Saturday Girl About Town Chester

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Everyone welcome!

The Future Of The High Street Is... The Future Of The High Street Is...

I remember Saturdays in 1978, applying heavy make-up, backcombing my hair and donning newly-ripped clothes before meeting friends in the local town centre. We were 14 and emulating ‘real’ punk rockers. I later experimented with other clan dress – never, I thought, as authentically as my friends.

In 2015 I met photographer Casey Orr who had set up her portable portrait studio in Liverpool city centre and invited young women to pose against brightly coloured backcloths. She told me about previous shoots in her home city of Leeds, her delight in the expressive hair styles, outfits and make-up she’d photographed, and then her excitement at finding differences in Liverpool – she particularly championed the ‘I’m going out tonight’ curlers that are worn with attitude in our city.

Over the next few years Orr celebrated these nuances, taking portraits in 13 other UK cities. She always shot on a Saturday afternoon, recognising that this is the time to dress up, meet friends, see and be seen on our high streets. During these years a revolution of gender identity was unfolding which Orr embraced – sitters self-selected, everyone was welcome.

In 2019, the resulting award-winning photographic series ‘Saturday Girl’ was rightly acclaimed. And the portraits in the publication – of the same name – give us, without question, a most affirming experience.

In 2020 the unimaginable happened. The pandemic put a stop to Saturdays on the high street. In northern centres major stores closed. The drift to shopping online accelerated – which, on top of the move to retail park shopping, made some questions urgent. What does the future high street look like? And if centres are re-modelled, who are they for?

In 2021, as things opened-up again, Casey Orr began ‘Saturday Girl About Town’. Her pop-up portrait studio was welcomed in Redcar, Wigan, Blackpool, Burnley and Chester. The project shifted. She researched the history of individual high streets and worked more closely with local young people. New trends were discussed, like the distinctive look many young people achieve by snapping-up quality clothes from charity shops.

Viewing the new images with my 17 year-old daughter, I realise I can’t read them as she does. She points at the portraits and names different looks – this person is like her, ‘Basic’ which means ‘nothing standing out,’ whereas this one is ‘Alt’, like her best friend ‘heavy black eye-liner, dyed hair, fish nets’. She lists other categories. I realise how deeply ‘Saturday Girl About Town’ will forever resonate with her generation. I think about her isolation during lockdown. Surely now, more than ever, we need to celebrate the diversity of young people who add so much life to our high street. I look at the images again. These people are amazing. The five northern high streets are each hosting an exhibition dedicated to the local ‘Saturday Girl About Town’ – and thanks to Orr’s exceptional skill, the sitters confidently invite us to recognise that the future of the high street is, in fact, theirs.

Sarah Fisher- Director, Open Eye Gallery

Saturday Girl About Town in Chester explores fashion, identity and the city, with references to the rich history of fashion on the rows. The city was home to its own famous department store on the Rows, Browns, a highlight on the high street complete with luxurious interiors and intriguing spaces set in crypt like rooms. Its demise in the form of Debenhams inspired projects that explored local people’s memories of the store, rekindling a fondness of ‘The First Fashion House of the North’.

There has long been a history of promenading on the Rows, described in Spaces of Consumption – Leisure and Shopping in the English Town, c.1680–1830 by By Jon Stobart, Andrew Hann and Victoria Morgan: “as the ultimate promenade, the well-to-do could parade along them, quite literally raised above the common order.”

Saturday Girl About Town has been an opportunity to engage with visitors to Chester today and present an image of how the city provides a place for people to explore their own identity through fashion. With high streets closed and unavailable for so long during the pandemic, the timing of this project with pop-up studios in a re-emerging city, gave us an opportunity to look again at the purpose of high streets; taking over empty retail units as creative spaces and providing a safe space for people to ‘be’, and offering opportunities to take part in cultural activities. From what we’ve seen so far, the promenading of today happens much more on a street level, in an equal space, with people from all walks of life bringing their vibrancy of style and flair to the streets of Chester. Casey’s unique photography is the perfect vehicle to showcase this.

Saturday Girl About Town is a part of the Refresh programme, a cultural recovery programme for the city, designed to bring high quality arts and cultural activities into Chester. Included in Refresh is the Historic England funded Chester High Street Heritage Action Zone (CHS HAZ) pop-ups programme which brings creative activity inspired by the distinctive heritage of the Rows to the high street. Refresh is an exciting programme which offers lots of opportunities to engage

Diana Hamilton Project Manager, The Hamilton Project
Additional photographs by Lizzie Coombes and Jennifer Skip Publication design by Jennifer Skip Instagram: @saturdaytownphoto
Saturday Girl About Town Chester has been supported by: You can find out more about Saturday Girl About Town here: