Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice

The title of the Design Museum’s current exhibition, Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice, immediately caught my eye and I was interested to see how they might explore the concepts when I started noticing their posters around London. An exhibition which promises to show the wardrobes of both Margaret Thatcher and Lady Gaga is bound to intrigue. The Design Museum itself is worth a visit as it is a striking white building set on the edge of the Thames near Tower Bridge. However, there are plans for the museum to move from it’s current home to another in South Kensington to enable a permanent, free collection to be showcased. Inside the Shad Thames building everything is carefully chosen and stylishly Spartan. My favourite part of the building was a swirl of handing lights which descended in the middle of the stair case to be reflected by a mirror at the base. This emphasised the unusual light bulbs which featured and were also part of an installation elsewhere.

Unfortunately while I enjoyed visiting the museum itself I was less impressed with the exhibition I had come to see. I had expected an examination of how particular women had either used fashion to demonstrate their power or how fashion had bolstered claims to strength and power. Instead the exhibition started with brief allusions to tired examples of powerful women across history, such as Boadicea, Elizabeth I and Hillary Clinton before chronologically presenting the development of female fashion with basic explanations. Corsets were followed by flappers, the New Look and shoulder pads and I struggled to see how this illustrated women empowered by fashion. The lives of women continued to appear to be restricted by their clothes as stays, tights and heels all dictated the limits of how they could act. I was also frustrated by the layout of the exhibition as the panels were close together, channelling people and quickly creating bottlenecks of necks craning to see an item or some information. Therefore it was easier to go round the exhibition out of order, choosing to dart between decades as empty spaces appeared.

The exhibition really came alive towards the end when it featured the clothes of modern successful and professional women. They ranged from Zaha Hadid to Camila Batmanghelidjh and also Lady Gaga. I was immediately engaged by how each woman uses fashion in her professional life, reflecting both her personality but also the practicalities of the job. While some featured Zara dresses or their everyday suits others chose the Chanel handbags they bought to celebrate achievements or custom made jackets. Hadid’s jacket appeared as structurally sound and fascinating as any of her buildings while Batmanghelidjh’s dress sewed together fabric she received from the children she helps and works with and she often rearranges the selection as time passes. The variety of this display proved that fashion can branch out in a myriad of directions and a single narrative cannot hope to capture this.

Without a doubt my favourite dress in the exhibition was Lady Gaga’s dress made out of bin bags. The material was so carefully cut, shaped and styled that it was difficult to believe that it is also commonly disposed of throughout households in the land. The dress cascaded and fluttered, even as it was worn by a motionless mannequin so I can only imagine the effect it would have when worn by a living, breathing Lady Gaga. I have to admit that while I loved the dress I am unlikely to attempt to recreate it myself as I can imagine that it can become rather too warm to wear. Nevertheless, this reassessment of what can constitute fashion was a wonderful way to end the exhibition.

The exhibition continues until the 26th of April.

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