Review: Women Fashion Power, Design Museum, London

Women Fashion Power opened at the Design Museum on the south side of the Thames in London on 29 October 2014 and is on display until 26 April 2015Co-curated by Donna Loveday, Head of Curatorial at the Design Museum, and Colin McDowell, fashion commentator and writer, the exhibition offers an unprecedented look at how princesses, models, CEOs, Dames and designers have used fashion to define and enhance their position in the world.”

A view of the exhibition from the back so you can see the third section Fashion and Women in the foreground, the second section Power and Fashion in the background.

Over one floor, the curators have chosen to approach the subject by splitting sources into three sections: Women and Power; Power and Fashion; Fashion and Women.  The first section, Power and Fashion, presents the visitor with a line up of historical portraits representing well known women in positions of authority including Cleopatra, Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Queen Elizabeth II.  The second section, Fashion and Women, invites the visitor to look at how fashion has enabled women to obtain a range of increasing freedoms since the mid 19th century.  The final section, Women and Power, is dedicated to a display of 28 mannequins, dressed in a range of outfits lent by women considered to be successful in the fields of fashion, politics, business and culture.  Each outfit is accompanied by a photograph of the individual woman and her explanation of its significance in her working life.

A view of the first section Power and Fashion, featuring portraits and descriptions.

Upon reading the museum’s description of this exhibition, I was given the impression that the third section, featuring what Loveday describes as a series of “fashion portraits of contemporary women” would be the main highlight and therefore would have the most space given over to it.  For me, this was an exciting prospect because, as Loveday explained in an interview with Jess Cartner-Morley before the exhibition opened to the public,  ‘women are the heroes’ of what they wear, not fashion designers or retailers.  Since I received Women in Clothes for Christmas, I have poured over endless case studies of women thinking about what they wear, in all sorts of ways and with all sorts of clothes.  Each women featured is a hero in her own life, often the result of a complex and intimate relationship with what they wear so I could not have agreed more with Loveday’s comment.  Subsequently, I expected Women Fashion Power to invite me in and contemplate the ways in which fashion, dress, authority, success and politics create interesting intersections within the lives of a bunch of real women who hold a range of positions of power in society.

A view of the stairwell going up to the exhibition entrance featuring graphics by Lucienne Roberts.

Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong.  To begin with, the exhibition is dominated by the second section on Fashion and Women. Covering over 150 years of fashion developments from the corset to ethical fashion, the displays chart how changes in what women have worn are the result of important social, political and economic changes, not just whims of fashion or frivolity. Despite Loveday’s insistence that it is not a history of fashion, it clearly is and this is reflected in the physical layout of sources, which are arranged chronologically.   I was met with predictable displays dedicated to eponymous designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Diane von Furstenburg or Coco Chanel and arrangements on the promotion of fashion or couture. Teleological in approach, this section appears to make very simplistic links between developments in fashion and increasing freedoms bestowed upon women in the last century.  

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‘Feminism’ and the Wonderbra (authors own photographs)

To see ‘Feminism’ reduced to a small display was disheartening, given how much the ideas associated with both the historical movement and theoretical discipline have not only informed women’s dress since but also reframed our understanding of women lives in the past.  When I came across a display of the well analysed Wonderbra advertisement featuring Eva Herzigova from 1995 without any explanation, it was difficult not to feel further disappointment.  Where were the documented experiences of women at certain historical moments and how they related what they wore to those events?  I did manage to find one example of this in a clip from a documentary in 1979 by the BBC called An English Woman’s Wardrobe.  It featured Margaret Thatcher going through her wardrobe, pulling out outfits that she had worn and explaining their significance to the presenter.  It was absolutely fascinating to see how interested and aware Thatcher was about what she wore and when.  If women in positions of power are this highly aware of what they wear, surely the rest of us are pretty conscious of the fact too?


Margaret Thatcher discussing her wardrobe (authors own photograph)

To get to the third section, Women and Power, where I was hoping to find the real women, I had to go to the very back of the exhibition.  Given that this was a fashion exhibition that claimed to show how women related to fashion in their work lives, I think the fashion figures were unnecessary; many of them already feature in the second section.  Other figures include Camila Batmanghelidjh, Skin from Skunk Anansie and Dame Zaha Hadid.  Anyone familiar with those I have just named will know they represent a diversity of shapes, ages, ethnicities and styles so I was very surprised to find that all their outfits had been presented on identical mannequins, thereby diminishing both the status of the wearer and the significance of their clothes.

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Camila Batmanghelidjh’s photograph and outfit (authors own photographs)

I felt better when I discovered there are interviews, Q&As, with all the women featured about what they wear and their daily work lives, nicely ecohing the ethos of Women in Clothes and reminding us of their various individualities. Yet, these are presented as printouts within A4 binders so could easily be overlooked.  They require time to read, and after having spent too much time trying to negotiate the second section, I was unable to give them my full attention.


Q&As on display at the back (authors own photograph)

Although the selection of women represent important sectors such as business, politics and culture, it was a shame not to see education, health or science included.   It is not surprising, therefore, that like many I was drawn to the outfit of Morwenna Wilson, a chartered engineer who has led the Kings Cross construction project in London.  Here is a woman whom we might never see otherwise, given what she does for a living.  Her decision to compliment a daily uniform of black trousers and white top with a range of interesting jackets, including one by Carven featuring a map of Paris, in an effort to be noticed within her work environment spoke volumes.  As a successful woman in a field dominated by men, Wilson drew attention to the subtle but important way clothes can help to define oneself in environments where dress conformity tends to be standardised.  Her interest in what to wear reminded me just how much gender roles and stereotypes inform what women wear and how little this is addressed throughout the exhibition.

Morwenna Wilson wearing her Carven jacket

If, as Loveday suggests, this is an attempt to explore fashion beyond the obvious term ‘power dressing’ associated with the 1980s then, yes, the exhibition definitely does that but, overall, it is underwhelming, only hinting at the complexities of how actual women negotiate power in their lives through dress.  There is a certain irony in this, considering just how many fantastic objects are on display.  

I probably should have spotted the clue in the title.  Women Fashion Power.  Not a Multiple Choice.  This exhibition is about women and fashion, which is the obvious bit.  Power, arguably less apparent but much more fascinating is sort of stuck on at the end. Fashion, power and women may not be about multiple choices but its a shame that the exhibition did not fully explore these limitations or discuss how women could have more choice in the future.  A more impactful exhibition might have emerged if the title had been rearranged to become Power Women Fashion.

I would love to hear what you thought of this exhibition, especially the 28 fashion portraits and the Q&As if you had a chance to read them.  How is what you wear informed by what you do in your work, where you work and with whom?


Opening image from the exhibition of women wearing beachwear in the 1930s. Image credit: []

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