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
Promenades of the past in the town of Redcar.
Redcar may take its name from its rocky scars, projecting out to sea and providing nursery for wading birds and fish alike, yet it is the sand that for centuries has been its most notable feature. It stretches out into miles of flat beach and is blown by the ever-present wind into great dunes, something that the recently completed promenade has done much to dissuade. Visiting the town in 1810 William Hutton remarked on the challenges these sand banks presented on the high street: “It is a labour to walk. If a man wants a perspiring dose, he may procure one by travelling through these two streets and save his half-crown from the Doctor.” Hutton’s Redcar was still built around the fishing community but expanding rapidly – “emerging out of infancy” was how he described it. The fashion sense of the locals especially struck Hutton also: “I do not remember seeing a ragged person,” he remarked – though their dress was simple, honest and often, he speculated, handed down through the generations.
Promenades of the past in the town of Redcar. WIGAN
In 1865 when a certain Rev. Frederick Leigh Colvile visited Redcar, arriving on a new-fangled passenger train, he was witness to what must have been quite a startling transformation of the town for the locals. Visitors were now arriving regularly by train, including excursion trains that took the visitor directly into what is now the town centre. Meanwhile fishermen continued to supplement their catch by ferrying tourists directly to the beach, helping them to disembark from the traditional Yorkshire cobles (a local form of fishing boat) either by means of gang plank or by the seemingly far less dignified means of piggyback. This tradition, known as foying, apparently continued into the 1970s. Beaches, long since the preserve of the local fishing industry, were now awash with wheeled bathing huts which could preserve the gentile visitors’ modesty by wheeling them directly into the sea; and donkeys strolled up and down to the delight of younger visitors. Then as now, well-attired visitors would promenade along the seafront, displaying their interpretations of the latest fashions from the neighbouring cities and showing off their finery.
What made the Rev. Colvile such a remarkable visitor to the town was not, sadly, his dress sense but rather that he set about capturing life in this booming seaside town in an album of over 100 sketches, depicting both local and visitor alike engaged in the full range of activities available to them – the child with uncustomarily ragged trousers, employed to catch shrimp (described in the text as a boy though possibly actually a girl, as this was a largely female occupation), the small child trying in vain to make her donkey move or the young female couple walking arm-in-arm along the beach engrossed in conversation. Beneath this latter drawing Colvile has written “too close a friendship to look well.” It is just one of several covert references found within the book which suggest a queer history of Victorian Redcar might be overdue. There is a clear delineation within these drawings between the residents of the town, invariably depicted in workwear, and the visitors who are dressed for leisure. One image, reproduced here, shows two fashionable young women, who Colvile describes as “presumed Visitors at Redcar.”
Welcoming Casey Orr and the Saturday Girl About Town team to Redcar has been an opportunity to recast the views of these two nineteenth century gentlemen. 21st century Redcar has shown itself to have a heady mix of fashion statements as resident and visitor alike perform their identities, their interests and their communities of belonging through their ever-imaginative dress sense; something that Casey has captured beautifully. Together with the residents of Redcar, Casey’s photography shows a high street that will remain full of expression and creativity for as long as there are Saturday Girls to promenade along it.James Beighton Executive Director