Power dressing has never been just about the shoulder pads. A new exhibition at the Design Museum, Women Fashion Power, explores these three interconnected themes with nuance, explaining how women’s fashion over the decades has been affected by their changing status.
Women Fashion Power, the latest exhibition at the Design Museum, is boldly subtitled ‘Not a multiple choice’. It’s a statement that bears unpacking – why might women’s fashion be viewed as an impediment to their social standing, and conversely how might certain outfits actually help them get ahead?
Typically speaking, fashion and power are viewed as uneasy bedfellows. Think style versus substance, façade versus function, preening in front of a mirror versus presenting in front of a board.
For as long as women have been seen as the more frivolous sex, so too has fashion been derided as fundamentally unserious; a trivial point of focus diverting headspace from the real issues of public life. Such attitudes are as pervasive now as they ever were: just see the obligatory comments below any newspaper fashion article, questioning whether that piece belongs in the paper at all.
It’s refreshing, then, to find a major exhibition tackling this stereotype head on. Most museum fashion exhibitions focus on clothing pure and simple, with the straightforward aim of showcasing beautiful design. But Women Fashion Power is less about the pageantry of clothes than their meaning. It does not attempt to glorify particular designers or even to pass aesthetic judgments. Rather, it uses fashion as a lens to explore women’s changing status in the world, asking what becomes of this female-coded pursuit within male-dominated spaces.
To the untrained eye, the most obvious intersection between women, fashion and power is probably the 1980s ‘power suit’. With its sharp silhouette and mannish tailoring, this look has come to signal a certain type of corporate go-getter – after all, if you’re going to wallop that glass ceiling, you might as well invest in a hulking set of shoulder pads first.
Certainly, the Dynasty aesthetic does make an appearance here – nestled somewhere in between the wrap dress and the New Romantics – but it is far from being the axis on which the exhibition turns. That axis is the final section, called simply ‘Women and Power’, which showcases outfits from 26 contemporary women who have risen to the top of their fields.
From the journalist Kirsty Wark (who has contributed a Katharine Hamnett jacket and skirt) to the musician Skin (whose selection involves neoprene and Perspex), these women offer a glimpse behind their carefully curated public image. This is not about red carpet fashion, where a woman is often little more than a conduit for a designer – in fact, there are only two evening gowns on display. As evinced by the quotes below the outfits, these are the clothes in which the owners feel most themselves.
For instance, Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter, has donated her classic work ‘uniform’ of black jeans and white shirt. “This has been my go-to look ever since I started my working life,” her Q&A explains. “Being yourself goes hand in hand with feeling confident and trusting yourself, your intuition, your ideas, your ability to make things happen.”
Dame Vivienne Westwood, meanwhile, has used the space to discuss the transformative powers of playing dress-up. “All my outfits are powerful even if they are pretty or silly or butch. They all give you power because you’re able to play with your identity,” she has said.
Exhibition co-curator Donna Loveday says that when she started the research process nine months ago, she was struck by the amount of scrutiny over what women wore, especially women in politics. She wanted to give these women space to tell their own stories, rather than having judgments foist upon them by the all-seeing public eye.
“I think there is a clear messages here which is, I wear what I want to wear,” she explains. “When I spoke to Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, I initially thought she wouldn’t have any interest in fashion at all. But actually she sees fashion as very empowering because there are so many women around the globe who aren’t free to dress as they want to. She selected a Vivienne Westwood dress, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s wonderful to see all these women who have achieved amazing things within their professional lives, saying these clothes are an extension of who they are.”
While this part of the exhibition has certainly been the best-publicised, it wouldn’t be the most interesting out of context; merely a selection of well-dressed mannequins with a tenuous celebrity hook. To get here, however, you must first wander through a timeline of changing fashions, growing increasingly well versed in all the issues at stake. By the time you reach the mannequins, each outfit becomes a voice in a far wider debate.
The timeline does not unravel the history of fashion; instead, it highlights points of social change and explores how clothes have followed suit. While designers are referenced, from the 19th century dress reformer Amelia Bloomer to mother of the mini-skirt Mary Quant, there is a sense that the societal rupture comes first, the receptivity to that designer second.
Many new trends arose in response to the popular pastimes of the day. For instance, when cycling was popularised in the 1890s, women needed clothing that did not restrict their movement and bifurcated garments came into fashion. And when droves of women entered the workforce over World War I, working class women began to dress in far more utilitarian styles. Broadly, we see a trend towards loosening and comfort, with tiny corsets giving way to action-oriented outfits as women expanded their traditional spheres of activity.
The exhibition, however, is too cleverly done to offer a clear-cut emancipation narrative. One of the things it does so well is to convey the oscillations within fashion – all the movements and counter-movements and nostalgic re-envisionings of the past. With predictable circularity, we see hemlines rise and fall, flesh displayed and covered up, and silhouettes shuffle back and forth between androgynous and hyper-feminine.
Some of this has to do with the temporal nature of fashion, perennially casting off the old and embracing the new. The exhibition shows how, as women’s economic status rose, their spending power fostered a vibrant industry that hasn’t been static since.
Equally, though, it shows how clothing may be chosen to telegraph a specific message. When women have sought power, they have historically adopted two distinct clothing strategies: one, to downplay gender difference and dress much like their male peers; two, to use their femininity as a strategic weapon. Joan of Arc in her male drag did the first; the suffragettes in their billowing dresses did the second.
“What’s interesting about the suffragettes is they didn’t necessarily disguise their gender – they dressed as Edwardian women, to present themselves as rational and ladylike,” says Loveday. “They were portrayed by the media and popular press as mannish and vulgar, so that was a very deliberate tactic.”
The exhibition is designed by Zaha Hadid, who has also contributed an outfit. Her layout is fairly sparse, but interrupted by dramatic pops of colour – Loveday refers to ‘a series of explosions throughout the space’ – which works to reinforce the idea of women’s power as a disruptive force.
“Zaha sort of chose herself,” says co-curator Colin McDowell. “She is such a force for originality and we wanted something that was up to the exhibition’s standards. It was an Olympian performance.”
The exhibition is far from prescriptive; it is not interested in discussing how women in power ‘should’ dress or which modes of style are most worth taking seriously. What it does do is start a conversation, casting many of today’s more tiresome arguments (should newsreaders reveal cleavage? Should Theresa May wear kitten heels?) in a new and refreshing light.
For all that it is painstakingly chronological, this exhibition has a curiously ahistorical flavor, framing the question of woman, fashion and power as one that has never really gone away. From the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut to Hillary Rodham Clinton, power dressing has always been a charged topic, and continues to be so. Here, all the nuances come sharply to the fore.
“This is an exhibition you have to come to more than once because it unfolds, it’s a really subtle approach to an exhibition; you can go around in one way then take another path,” says McDowell. “It would certainly repay more than one visit, rather like a good book.”
Opening: 10:00-17:45 daily. £12.40 adults, £9.30 students, members and under 6s free.
This article appears in New Design magazine