The 'Women Fashion Power' exhibition showcases at the Design Museum by Jessica Cusack

Design Museum Women Fashion Power Exhibit London Pearl Lam

as a society we can often be obsessed with what women wear. Co-curator of the ‘Women Fashion Power’ exhibition Donna Loveday and fashion legend Colin McDowell, however, wanted to shift the balance of power: away from judging eyes and back to the women themselves. Out of this notion came the Design Museum’s latest exhibit, which focuses on a diverse range of powerful and successful women who choose what they wear, who use fashion to project their identity and who manipulate it for their own gain.

From start to finish it’s a fascinating concept, even the space in which it’s presented is in keeping with the theme. Zaha Hadid, one of the most successful architects in the world and a subject of the exhibition, designed the layout. She chose to represent the different areas as ‘explosions’ marked by strip lighting and mirrors that hang from the ceiling, allowing you to view the garments from all angles. The space has a futuristic feel, contrasting the portraits of Victorian women and the corsetry to which they were once bound.

Design Museum Women Fashion Power Exhibit London Mannequins
The exhibit begins with a timeline charting female fashion from the Victorian period to the present day, looking at how clothes reflect the social issues of their time, but also the way in which the changing styles reflected progress for women’s rights. We start with the tiniest of corsets, measuring just 18 inches – the perfect Victorian silhouette but stomach churning to behold. Then come the more liberating fashions of the Edwardian period – a time when the Suffragettes dominated the headlines. Loveday explains that the Suffragettes consciously dressed in the feminine trends of the time so as to counter the common perception of them as masculine and unnatural.

Revelations like these alongside physical examples make this exhibition fascinating. The curators show that clothes are not just used to cover up or make us look nice, but are also tools in social and political life. For example, the reason for the relaxation of the strict Victorian corsetry was that more women started playing sport. The clothes become truly political when we reach the ‘women in WWI’ section. The transformative role of women in the war is well documented, but the clothes they had to wear also played a part. Women who went to work on farms and in factories, for instance, had to adopt practical clothing.

Design Museum Women Fashion Power Exhibit London Headdress

“Some cite their desire to stand out in a sea of black suits, others just bring the wow-factor

When moving through the space you really get a sense of the fun of fashion, but also of how important it has been throughout history. Reaching the second ‘explosion’ reveals several lines of mannequins guiding the way. The mannequins are dressed in outfits donated by important women from a variety of industries and professions across the world. These include Princess Charlene of Monaco, Mariam Clegg, Shami Chakrabarti, Noami Campbell and Skin, to name a few. Alongside each outfit is a brief bio of each woman and their comments on what they wear and why they wear it. Some cite their desire to stand out in a sea of black suits, others reflect their job and some, like Skin’s feathered and be-jeweled stage piece, just bring the wow-factor.

Pointedly, at no point in the exhibition are the words ‘power dressing’ mentioned. Instead, Loveday wanted to explore the way in which women’s clothing and style is powerful in itself. The subtitle to the exhibition boldly proclaims that ‘Women Fashion Power’ is ‘Not a Multiple Choice’, telling us that these three adjectives are not mutually exclusive: as women we can be both fashionable and powerful.

Fashion is an identity-defining decision we all make every time we get dressed. This wonderful exhibition empowers women and demonstrates how the potency of female fashion stands the test of time.

Women Fashion Power is at the Design Museum until 26th April 2015

Design Museum Women Fashion Power Exhibit London Gallery

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