Chanel's feminists protesting on the runway. Elle's December fashion issue. Harper's Bazaar even has a mention of it in its introduction. It's official feminism is mainstream. After years in the wilderness it has been rehabilitated and adopted by the fashion press. It therefore shouldn't come as an enormous surprise that the Design Museum has got in on the action with its present exhibition , Women Fashion Power. This exhibition charts the changes in the way that women have dressed across the decades, and they ways in which changes in fashion reflect shifts in the culture and law.
The part that interested me most however, was not the social history of women's clothing but the part of the exhibition devoted to the clothing that a selection of successful women had chosen. This was about clothes that show you mean business. A Chanel jacket made an appearance demonstrating it remains the ultimate statement of professional women success.
I came out not particularly inspired the relationship between clothes and the power, but by the focus and celebration of female success. Do the clothes have any relationship with these women's success? No, not really, not unless they work in fashion. There are the predictable statements about high heels and the power of clothing to make women feel confident. All of which I don't doubt for a second. But more than anything this exhibition highlighted to me how little clothing really has to do with power. Its just what you wear. Unless you work in fashion, it has nothing to do with the reason you are powerful. It may signal certain things about you, your taste, your access to wealth and status. It may make you feel nice to feel you look good. It may be fun and creative and a joyful mode of self expression. But none of this has much to do with the reason why these women are powerful.
The problem with this exhibition therefore, like the brand of popular feminism we have seen appear over the past few months, is it failed to grapple with the complex and vexed relationship between power, fashion and femininity. Feminism, since Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In came out, has been enthusiastically been taken up across the mainstream media. But these conversations sadly, have been evacuated of an attempt to unpick the complicated relationship between women as the carriers of beauty, the desire to provide a pleasing appearance and how this relates to asserting oneself in the world. There is therefore a superficiality to this exhibition's engagement with the relationship between fashion design, power and femininity that is common to those champions of the popular feminist movement.
Despite this, I enjoyed this exhibition. There is something uplifting about being surrounded by beautiful clothes and female success stories. But perhaps the most uplifting thing is the realisation of how little what a women likes to wear has to do with her success. Women, fashion, power, as the exhibition tagline says, isn't a multiple choice. But then, there isn't necessarily a correlation between the three either.