Ellie Hibberd discovers the empowerment of women through fashion at the Design museum’s ‘Women Fashion Power’ exhibition
People try to condemn fashion as frivolous, and as an industry which forces women to be looked upon superficially and judged by their appearance in a way that men rarely are. Maybe to some extent this is true. For a long time women’s clothing was used to reflect the superiority of their male counterparts rather than to declare the autonomy of the woman underneath them; a pretty accessory to the authoritative suit.
Fashion tends to reflect the societies that they inhabit, so in the days where they had absolutely no rights, women’s clothing was obviously going to reflect their subordinate positions. But, thank God, society evolves, and changing fashions offer an interesting vantage point for changing values and attitudes.
What the Women Fashion Power exhibition celebrates is women from Lady Gaga to Maggie Thatcher who have used their clothes as an outward projection of their individuality and authority. To these women, fashion is confidence, power, and liberation. And this doesn’t just encompass modern history: as you enter the exhibition you are surrounded by portraits of women dating back to eras I didn’t even know existed. Look to the left and you’ll see Boudicca, radiating femininity and power in a flowing white dress and battle helmet. Look to the right and you’ll find Angela Merkel (the most powerful woman in the world according to Forbes) making her own statement in one of her classic Bettina Schoenbach blazers.
From here you are taken on a journey through time, an evolution of fashion that mirrors the political and social changes from 1850 to now that have helped to improve the role of women in society. ‘Freedom’ is the buzzword of this timeline. It begins with an array of corsets designed to pinch in women’s waists to an unrealistically tiny size, an unmistakable nod towards the restrained lives they held and a starting point for the move towards female empowerment that would ensue. What follows not long afterwards is the revolutionary work of Coco Chanel in liberating the female form, banishing the corset and pioneering trousers in the early 20th century.
The timeline shows the both the empowerment of embracing your gender by dressing in a feminine way, as did the suffragettes in response to being labelled mannish and vulgar, and the empowerment of clothes that emulate the male silhouette, as seen in the 80s power suit which represented women emerging into a white-collar world dominated by men.
The final room showcases the donated outfits of some of today’s most influential women, be they CEOs, pop stars or designers, coupled with a statement on what clothes mean to them, and why their chosen outfit makes them feel empowered. It is not about power dressing, nor about women dressing in a particular way to make them appear more authoritative. It is about women using fashion to channel the power they already possess, wearing whatever makes them feel confident and comfortable. This could be a huge shoulder pads and massive hair, or it could be the most conventionally feminine, sparkly dress you can possibly find.
But make no mistake, fashion is not the star of this show. This is a celebration of women being not the victims of fashion, but the commanders of it, and commanders of a whole lot more too.
Women Fashion Power is at the Design Museum until 26th April 2015
All image credits: Mirren Rosie