Women. Fashion. Power. (Not a multiple choice.)

"Women Fashion Power" at the Design Museum, LondonOn Saturday morning I found myself up, dressed and out of the house far earlier than is usual for me on a weekend. My incentive was a big one though, as I’d been invited to a bloggers breakfast at the Design Museum as part of their new exhibition Women Fashion Power. As a feminist who writes about and researches fashion, this was pretty much the most perfect invitation to land in my inbox and something definitely worth getting out of bed for! We were asked to dress in our most powerful outfit, so I headed to the banks of the river Thames wearing my favourite Fever London dress, accessorised with a Gilbert & George for Tatty Devine gin bottle necklace and – because it’s the Design Museum – my United Nude Eamz pumps. The finishing touches to my powerful look were hair as high as I could manage in five minutes and a rare application of lipstick, in MAC‘s deliciously bright Relentlessly Red. The museum might feel a little bit out of the way for those used to no more than a five minute walk from the Tube, but the views you encounter on the way from London Bridge station to the Design Museum’s current home at Shad Thames will surely make an awestruck tourist out of even the most cynical Londoner. I was first to arrive and was greeted by Press and PR Manager Jenny Stewart who was also wearing Tatty Devine (commissioned for the exhibition).

Curator Donna Loveday talks us through the Women Fashion Power exhibitionAfter coffee and a croissant and a chat with some of the other bloggers on the perils of red carpet dressing – I can’t even remember how we got onto that topic! – we were led up to the gallery space by co-curator Donna Loveday and assistant curator Jenna Rossi-Camus who then gave us an introduction to the exhibition and an extremely informative guided tour. We found out that the space was designed by architect Zaha Hadid around two central explosions – the Timeline and the Arena of Power – and that the curators sought to develop their own ‘power list’ of contemporary women to form a key part of the exhibition. The Timeline section starts in 1850 and focuses on key liberating moments for women that were of political, social and cultural significance. Beginning with the technological developments which made corsets more practical for the wearer and ending with twenty-first century ethical and sustainability issues surrounding fashion, the sheer number of times I gasped with excitement at this section was quite ridiculous. Apologies to all the other bloggers who I no doubt distracted from the fascinating talk with all my oohs and ahs… especially over the underwear!

Suffragette blouse, 1910, loaned by Meg Andrews Antique Costume and TextilesMy joy at seeing a ventilated corset was quickly exceeded by the thrill of standing in front of an original suffragette blouse on open display. The colours of the Women’s Social and Political Union are clearly visible through the lace, showing allegiance whilst also conforming to the dress standards of the day, so as not to alienate potential allies to the cause. The protest dress section was followed by one on motoring, featuring a delightful driving hat, before I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a copy of Mary Phelps Jacob’s patent for an early brassiere (I’m personally not convinced that she was the first, but that’s a whole other blog post!). We were then taken on a journey through the decades, with the exhibits highlighting designers, fabrics and social influences that shaped the way women dressed and expressed themselves through clothing in the twentieth century. Although there was a suit worn by Margaret Thatcher (see image above) and a brief nod to 80s ‘power dressing’, it is evident from this exhibition that there is much more to the concept of Women Fashion Power than masculine influences and Alexis Colby‘s shoulder pads, which Loveday helpfully reminded us were part of an exaggerated screen costume and so not entirely representative of the fashions at the time. I like to think that my early 60s influenced outfit for the day (snapped by the lovely Alyson from That’s Not My Age) proves that femininity can be just as powerful as masculinity.

Outfits from the 'Arena of Power' at the Women Fashion Power exhibitionThe Arena of Power section (see left) features outfits contributed by 26 contemporary women – including CEOs, politicians, designers, directors, musicians and journalists – and looks at how they have ‘used fashion to define and enhance their position in the world’. Each woman was asked a series of questions designed to get them thinking about their clothes, and the text accompanying each outfit is often thought provoking. Loveday read us quotes from journalist Kirsty Wark, mechanical engineer Morwenna Wilson, and Vice-President of Intel Genevieve Bell who said that, as a woman in tech, she is conspicuous as soon as she enters a room so there is no point dressing to fit in. The exhibition ends with a specially commissioned film installation by Ruth Hogben and I loved the quote from Hogben on the Design Museum’s website: ‘This film takes the fashion and removes it from the context of the body. It allows the viewer to focus on what these women wear and the importance of the advice they give, rather than how their figure looks in their clothes. Fashion is not a frivolity, it is an armour. It should be used to elevate rather than disguise oneself.’

There will be a proper exhibition review appearing on Rarely Wears Lipstick at some point over the next couple of months, but I think I’ll need a return visit first as there was just so much to take in! If I’d been able to stay for the rest of the day I might just have had enough time to properly look round, but the guided tour definitely left me wanting more. Once my dissertation is handed in at the end of November, I shall return for a second dose of Women Fashion Power and will provide you with even more reasons to visit the exhibition yourself. It’s on until 26th April 2015 at the Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD.