For an exhibition with such an empowering title, I was intrigued to see what was being shown. Displayed at the Design Museum, it presented a timeline of women’s fashion until the present day. That said, the question of power was up for discussion, from the tiny corsets that squish women into an hourglass (arguably, the most dominant shape shown to be desirable throughout history), to the laughable early swimming costumes that showed an aversion to exposed flesh (it was simply a waterproof outfit).
On one hand, I couldn’t help but feel that aspects of fashion should be questioned and critiqued. In the Victorian period, women cinched in their waists with these corsets, and added fabric to their hips to emphasis the same shape that women are now striving to achieve through cosmetic surgery and Gok Wan’s cinch belts (the former sometimes having led to deaths). Surely, our bodies are not simply a fashion statement?
What’s powerful about fashion is not items that exist to appease the male gaze. I liked to learn about the headscarves worn when women took on traditionally male jobs, showing images of a mass of women putting on makeup at rows of mirrors. There’s a sense of camaraderie there, which is evocative of the ‘We Can Do It!’ image. When wearing this now as vintage fashion, it seems to stand for something more empowering. I wasn’t much interested in the images of those in identikit suits, especially when featuring Margaret Thatcher as any kind of icon. It was far more engaging to learn about everyday women, from wartime working women to today’s successful businesswomen and arts professionals.
When wearing this now as vintage fashion, it seems to stand for something more empowering
Yet, sexuality can be empowering too. Perhaps this was most emblematic in the sensuality of Hollywood actress photographs, along with the flapper dresses, and adoption of masculine tailoring. When considering fashion choices, what’s important is that women can occupy these seemingly contradictory spaces. Women can play with clothes; one day wearing a typically feminine, flesh-exposing dress, and the other day suited in a shirt and bow tie. Today we often pick and choose elements from the past, mixed with today’s trends in order to find a style of our own. Rather than simply following fashion, most women can get pleasure from the role of play, and that can be powerful.
Whilst we can critique the concept of things such as make-up, most women would balk at a man who says we look better without make-up. This is because make-up, like the clothes we choose, is more often not a means of attracting men, and more because we find enjoyment out of such things. When going out, some women may even claim that they sometimes enjoy the preparation of going out more than the night itself, whether chatting with friends at the same time, or pumping music and dancing alone in your underwear.
Whilst the ‘Corridor of Power’ felt a little flat compared to the rest of the exhibition, the text and images featured in the 150-year timeline provoked the most interest. This looked at events such as the 1920s suffragette movement and the second wave feminism of the 1960s. This showed the purple and green ‘Votes for Women’ sash, Suffragette hat, and illustrations, as well as image of Germaine Greer as the face of 1960s Feminism. However, this seemed a narrow version of Feminism, and in an exhibition with such an overtly Feminist statement, it would have been nice to see more contemporary examples of women today that gave a more current feel of women today. A good example of this would be Sara Shamasavai’s work at the Southbank Centre, featuring women in veils, where it becomes both a tool for styling and a symbol of religious and/or cultural identity.
Despite the involvement of Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid, images still tended to focus on white, western fashion. Perhaps this reflects a wider problem in the fashion industry, in an exhibition that focused on more of the more recognisable names. Although Amelia Troubridge captured an essence of the subject of her photographs in the ‘Joan of Arc had Style’ series running through the exhibition, given the controversy of Lily Allen’s brand of Feminism shown in video ‘Hard Out Here’, surely the lack of women of colour is not something to be ignored? Only as writing this has Cosmopolitan Magazine needed to apologise for labelling three black women in the ‘R.I.P’ column, and replaced by white women with the ‘Hello Gorgeous’ label.
Cosmopolitan Magazine needed to apologise for labelling three black women in the ‘R.I.P’ column, and replaced by white women with the ‘Hello Gorgeous’ label.”
Again, the matter of taste dictated to what viewers are drawn. It was when I saw the skater skirts decorated with bowling pins and illustrations of The Beatles that I had wanted to snap some pictures, or even take them off the display and take them home with me. This made me think of rock ‘n’ roll music, and reminded me of the time me and some friends dressed in 1950s-style dresses to go to Ed’s Diner as teenagers.
It was interesting to make the connections between fashion and music, and again I enjoyed seeing the bin-bag creation from Lady GaGa’s wardrobe, and the stage outfits of Skin aka Deborah Dyer of Skunk Anansie. With the mention of my era (1990s/2000s) with the Spice Girls and grunge, it made me think of how both musical and fashion tastes had influenced me. Again, women and girls can be seemingly contradictory, but I remembered rocking denim cut-off shorts and a black Spice Girls t-shirt one summer, which seems to sum up this idea. Although ‘Girl Power’ is often seen as a watered-down, capitalist version of Feminism, I believe it was all part and parcel of who I am today.
Although ‘Girl Power’ is often seen as a watered-down capitalist version of Feminism, I believe it was all part and parcel of who I am today.
Towards the end of the exhibition we were introduced to the idea of more ethical fashion. Yet this was more about the environment than any issues about factory working conditions or use of organic cotton. On the whole, I learnt about fashion through the ages, yet I think it failed to deliver perhaps because of the scale of the exhibition. It had room to be a lot bigger, and there seemed to be an absence of everyday women today. Rather than only seen outfits from current celebrity culture and the business world, I would have been more interested to see who the head-scarfed factory women are today.
Exhibition continues until 26th April.