A journey through the fabric of Manchester’s history

Photo Credit: Ragne Kabanova / Shutterstock

When Richard Arkwright built the world’s first steam-powered mill in Manchester in 1781, it opened the doors for the city to become the globe’s greatest cloth manufacturing centre. A hundred years later, people had taken to calling the industrial capital of the north-west Cottonopolis. Manchester may no longer be Cottonopolis (there’s just one cotton mill left these days), but the city’s influence on what the world is wearing remains as strong as ever.

The Harrington Jacket

In the twentieth century, cotton production gradually drifted eastward to Egypt, India and beyond, but Manchester still maintained its importance in the garment trade. It was at a factory in the city in the late 1930s, for example, that the local firm of Baracuta first produced what was destined to become a menswear staple – the Harrington jacket (the name came much later – after actor Ryan O’Neil, playing the character of Rodney Harrington, took to wearing one in hit US soap opera Peyton Place).

The jacket, with its characteristic two-button collar and yolked back, has been worn by everyone from Elvis, Oasis and Frank Sinatra to regular men on the streets.

Baracuta is now Italian-owned, and their jackets are hard to track down, but you’ll find plenty of examples of this Mancunian style around the city, not least at Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green and independent fashion store Oi Polloi.

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The Mackintosh and Ventile

Given Manchester’s reputation as the rainiest place in England (in fact, it isn’t) it’s perhaps not surprising that the city has been at the forefront of developing waterproof fabrics.

In 1820s Manchester, Scottish mill owner and inventor Charles Mackintosh developed the rubberised cotton fabric that gave his name to one of the world’s most popular coats.

While the renowned British Millerain — the world’s first waxed cotton fabric – was invented in nearby Rochdale in 1880, Manchester can lay claim to Ventile, a densely woven cotton originally developed by scientists at the city’s Shirley Institute to clothe RAF pilots flying over the North Atlantic in World War II. Waterproof and warm, Ventile would save the lives of many aircrews forced to ditch into freezing seas.

The lightweight fabric has seen a resurgence in popularity recently. The stylish Manchester brand Private White VC uses Ventile in some of its paired-back classic British outerwear including a range of macs, shell parkas and – what else? – Harrington jackets.

Madchester Gear

The 1980s saw the birth of “Madchester,” a Manchester-based music scene that blended alternative rock, acid house and 1960s pop culture together. Ravers across the globe decked out in the baggy stylings of the now defunct Joe Bloggs and Identity’s iconic “On the Sixth Day God Created Manchester” t-shirts — the latter worn by everyone from The Stone Roses to Madonna.

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Photo Credit: Oi Polloi

Modern Mancunian Design

Today, Manchester continues to innovate thanks to a new generation of talented Mancunian designers. Amongst them is Matthew Williamson, who went from working-class Moss Side to creative director of flamboyant Italian couturier Emilio Pucci. Henry Holland is a designer from Ramsbottom who has dressed Alexa Chung and MIA among many others. Salford’s Nadine Merabi is another local whose glamorous evening dresses have become a red carpet staple, and Nabil Nayal, a Syrian-born Manc who went from Manchester Metropolitan University to making clothes for the likes of Florence Welch, Lady Gaga and Rihanna.

Though these are mere highlights, Manchester’s rich textile history is explored and celebrated at the Whitworth gallery. From its industrial beginnings to its fashionable present, the city once known as Cottonopolis still has fabric in its soul.

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