Women Fashion Power at the Design Museum 14.11.14

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Twenty-six women have contributed outfits to this Zaha Hadid-designed exhibition about the empowering effects of fashion. But the clothes seem somewhat meaningless without their wearer or context, finds Riya Patel

With a title fit for a Beyoncé album, this punchy-sounding Design Museum exhibition sets out to celebrate women who use dress as a weapon in their professional arsenal. Women Fashion Power is "not a fashion exhibition", said co-curator Colin McDowell at the opening last month, "but a look at how women use fashion in their working lives".

Twenty-six women including Vivienne Westwood, Pearl Lam, Roksanda Ilincic, Natalie Massenet, Julia Peyton-Jones and Zaha Hadid (who appointed herself to design the exhibition) have been asked to contribute an outfit and description of its importance to them. Worn by mannequins aligned along axes of Hadid's splintered layout, the ensembles range from the spectacular to the beautifully-made but banal.

Singer Skin's leather and mirrored Perspex shoulder piece and Lam's red crocodile-skin skirt mix with Chanel jackets, polite trouser suits and knee-length dresses like guests thrown together at an awkward party. The range of contributions is impressive, but seen dispossessed of their owners, and on mannequins of even size and shape, it's easy for the clothes to lose impact in such a display. The sequinned gloves and satin Prada cape that wrapped Hadid on the opening night of her Stirling prize-winning Maxxi Museum, for instance, seem meaningless without context and her formidable self within.

More interesting is the exhibition's second half – a whistle-stop tour of the subject through history, from biblical Eve's fig leaf, through Suffragettes' sashes and ribbons, to the suit Margaret Thatcher wore on becoming Conservative Party leader in 1975. More than any of the modern women, Thatcher stands out as someone who truly saw clothes as a function of power. Her broad-shouldered turquoise skirt suit, with striped pussy bow, was by Mansfield: a now-defunct British clothing manufacturer that Thatcher championed by wearing in public.

Women Fashion Power doesn't quite live up to the clout of its title, but perhaps that's less to do with the show's shortcomings and more about the uneasy situation it addresses. Putting clothes on a pedestal may feel like an odd form of celebration to the many women who think what they wear shouldn't matter over what they do. And some may wonder what's to celebrate at all in a time when women still fall behind their male counterparts in pay and opportunity. This show might inspire one way to redress the balance, but you get the feeling it's going to take a lot more than fashion to do that.

Women Fashion Power is at the Design Museum, London, until 26 April 2015



Riya Patel


Images: Mirren Rosie

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Putting clothes on a pedestal may feel like an odd form of celebration to the many women who think what they wear shouldn't matter over what they do

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