London exhibition celebrates female empowerment through fashion

By Li-mei Hoang
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A visitor looks at clothing on display in the "Women Fashion Power exhibition at the Design Museum in London

A visitor looks at clothing on display in the "Women Fashion Power exhibition at the Design Museum in London November 4, 2014. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

By Li-mei Hoang

LONDON (Reuters) - From a jade green wool dress suit worn by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to the suffragettes' lace blouses, clothes have been a defining feature of women's empowerment, according to a new exhibition in London.

"Women Fashion Power" at London's Design Museum features items of clothing from the past 150 years that have come to be associated with key moments in the lives of women in positions of authority.

Items on display include a delicate lace blouse worn by members of the 19th-century suffragette movement, which campaigned for British women to get the vote, Thatcher's green dress suit and a black beaded evening gown worn by the late Princess Diana.

"Throughout history women have used dress in a very deliberate way to express power and authority. We have tried to give a historical context and really introduce the whole idea of using dress to express power," co-curator Donna Loveday said.

She is careful, though, to draw a distinction between women using clothes to express a sense of empowerment, and the 1980s trend for power dressing.

“I have not used the term 'power dressing' very deliberately, because I think that evokes a very particular image of that very masculine aggressive power look that we associated with the 1980s,” Loveday said.

The exhibition is intended to show how women have used clothes to define how they want to be seen.

“So I think there is a new attitude to clothes, it’s not something that is silly or frivolous," Loveday said.

"It is not something that restricts women or enslaves them. It is something that women are actively engaging with and using to project a sense of style, very individual, using it to express a sense of style and empowerment and authority.”

The suffragettes wore clothes that would make them appear more sensible and rational as opposed to ultra feminine, she said.

Beaded 1920s flapper dresses, mini skirts by designer Mary Quant in the early 1950s, and a leopard-print wrap dress by designer Diane von Fürstenberg are also highlighted by Loveday as key moments in fashion that define women's growing independence.

She was particularly interested in the wardrobes of contemporary women in power and asked 26 of them, across politics, business, culture and fashion to contribute an outfit to the exhibition.

Contributors included Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, who designed the London Aquatic Centre for the 2012 Olympics, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo. The exhibition also includes taped interviews with the 26 women where they discuss what fashion means to them.

"There's a freedom that is reflected in the final exhibition through our contemporary women," Loveday said.

"Women Fashion Power" runs until April 26 at London's Design Museum.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Susan Fenton)