A few years ago, Hillary Clinton responded to a journalist asking about her fashion preferences with, 'Would you ask me this question if I were a man?' The journalist's answer was defensive, of course, but the reasons behind Clinton's reaction are much deeper and more interesting than it might seem. Now on show at the Design Museum, Women Fashion Power ('Not a Multiple Choice', says the title's standfirst) examines this tension with a display of garments that have helped shape the identities of strong, successful women over the ages.
It goes without saying that women's fashion has had a much stronger cultural impact throughout history than men's: corsets, trousers, and silhouettes evolving with time. In the past it was women who were confined to the most restrictive garments, while recently it seems the tables have turned.
Today, women's fashion is loaded with cultural, social and artistic meaning – much more intrinsically than menswear. It drives powerful personalities and contributes directly to their identity. 'This exhibition is very much about the reality of dress,' says Colin McDowell, the fashion journalist who co-curated the exhibition. The show doesn't aim to define a movement, he says, but rather showcase 'how intelligent women take what they need from fashion'.
The exhibition follows two divergent themes, playing on the show's title. At one end, rooms named 'Power and Fashion' and 'Fashion and Women' display a visual history of women's clothing from Eve to the present day, with iconic garments, photographs and historical documents. The third and final room, called 'Women and Power', closes the circle, featuring 26 contemporary women and the clothes they've chosen to represent them.
The diverse group includes women from the fields of politics, culture, entertainment and society, from the singer Skin to Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo, from art curator Julia Peyton-Jones to architect Zaha Hadid. The garments on display come from their personal closets and are significant for having played a role in their impact on the world.
Hadid also helped shape the show itself. Her interior design - along with graphics by LucienneRoberts+ - supports the work of McDowell and Design Museum curator Donna Loveday. While Hadid's structure plays a pivotal role in dividing the space almost unobtrusively, Roberts' dynamic graphics have no problem shouting with light, colour and Perspex. The exhibition's title inspired Roberts to intersect the three key words, 'women', 'fashion' and 'power', in a moving installation. It's a fitting celebration of the powers on show.