Late winter and spring sees all the ground floor galleries at the Whitworth combining to tell a compelling story about the production, consumption and global trade in cotton. With exhibits ranging in date from the late Middle Ages to the present day, the exhibition takes in Lancashire and South Asia, the Americas and Africa and is the region’s flagship exhibition outcome of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.
The fashion and textile displays engage in dialogue with the work of seven contemporary artists working in a range of disciplines whose work addresses one or more of the exhibition themes. They include Yinka Shonibare MBE, Lubaina Himid, Chicago-based Anne Wilson, Malian artists Abdoulaye Konaté and Aboubakar Fofana, and Grace Ndiritu, while Liz Rideal‘s work illuminates the exterior of the building throughout the hours of darkness.
Cotton was the world’s first global commodity. The scale of its production, consumption and exchange after 1500 was far greater than that of any other manufactured product. It is the most versatile and widely used natural fibre in the world and just about everyone on the planet will wear at least one article of clothing made from cotton at some point in the day.
Cotton reconfigured fashionable dress in the Western world. Unfettered by association with tradition and elite dress, cotton was ubiquitous in the development of ready-made clothes and has been central to the concept of a democratic, popular fashion system.
However, the cotton trade has long reflected the dark side of globalisation, its growth and manufacture having exposed both the promise and perils of global capitalism. From Marx and Engels’ ‘satanic mills’ of 19th-century Lancashire to the garment factories of South China today no other industry is so closely associated with the exploitation of human labour. The price paid in social and environmental terms for cheap cotton and fast fashion is high.
Read more about the exhibition in our specially commissioned essay by academic Helen Rees Leahy.
An exciting programme of events accompanies the exhibition.
The exhibition also showcases the outcomes of a three-year programme of work with young people, taking the form of an interactive space for younger visitors.