Working it: why the women who wear the clothes give fashion its power

Maggie In Hard Hat

Fashion exhibitions tend to focus on designers. But a subversive new show is turning the spotlight back to where it belongs – from Joan of Arc to Joan Collins

Donna Loveday, co-curator of Women Fashion Power, wants to get one thing clear from the start, when we meet at her office in the Design Museum: this is not, repeat not, an exhibition about power dressing. “I have deliberately avoided using that term. I don’t feel it represents either the way women think, or the way they dress” she says.

Power dressing it may not be, but this is undoubtedly a timely show. The discourse around how women in positions of power and influence dress has never been more fractious. In July, coverage of the appointment of new female cabinet ministers that labelled it the Downing Street Catwalk whipped up a media firestorm. But – as befits a show dominated by such figures as Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Joan of Arc – this is no passive taking-of-minutes on the contemporary argument. Instead, it is an exhibition with a strong agenda.

That agenda is to frame women as the protagonists in the story of what they wear, rather than the victims of fashion. Loveday talks a lot about “how women use clothes”, a format that places women in a dynamic role in their relationship with fashion, rather than seeing them as bound and enslaved by it. And there is another, deeper subversion. Fashion has become a popular subject for museum exhibitions, which tend naturally to place the designer in the spotlight, as artist and hero and creator. In this show, “the women are the heroes, not the designers”, says Loveday. How do designers – traditionally portrayed as the originators of new ideas in fashion – fit into this new picture? “Designers are looking at women. Women are the muses of fashion, and designers are responding to what they want and need, and particularly to changes in those wants and needs.”

Loveday wants the exhibition to be “the start of a conversation”, one which will nudge the discussion around women, power and fashion into a more positive light. After all, the phrase power dressing is inextricably linked to a specific look – the huge-shouldered, Dynasty boardroom suit – which represents a moment in history when women were breaking into traditionally male roles at a rate never seen before. It seems to link these suits to dressing-up-box costumes: there is a whisper lurking somewhere in this expression that power dressing is suspect, that women are dressed for roles they cannot or should not do.

By talking about women, clothes and society rather than about power dressing, Loveday wants to leave behind some of that negativity along with the words. As she says, “fashion is a language, after all”. The concept for the exhibition “came from a team meeting – I can’t take credit for it”, says Loveday. Her co-curator is the fashion writer and historian Colin McDowell, and the exhibition is designed by Zaha Hadid. The show will be officially unveiled by Anne Hidalgo, the first ever female mayor of Paris.

At the time of our meeting the show was yet to be installed, but it will open, says Loveday, with a section devoted to “identifying power through dress”, with images ranging from Boudicca and Elizabeth I to Hillary Clinton. This will be followed by a timeline, which is “not a history of fashion” but highlights key moments of political and social change from 1850 to today, as seen through the prism of what women wear. The choice of starting point is deliberate, at the height of the craze for tiny-waisted corsets: a corset with an 18-inch waist is the starting point for the story of dress reform, and how incremental societal shifts, rather than seasonal trends, drove changes toward a loosened-up silhouette.

The designers who star in this timeline are those who are catalysts for change and are, for the most part, women. Coco Chanel pioneered trousers in the early 20th century; Diane Von Furstenberg the laid-back, sexually liberated wrap dress in the 1970s; Vivienne Westwood punk and the challenging of conventional femininity; Donna Karan the Seven Easy Pieces for time-pressed working women in the 1980s.

The third and final room will be a series of 28 fashion portraits of contemporary women, from the fields of politics, business, culture and fashion. Each was asked to select an outfit that represented empowerment to them, and each has answered a Q&A about how clothes fit into their working lives. This, says Loveday, was the most nerve-racking part of putting on the exhibition. Women in politics and business, in particular, are often terrified that declaring an interest in fashion will have them pigeonholed as frivolous. “But one of the first women who came on board was Miriam González Durántez, lawyer and the partner of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. She chose a Zara dress she wore to the Lib Dem party conference last year.” (In her Q&A, she describes her relationship with clothes as “uncomplicated” and in answer to the question of what percentage of her income goes on clothes, says: “I do not know. Much more since Nick is in politics.”)

Broadcaster and author Kirsty Wark was another early supporter of the exhibition. “She was one of the first women I spoke to, and her reaction was: what a great subject, why has no one done this before?” says Loveday.

The contemporary portraits are encouraging, says Loveday, in what they tell us about the way we dress now. “What came across really strongly was that it’s not about trying to play by someone else’s rules, any more. Clothes are about projecting personality, not about conforming.”

Wark says: “I do not have an outfit that would empower me. But I do have a beautiful Prada dress that I always feel great in.”

Morwenna Wilson, chartered engineer leading King’s Cross construction projects and, at 31, the youngest woman featured, says: “Clothes give you the opportunity to blend into the crowd or stand out from the crowd … My aim, generally, is to stand out from the black, navy and grey-suited crowd. A bright pop of colour makes people notice and remember you, and when you have their visual attention they can be more open to listening.”

There is also a more prosaic message, about practicality as a driver for changing fashion. “A lot of women talk about throwing clothes in a suitcase; women are very practical and conscious of clothes which will save them time. Akris, who make clothes for Princess Charlene of Monaco, told us that she has a lot of input into what they create. She even drives fabric development: they have devised a new fabric in order to make a cocktail dress that comes out of a suitcase crease-free,” says Loveday.

The exhibition spotlights how the shape of women in the public eye has shifted back and forth between ultra-feminine and quasi-masculine silhouettes. Boudicca and Joan of Arc appropriated masculine sartorial language with their battle dress. The suffragettes “chose to embrace femininity in their dress, because they were monstered for being unnatural and mannish, and to counterbalance that they had a deliberate tactic of dressing in a conventional, ladylike way. There’s a sense of power coming from embodying your gender, not denying it.”

The 1980s power suit itself is represented by vintage Mugler and Versace, while images from Dynasty and Dallas are used to show how the image of the power suit, borrowed from menswear, was disseminated through popular culture “at a moment when women suddenly had more power and visibility in the workplace”. A Kazakhstan businesswoman featured among the contemporary figures, who frequently networks at evening events, has chosen a lavish Dolce evening gown as the outfit that represents empowerment to her.

Is the exhibition, which focuses on very successful prominent women, elitist? “It might seem that way, but I think it’s pertinent to all women who work,” says Loveday. “I have found it has made me think about what I wear in a different way. I’ve always loved fashion, but it has prompted me to think more about clothes in terms of what I love, and what works for me, rather than automatically buying what I perceive as fashion. That seems like progress, to me.”

• Women Fashion Power is at the Design Museum, London, from 29 October to 26 April 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jess Cartner-Morley, for The Guardian on Thursday 23rd October 2014 07.30 Europe/London

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