Breakout has got to be one of the most perfect pop records to come out of Manchester… but because Swing Out Sister didn’t gig, I had no idea they were local when I bought their singles in the 1980s.
Too old for Smash Hits and too impatient to tolerate the serious music press, I never read up on them. A friend from Lincoln (who vaguely knew Corinne) told me of the Manchester connection years later. It turns out that composer and keyboard player Andy Connell had previously been in A Certain Ratio and Kalima (both highly visible Manchester bands in the mid-80s) and drummer Martin Jackson had played with Magazine and The Chameleons.
The title of Swing Out Sister’s first album seems to sum up Connell and Jackson’s strategy with regards to their home town: It’s Better To Travel.
Corinne Drewery’s style in the Breakout video completely captures the look which I and many other girls were aiming for in 1986… it was a cartoon-style synthesis of 1920s, 1950s and 1980s fashion (note the 30 year gaps): Louise Brookes’ bob and lean figure; 1950s red lips and Audrey Hepburn’s Funnyface demeanour (1957); all dressed in bold colours, stripes and polka dots thanks to 80s Lycra jersey. Sometimes Corinne’s outfits resemble Olive Oil from Popeye, but she still somehow manages to look glamourous.
Of course the video is ridiculously corny… why are two men running around after the same girl? But the light-hearted narrative reflects the existence of a genuine thriving independent fashion scene in Manchester in the mid-80s, which I recognised as real at the time when I watched it. Perhaps the same thing was happening all over Britain.
In Manchester, women (and men, no doubt) were designing and making glamourous affordable clothes for other local women to wear, and these clothes were being sold through local independent shops; the whole scene was remarkably thrifty and self-sufficient.
Kathryn Brownbridge sold her Heyday label clothing through a unit in the Royal Exchange Design Centre. In summer ’89 I bought a beautiful 50s inspired halter neck dress from her shop, which I wore to my art degree show. It was made from Kelly green gaberdine, with darts at the waist and a clever pleated panel at the chest which nicely disguised my deficiency in that area. Tragically I gave it to a charity shop a few years ago.
I asked Kathryn about Heyday and the independent fashion scene in 80s Manchester a while back; she explained:
I don’t think we ever thought we were designing to a Manchester style, although we were aware that our market was for people of our age, going to the Hacienda etc and would probably be into the same type of look.
I recognise the style you describe and I remember using clothes that I had bought from charity shops from the 50s and 60s as inspiration and basing Heyday designs on them. There was a dogtooth jacket based on a 60s shift dress which I wore. This dress was about a size 20 and I used to pull it in at the waist with a belt. I also had a 1950s Horrocks dress which was beautiful and we took details from that and made little shirts and tops from a vintage cotton poplin that we found in one the many fabric warehouses in Central Manchester. Our first range was black and white polka dots, again 50s inspired dresses with pockets.
In relation to music, we knew the guys from The Jazz Defectors, Kalima, and ACR and loved the 1940s-50s androgenous jazz style.
Trading as an independent in Manchester was exciting and difficult. Much easier to get premises than it is now, as there were so many empty buildings. At one time we had two floors of a warehouse on Newton Street for very little rent. Also the Royal Exchange made it possible to trial new ideas and ranges and build our business slowly. The Hac provided opportunities to sell to people who wanted to experiment a little bit and create an individual style. It was possible to make good money but also easy to lose it too.
My memory is that this fashion scene was largely overtaken by the “baggy” look which came in with acid house. Suddenly all the up and coming clothing companies seemed to be run by North Manchester blokes with dodgy back stories, who produced shapeless unisex clothing for drugged up clubbers with no style aspirations. Well, that was my impression at the time, for what it’s worth.
I can’t claim to have followed Swing Out Sister, though… this was the last single I bought, in 1989…