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WOMEN FASHION POWER

30 October 2014 | Jessica Johnston

"Professional women are engaging with contemporary fashion as a way to express individuality, a sense of style and project empowerment."

This autumn, the Design Museum gives visitors an intimate glimpse into the wardrobes of the female power dressers of the 21st century. Dominated by influential figures, from Coco Chanel to Vivienne Westwood, Margaret Thatcher to Michelle Obama, this is an exhibition with a strong agenda. Bringing together clothing, photography, archive footage and interviews, WOMEN FASHION POWER examines fifteen decades of women’s fashion and looks at how contemporary women from the world of business, politics, fashion and culture, have used what they wear to define and enhance their position in society.

Fashion has become a popular subject for museum exhibitions of late, what with the Design Museum paying homage to British designer Paul Smith and the V&A’s forthcoming retrospective of the late great Alexander McQueen. Naturally, these forays into fashion tend to shine a spotlight on the designers as the heroes, and one would expect most ‘fashion’ exhibitions alike to follow suit. Surprisingly and somewhat refreshingly WOMEN FASHION POWER does not. Instead co-curators Colin McDowell and Donna Loveday turn the spotlight back where it belongs and place women as the enduring protagonists – it is, after all, the women wearing the clothes who give fashion its power.

Designed by the world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid, the exhibition opens with a ‘Corridor of Power’ that celebrates sixteen of the most influential dressers in history. Images featuring Boudicca, Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth II and Hillary Clinton to name but a few, bring to the fore iconic women and forward thinkers who have changed the way we wear our clothes. This is aptly demonstrated through an immersive visual timeline that takes visitors on a sartorial journey through the last 150 years of women’s fashion, from the restrictive boned corset of the 19th century to the Swarovski encrusted Louboutin heels of today.

Highlighting significant political and social changes spanning 1850 to the present day, the timeline presents key looks and styles, including: a 1920’s beaded ‘flapper’ dress, a 1930s silk dress owned by Elsa Schiaparelli, a 1955 cerise suit by Coco Chanel, the blue Mansfield suit worn by Margaret Thatcher when she was elected leader of the Conservative party in 1975, a 1977 punk wedding dress by Zandra Rhodes, a 1980’s pinstripe power suit by Versace and the Jacques Azagury dress worn by Diana, Princess of Wales on her 36th birthday.

The finale of the exhibition showcases the style philosophy of twenty-six high-profile women – each of whom has contributed an outfit for the display.  A dove grey evening dress, worn by HSH Princess Charlene of Monaco to the pre-wedding dinner of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, immediately draws the eye whilst the understated trouser suit chosen by Anne Hidalgo, Major of Paris, echoes the prosaic message about practicality.

Other fashion highlights include a red vintage Valentino dress and transparent Pandora clutch box selected by designer Charlotte Olympia, a raw silk dress and matching cape designed by Vivienne Westwood and a show stopping Christian Dior burgundy crocodile jacket and lace skirt from gallery owner Pearl Lam. Co-curator Donna Loveday says of these powerful women: ‘they are leaders in their field and they understand that the clothes they wear are a part of the way they communicate with the world... Professional women are engaging with contemporary fashion as a way to express individuality, a sense of style and project empowerment.’

Fashion mirrors society, reflecting changing ideas and situations. Over the course of history, dress has been a powerful signal of wealth, status and above all gender. Today, the power of fashion has never been more potent as a greater number of women find themselves in positions of authority and leadership. Their clothes form part of a sophisticated visual language that has helped contribute to a change in the position of women in the public sphere. Fashion is no longer seen as a frivolous past time, but an essential tool of self-expression and empowerment. Put simply, WOMEN FASHION POWER is not a multiple choice.

WOMEN FASHION POWER is on at the Design Museum from 29th October – 26th April 2015. Tickets cost £12.40, available here.

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