In a week that has seen furious debate about whether or not the prime minister should have worn Elle’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, it felt rather apt to go along to the Design Museum’s just opened celebration of power dressing, ‘Women Fashion Power’. As it turned out, it was also enormous fun.
Walking up the stairs into the gallery, there are five line drawn cartoons of women in era-specific outfits, from a shoulder-padded Thatcherite to a flapper. But the exhibition goes beyond the obvious, thus we start with Eve, condemned to wear clothes because she went beyond her allotted power, before moving on to consider the influence Hollywood fashion icons and designers like Elsa Schiaparelli, then to modern icons like Diana and Hilary.
We look at the evolution of the female wardrobe, taking in everything from disco chic to protest clothing, pant suits to neon workout garb, all the while examining the change in the role played by fashion in women’s lives and at how what was once designed to restrict women has become, to some extent, a tool of power.
The exhibition considers how power dressing has been interpreted in different ways over the years, from adopting masculine silhouettes to displaying one’s wealth via opulent jewellery. Naturally, it explores the “cruel contrivances” of the corset, with plenty of examples to browse, then moves on to the arrival of trousers, seen by their early adherents as a way to make “personal adornment… of secondary importance”. The display on nylons, with a photo illustrating how to put on these revolutionary stockings, is a nice reminder of how many innovations we now take for granted, while it’s illuminating to learn how the department store paved the way for a new approach to fashion.
The suffragettes come into it (how could they not?) with a magnificent photo of two women in 1908 advertising a ‘votes for women’ event with the text printed on their apron – a look presumably not sported by any of the male political leaders of the time – and also the costume worn by Meryl Streep to play Emmeline Pankhurst in the forthcoming biopic.
It’s familiar territory: cumbersome swimwear, dresses that made cycling near impossible, ludicrous hats worn by ‘the motor girl’. But even if not all the insights are new, it’s by no means dull. Partly this is because of the assortment of original fashion plates and illustrations (look out for an original Fenwicks catalogue from 1905) and partly it’s because some of the erstwhile fashion fads on show are so astonishingly anachronistic.
The ‘fashion’ element is perhaps more prominent than the ‘power’ aspect; this is more of a tour of how women dressed over the last century and how that impacted their lives than a vigorous examination of the relationship between dress and authority. So there are mannequins wearing exquisite flapper dresses or cheerful wartime prints, and scores of photos, adverts and magazine covers illustrating changing trends, from a still of Diane Keaton in Manhattan to a picture of Jane Fonda in exercise gear.
I would have liked to see more examination of how fashion has been used to suppress women, or pigeonhole them, or how it is still used in this way in many parts of the world. We see Miriam Gonzales Durantez’s dress from the 2013 Lib Dem conference, for example, but the exhibition doesn’t consider why we are still so fixated on the wardrobes of women at or near the epicentre of power. Towards the end, the exhibition suggests that we are seeing the evolution of a new attitude that moves away from playing it safe and following the rules. Maybe, but it didn’t present much evidence of that.
I’m quibbling though, because as a journey through fashion history, it’s still a window on a century of change and the move towards equality and liberation. And it’s not frivolous; just a reminder of how far we’ve come in giving women the freedom to dress how they like, but also how far there is still to go.
Go for the clothes – the original 1966 Yves San Laurent tuxedo for women, the jade suit worn by Margaret Thatcher when she became leader of the Conservative party in 1975 – and for the trivia, like the first ever Marks & Spencer’s colour advertisement. It’s highly enjoyable, if, rather like that feminist t-shirt, not quite about a revolution.
Women Fashion Power is at the Design Museum until 26 April 2015.