 30,000 visitors. Its shift to the capital is a pleasing reflection of the way British menswear has so often travelled, historically, from a defining moment in the north to the mass market of the south, then out into the world.
North has opened up an old north/south divide conversation – and not just in northern men around the snugs of local boozers. Stoppard and her co-curator, Adam Murray, who once ran the brilliantly titled free publishing initiative Preston Is My Paris, have been tireless in their research in order to deploy and display all that is beautiful and special about the north’s instinctive, often contrary, feel for fashion and its consequential influence on a global fashion stage. They have consciously avoided the potholes of cliche. It is a clever dissection of the influence and repercussions northern style has had on the wider world, taking its pick of original and found work from photographers, stylists and designers whose talent is interwoven with their regional identity. The exhibition feels intelligent, celebratory and in love with its subject matter.
As well it might. Northern style has always rested in its specificity, no matter what individual shapes it might be taking in any given season. The devil is always in the detail. Those details travel. The beauty of northern style is that it all happens a long way away from London, where the industry of fashion can force a persuasive, strict, business-like hand over the divisions of elegance, where those with money are assumed to have more taste than those without. The weather helps counterbalance matters a little. You need clothes up there.
The northern sartorial spectrum on that bracing, sunny afternoon of the Festival of the Tenth Summer ran a particularly pleasing gamut. Northern style often comes twinned with northern poetry, two branches of the same blossoming strain of self-expression. The locally renowned men of words you looked up to seemed to accept their responsibility to look good off page, too. On one hand, the toweringly handsome Membranes singer and part time music writer John Robb’s psychobilly get-up, which looked like a sharper sartorial cousin of everything Malcolm McClaren had achieved with his punk darlings down south. On the other, Paul Morley’s delightfully pretentious fondness for an intellectual Japanese roll neck and horn-rimmed specs, which couldn’t have looked further from it.
Back on that euphoric night in ’86, ecstasy was still a couple of years from changing the night-time shape of the city. New Order were yet to record Technique. Happy Mondays hadn’t celebrated the city’s predisposition for a Loose Fit. The druggiest looks on stage were Mark E Smith’s cantankerous, amphetamine-fuelled Bullseye dad and the hooded lids of Andy Rourke’s conspicuous smack habit, both recognisable northern archetypes of that moment. There were chaps in camel coloured Marks & Sparks cardigans with flat-tops from Dave the Demon Barber on Tib Street. Men feeling their way out of their outre gothic signifiers into something more tastefully arch, perhaps a paisley shirt and a couple of ladies’ bangles. Or Chameleons fans, as we liked to call them.
“Scally” was still a high-water mark conflagration of aggro, humour and pure style, a largely scouse convention. But plenty of those men traipsing in and out of the G-Mex knew their way around the bedrock tropes of the high-end terrace bloke, heritage British brands such as Barbour or Aquascutum and elite Europeans such as CP Company and Stone Island. This being the north, little sportswear touches were everywhere, mostly worn on the least sporting.
The lifespan of the exhibition has weathered either side of the Brexit vote, arriving in London opportunely when the north/south divide has rarely been at such an optimum brokerage. Because of the shadow Westminster casts over the city, the capital never looks uncooler than under a Tory government. The most famous exponent of the most iconoclastic living London designer, Vivienne Westwood, is Theresa May. North is a reminder of the spirit that informed punk’s queen couturier when Viv was growing up in Tintwistle and had nothing to lean on but her imagination, curiosity and taste. That’s all style really takes.
Every northerner knows that glorious moment when you realise we look and act differently from everybody else and that’s OK. Northern style is the quintessence of the British identity makeup. It is what’s outside that counts. I left North with the same odd, distinct feeling of personal optimism I left the G-Mex steps three decades earlier, to get a 109 bus home along Princess Parkway, amid the mass swell of misfits and ne’er-do-wells that owned northern style then. Now has never been a better moment to consider the kernel of northern pride and its most obvious physical manifestation: what we wear, how we look; that centre of Englishness that blows its own horn loudest because, if we don’t, no one else will.