exploring women, fashion and power at the design museum

From the shorts of the Suffragettes to the 80s Power Suit to the recent spate of Free The Nipple t-shirts, women have long used fashion as a vehicle to exert their power and get their voices and messages heard.

by Lynette Nylander
18 November 2014, 3:35pm

The Design Museum has come together to celebrate this with the Women Fashion Power exhibition that features outfits and mantras from women as eclectic as Vivienne Westwood, Natalie Massenet, Skin from Skunk Anansie and Zaha Hadid to highlight that whilst the clothes may make the man, it's the power that makes the woman. We spoke to the exhibition curator Donna Loveday at the Skagen Design preview in association with the exhibition (both the brand and the Design Museum are a quarter of a century old this year) to discuss how women, fashion and power always have and always will be inextricably linked.

How has the role of women in fashion changed in the last 50 years?
The clothes that women wore often reflected their positioned in society. Decades of great change have left their mark on contemporary trends. During the course of the 20th century women have gradually taken complete control over how they dress. Prior to this, they had never had the freedom from rules and convention that they now enjoy. An immersive timeline in the exhibition presents a selection of political, social and cultural events from 1850 up the present that have changed women's role in society, and which have had significant impacts on the way that they dressed. A diverse range of exhibits help to illustrate these key liberating moments for women and for fashion.

Why do you think fashion, women and power are so strongly associated?
Throughout history, dress has been a signal of power. It has been used to suggest authority, moral value, wealth and status. The exhibition begins with a corridor of power that looks back at powerful women through history, and how they used dress to project authority, wealth and status. For some women adopting a masculine silhouette has symbolised power. Others have chosen to emphasize their sexuality, at times androgyny has been a sign of autonomy, at other moments, utility. There is an interesting juxtaposition between Joan of Arc in battledress and Elizabeth I wearing opulent bejeweled gowns, both expressing invincibility, but in different ways.

Many exceptional women have shaped history over the centuries but the general rise of women into society's most powerful roles is a very recent development. Women Fashion Power celebrates the achievement of women working in politics, business, culture and fashion, through history and women working today. The exhibition explores how women of power and influence use fashion to define their place in the world.

How do you think fashion makes women feel powerful?
For centuries women emulated men's wardrobes to dress for power, from the battledress of Joan of Arc, to the extreme shoulder padding of the 80s, through to the trouser suits that mimicked men's suits to assert authority. Today we see the evolution of a new attitude that moves away from playing safe and following the rules. Professional women are engaging with contemporary fashion as a way to express individuality, a sense of style and to project a sense of empowerment.

Women Fashion Power surveys the key arenas in which powerful women operate today. Each of the 'power' arenas showcases contemporary women invited to participate in the exhibition. A series of questions has been addressed to each woman and their responses are presented, together with their choice of clothes. The display demonstrates their individual approaches to fashion - in their own words. How high profile women from the spheres of politics, business, culture and fashion use fashion to define their place in the worlds, and a sense of themselves.

The women portrayed in the exhibition seem carefully curated. How did you choose your subjects?
The exhibition started with an intensive period of research reviewing power lists and shortlists for women of the year awards, consulting leadership networks and blogs. I spoke with many women to ask who they considered to be powerful women and why. From this, evolved our own power list of women to approach for the exhibition together with a concept for the exhibition. All of the women we invited to contribute to the exhibition were chosen because they are leaders in their field, and they understand that the clothes they wear are a part of the way that they communicate with the world.

Is the exhibition a reaction to the popularisation of the feminist movement we are currently seeing?
There is a positive message that comes through the exhibition - that fashion can be an important tool for self-expression, a counterpoint to the idea that fashion restricts or enslaves women, or is a frivolous distraction. For many women, fashion is an important part of what empowers them, allowing them to express politics, personality, creativity, and sometimes helping them to create completely new personas. The exhibition helps to provide an understanding of the nature of power for women, how they choose to project power and how it is expressed through fashion.

As Hillary Clinton declared, when interviewed earlier this year, "Now its sorted. Women can express who they are more…You have to be aware of conventions, but you don't have to be a slave to them."



Text Lynette Nylander

Design Museum
donna loveday
fashion inteviews
women fashion power