Women, Fashion, Power – Design Museum

I thought I’d start the year with a controversial topic. Aligning the way women dress with their need for or ability to obtain power is a contentious one, although this exhibition at the Design Museum argues that it is just one tool successful women have used ‘to define and enhance their position in the world.’ Arguably it is something that women have done for thousands of years and a photo-call of queens, socialites and leading female politicians at the start of this show indicates how this has been done. From adopting masculine cuts or shapes into their own dress, using colours or accents with particular political associations or incorporating the accepted iconography of the day, women have long used fashion to publically reinforce whatever image they wish to convey.

In theory then, this should be an interesting and thought-provoking exhibition, and I was expecting to learn how leading individuals have used fashion in their era to enhance their own authority or prestige in the eyes of others. In that initial wall of photos we see the Queen, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Queen Victoria among others – so a lot of interesting subjects to dissect and understand how they have used fashion. But this is not quite the approach the Design Museum takes, and instead we get a roughly chronological walk through the history of clothing and media in the twentieth-century. Frankly is not all that exciting, pedestrian at best and somehow fails to tell us anything much about power and women’s fashion.

It begins well with a small section on the Suffragettes and the colours they used in sashes and other clothing to indicate their allegiance, and in a timely piece of marketing it includes costumes worn by actresses including Carey Mulligan in the new film. There are also a number of horrendous corsets on display, indicating a change in women’s fortunes when the strictures of such garments were finally cast aside – although you’ll probably just be stunned by the tiny waist size which I certainly couldn’t have fitted into even before all the Christmas eating.

Then we move into the main exhibition space designed by architect Zaha Hadid into several branches which you loop round. It’s all very white; white walls, white display cases and white floors which somehow make it seem terribly old-fashioned. It probably looked lovely at the launch party with coloured lights and canapés but by day it’s bland and a million miles from the more dynamic presentation recently used for Gaultier at the Barbican, Isabella Blow at Somerset House and even the V&A’s permanent fashion collection is a little better.

Then come the decade by decade clichés along with a few misnomers; 1920s it is Chanel, no surprises there, and yes she revolutionised fashion but how? What obstacles did she face, how long did it take and how were other influential women affected by her work? Don’t just put a couple of Chanel suits in a glass box and present her influence as inevitable fact. Then we see some beach pyjamas (powerful why?), some 40s actresses in backless dresses which presumably demonstrate their power to wear backless dresses, and some control pants from M&S. Is it just me or is this beginning to lose focus?

The rest of the decades are no better represented and again the idea of power and pop culture significance are a bit confused; the 60s has Twiggy and mini-skirts, the 80s a picture of Joan Collins and no outfits and making sure we tick all the cliché boxes, the 90s a picture of the Spice Girls, no examples of clothing. Other than shouting about girl power twenty years ago, what did wearing skimpy leopard-print dresses and kissing Prince Charles actually lead to? Arguably the music industry is even more sexualised now – what kind of power is that? It’s fine to make the argument that these were female fashion landmarks but you have to actually state your case, not put up a load of random pictures and expect the viewer to join the dots. Had this section focused say on Victoria Beckham they could have been on to a winner; whatever you think of her, using fashion to transform herself from girl band member to industry-respected designer is exactly the kind of story this exhibition should have been telling.

Like all good essays, an exhibition with a clear argument should begin by defining its terms; at no point was it clear what the curators meant by power; quite often this was just compressed with freedom – not quite the same thing. The mini skirt and contraceptive pill certainly gave women freedom but I wanted this exhibition to explain to me exactly how it gave them power and what kind of power – do they mean political or economic power in positions of responsibility, or power of choice over their own bodies and decisions? And who benefited from it, because it certainly wasn’t everyone. They may both use clothes, but do models and actresses really have power in the same way as Hilary Clinton and the Queen? And what about the rest of us, how do ordinary woman, without access to designer dresses and free hairdos use fashion in our daily lives? Isn’t there an even more interesting story to tell about the spread of fashion-consciousness across the population in this period, regardless of age?

There is one section that works really well and that’s a gallery of outfits from some current female CEOs and industry professional. Here there’s some information about the outfit, with quotes from the wearer on how they use clothing in their role. This is great and exactly what the rest of the exhibition should have been like. It has some lovely pieces but by choosing a narrative rather than analytical approach, in its current form, it’s not clear this exhibition has anything new to say on the subject of fashion and power.

Women, Fashion, Power is at the Design Museum until 26 April; tickets are £12.40 with concessions available.


About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 350 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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