Fashion retrospectives and exhibitions are ten-a-penny in London at the moment, and with so many high-profile names being bandied about (Alexander McQueen, anyone?) some of the smaller, more intimate exhibitions can get forgotten about. However, there’s one exhibition that we were dying to get to, and that’s the ‘Women Fashion Power’ show which was on at The Design Museum in Shad Thames.
Described by it’s curator, Donna Loveday, as a ‘celebration of exceptional women’, Women Fashion Power uses the changing fashions of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to tell the story of women’s role in society. It looks at how over several decades women were able to smash the proverbial glass ceiling and begin to take public positions of power and influence – but not without a struggle, one which, as we all know, continues today.
Taking over the first floor of the museum, the exhibition space is relatively small in size, yet is able to tell a great deal through carefully selected pieces, many of which have been personally donated by prominent women from the art, political, fashion and business worlds. Interspersed amongst these donations are a variety of stories and accounts given by women from all walks of life on their relationship with fashion, how they use the clothes they wear to project a specific and controlled image of themselves. This is all positioned alongside video content and other relevant artefacts of interest; including influential fashion photography from the past 100 years, copies of important fashion publications – including the very first issue of Harper’s Bazaar, for example - as well as catalogues, paparazzi photography and even the odd album sleeve.
It is, however, the donated pieces and their accompanying stories that dominate the exhibition. Luminaries such as Shami Chakrabati, Princess Diana, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Anna Jones, Lady Gaga and Angela Merkel – to name just a few – all donated items from their wardrobes and wrote about their own relationship with fashion, and how much (or how little) it mattered to them. Simple dresses from high-street stores are shown alongside clean, utilitarian suits and juxtaposed against flamboyant and mind-boggling pieces from designers such as Gareth Pugh – all highlighting the uniqueness and variety of the women who wear them.
Some have argued that the exhibition itself is patronising to women – reducing the discourse on women’s emancipation to an exploration of the artifice that surrounds them – and the inclusion of certain women in the exhibition has caused controversy. HSH Charlene of Monaco’s donation within the gallery of dresses caused some consternation – with many questioning whether this minor royal has any real role apart from a ‘decorative one’, thus demeaning the concept of the exhibition. Furthermore, the inclusion of one of Margaret Thatcher’s suits is accompanied by a video of the former Prime Minister being interviewed about the importance of her navy blue outfits – one has to wonder whether David Cameron’s wardrobe would be subject to the same scrutiny as hers.
Problematic as these examples are, they simply remind the visitor to question their notions of what power really is, and especially how it relates to women. Yes – women aren’t pushed and bound into the suffocating Victorian corsets that one is confronted with at the start of the exhibition – but perhaps the true emancipation of female power is still being constrained and contorted in far more subtle ways, by demeaning and patronising attitudes that fail to see a world where femininity and authority can coexist. Furthermore, the exhibition as a whole further proves how we use design – in all it’s myriad forms – to tell stories about ourselves, who we are, and who we want to be.