By Tarveen Kaur Nagal
Nestled upon the cobblestoned street of Shad Thames, The Design Museum recently mounted the exhibition Women Fashion Power. According to curators Donna Loveday and Collin McDowell, the exhibition explores how influential women use fashion to define their place in the world and their sense of themselves, analysing 150 years of women’s fashion and featuring key political, social and cultural movements alongside outfits from 26 proficient women of various fields.
As one enters the exhibition space through the staircase, outlined caricatures of women set the perfect atmosphere for a visitor – a Thatcherite, a flapper, a Second World War army girl and an 80’s power suit. The entrance is at a vanishing point with a panoramic view of the entire exhibition, and the entrance corridor gives an overall feel by displaying photographs alongside statements from iconic women from Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama on their personal style and what fashion means to them. The exhibition space is structured around three ‘explosions’- white vertical partitions and plinths radiate from three points inside of the space, along with black lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling and mirrors used on surfaces around the space.
The approach towards the subject was intelligent and sophisticated, creating a kind of seamless journey for the viewer through displays that include pieces from the 1850’s ‘ventilated corset’, ‘the suffragette blouse’ with coloured ribbons woven into the sleeves, 1950’s Coco Chanel suit and Yves Saint Laurent’s 1980’s pant suit, accompanied by relevant information about key movements and reforms, which was displayed on neon-acrylic sheets. A noteworthy collection of photos, magazine covers, sketches and objects such as a motoring hat, propaganda scarves and nylon stockings were also displayed to allow for a deeper understanding.
Part of the exhibition showcasing the iconic fashions of the decades acts as a retrospective of ‘greatest hits’. Comprised of a bias cut crepe evening dress by Schiaparelli, 50’s Christian Dior New Look film, 60’s Pierre Cardin dress with metal details and 80’s power suit by Mugler among others, the piece that stands out is a safety pin punk dress by Zandra Rhodes presented on a white retail mannequin. In this presentation, subcultural style forcibly pits itself against the ideals of beauty for which retail mannequins are designed. The absence of styling in the form of wigs or headpieces in this display of subcultural style only serves to add to the complex display question.
Nevertheless, the exhibition successfully explores fashion as an empowering factor in women’s lives from as early as the opposition to restrictive garments and undergarments of the Victorian era, to using fashion as a means of propaganda for their right to vote, for freedom to work both at home and at war front, to participate in sports and leisure activities, to choose a profession, and last but not least, to express their sexuality the way they want. It was interesting to see the evolution of modern-day undergarments, from restrictive Edwardian and Victorian corsets to Mary Phelps Jacobs’ patent for a brassiere, 50’s strapless machine made bra to a Wonderbra advertising campaign from 1995. Despite reforms and advancement in the technological development, women today still face challenges to be comfortable in their own skin, as the female identity is still subject to objectification by media or perhaps fashion itself.
The last section of the exhibition was a collection of ensembles donated by 26 professional women from fields as diverse as journalism, design, real estate and politics. Displayed alongside their profiles and testimony regarding their personal style, the garments were selected to show how fashion has been relevant for each woman in her respective career. Their professional backgrounds were not only diverse but the women chosen had a range of ethnic heritages and were operating at different levels in their organizational structures. The inclusion of accounts by those such as Princess Charlene of Monaco did not seem as relevant, due to her status as an heiress to the throne rather than a ‘self-made’ woman but most other accounts are insightful for visitors.
A testimony by Joan Burstein, founder of Browns and who has progressed from owning a small boutique to supporting young designers at the beginning of their careers, seemed to sum the exhibition up well – empowerment comes from within and with the right attitude and confidence, fashion itself becomes an armour and saviour.