Shelley Storms the Fashion World with Mask of Anarchy

In what is surely one of the most unusual but at the same time coolest uses of Shelley's poetry, English fashion designer John Alexander Skelton deployed Shelley's Mask of Anarchy in his recent runway show. The circumstances are quite extraordinary.

First, Skelton's entire clothing line was inspired by, and I am not making this up, the Peterloo Massacre.  According to Rebecca Gonsalves,

"Skelton was inspired by the Peterloo Massacre of 1918 [sic], which saw armed cavalry charge into a peaceful pro-democracy protest in Manchester, killing many and injuring hundreds, and in turn inspiring Shelley’s controversial poem."

While Gonsalves has the date of Peterloo wrong (it took place in 1819) she gets the rest absolutely right.

Skelton has to be one of the first clothing designers in history whose clothing line was inspired by a bloody massacre.  This might strike many as unusual, but I think it is actually quite an important example of art interfacing with politics and political protest – in a manner Shelley would have whole-heartedly approved.

Skelton, hailing from York, had recently become aware of the events at Peterloo. According to Gonsalves, he was appalled not only by the loss of life and the carnage, but also the fact that two hundred years later, this massacre has not been properly memorialized by the English authorities. If anything it has been swept under the carpet.

I have written at length about Peterloo in my review of Michael Demon’s graphic novel, “Masks of Anarchy”. It was also referred to by Mark Summers, in his article which I republished here.  Briefly the facts are as follows: On the morning of 16 August 1818, a peaceful assembly of some sixty thousand English men, women and children began to gather in what is now St. Peter’s Square in Manchester (hence the name the massacre was popularly given: Peterloo). They did so quietly and with discipline. The protest was organized by the Manchester Patriotic Union and was to feature the famed orator Henry Hunt. Here is Demson's depiction of the event:

From Michael Demson's Masks of Anarchy which you can buy here.

From Michael Demson's Masks of Anarchy which you can buy here.

Hunt was to speak from a simple platform in front of what is now the Gmex Center. The crowd brought homemade banners that proclaimed REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and LOVE. But before the speeches could begin, local magistrates ordered the local militia (known as ‘yeomanry”) to break up the meeting.  This was done with extraordinary violence.  As many as 12 protestors died and over 500 were wounded.

In the aftermath, journalists attempting to cover the massacre were arrested and news of the event suppressed. The businessman John Edwards Taylor was so shocked by what had happened that he went on to help set up the Guardian newspaper to ensure that the people would have a voice. Today the massacre still lacks an appropriate memorial despite decades of demand. For years, the event was commemorated only by a blue plaque which described the massacre as follows:

 “The site of St Peters Fields where on 16th August 1819 Henry Hunt, radical orator addressed an assembly of about 60,000 people. Their subsequent dispersal by the military is remembered as “Peterloo”.

That the term “dispersal” is used to describe what was a massacre is an unconscionable euphemism.  It was only in 2007 that the following plaque replaced it:

You can read about the Peterloo Memorial Campaign here.

According to Michael Scrivener, “the response of the radical leadership to Peterloo was surprisingly timid…the leaders must have been more alarmed than inspired by the revolutionary situation”. Hunt, for example, called for passive resistance in a variety of forms (such as tax resistance) and others sought a Parliamentary investigation. Only Richard Carlile (a radical journalist championed by Shelley and who later did much to keep Shelley’s reputation alive) proposed a meaningful response: he and a few others proposed a general strike – which never materialized. Shelley as we shall see went much further. Scrivener notes: "...the key to understanding the uniqueness of Shelley’s poem is his proposal for massive non-violent resistance.”

His proposal for non-violent resistance famously appeared in one of the single greatest political poems written in the English language, The Mask of Anarchy.

Skelton became aware of this and so he wove Shelley into the fabric, so to speak, of his fashion show as well. "I wanted to bring light to the blood that was spilled at Peterloo," said Skelton. He was frustrated that the massacre is so poorly remembered today despite its immense significance and resonance in our modern times.

Skelton was also aware that,

“after Peterloo, mass meetings were banned, so people showed their allegiances in discreet ways. The way they would show unity was with one singular thing that was incredibly powerful en masse. One of the most discreet was a ribbon between the first and second buttonhole of their fustian jacket.”

Fustian is a type of cotton cloth that was worn by workers during the 19th century. It was heavy and durable, and according to historian Paul Pickering radical elements of the English working class chose to wear fustian jackets as a symbol of their class allegiance. This was especially marked during the Chartist era. Pickering has called the wearing of fustian "a statement of class without words.” Readers of this blog will remember that Shelley was also a major influence on the Chartists.

This clearly resonated with Skelton who picked up this theme and presented a clothing line with strong historical echoes and overt political overtones. In her review of the show Gonsalves noted that

"Each model was dressed in roughly hewn garments that were snagged, sewn and patched as though they had been worn, and loved, forever. Checks and stripes were mixed and matched, and a limited colour palette focused on earthy brown, rust, cream and mushroom.[There was a] “sense of authentic imperfection to the waistcoats, collarless shirts, thick twills and too-short trousers. This was reinforced by Skelton’s use of street-cast older men who looked like they had lived lives in these clothes rather than simply donned them backstage.”

So where does Shelley come in? Well, it appears that the principle lens through which Skelton came to view the massacre was Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy.  So powerfully did Shelley’s poem impress him that he had his models recite the entire 91 stanzas! If you follow this link you will arrive at Skelton’s Instagram account and can watch a rehearsal with one of the models reading from the Mask of Anarchy.  It looks fantastic, thought regrettably the audio quality is poor.

All of this reminds us of the extraordinary longevity of Shelley's influence.  The Mask of Anarchy was not even published in his lifetime, yet it continues to inspire and influence creators and politically active thinkers to this day. Well done Percy.