The Guardian, Monday 27 October 2014 20.03 GMT
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An image of Germaine Greer in the Design Museum exhibition: ‘a handbook on second-wave feminism’. Photograph: The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
There has always been fashion. It is an eternal part of the silent language of status and identity. Roman women experimented with stupendous hairdos. Diplomatic visitors to the Tudor court got the message sent out by Elizabeth’s regally bejewelled bodices. Observers understood the unspoken boast of wealth and chastity made by the voluntary incapacity of a Victorian hooped skirt, or the subjection implicit in a whalebone corset. Wealth and power and the social order illustrated by clothes: these elements are fused in an unbroken chain running from the dawn of time.
All this is wonderfully illustrated in an exhibition that opens on Wednesday at the Design Museum in London. It is about women, fashion and power. What is more, it represents an ambitious attempt to correct a misalignment in the way the three interconnect: to put women back in charge.
Some time between the social revolution of the 60s and the explosion of celebrity in the 90s, there was a fundamental shift in the relationship between women and their wardrobes. The escape from the constraints of the 1950s New Look was forgotten; the dedicated follower of fashion slipped into victimhood.
On the political timeline, it happened around the fading of the light of Barbara Castle, who retired from Westminster in 1979, and the ascent of Margaret Thatcher, who became prime minister that year. Castle’s diaries are deeply preoccupied with her hair. There were wigs. And her great solace, after a rough morning in cabinet, was a dash to Xavier’s for a comb out. Clothes get barely a mention.
But Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs talk about childhood dreams of outfits that were more than what her mother thought serviceable, clothes that were frivolous and even fashionable. Later on, however, her wardrobe choices were propelled by more than the freedom granted by a rich husband. They had Gordon Reece – the “man from Mars”, the first of the image makers – behind them. Clothes had become more than a polite assertion of identity. What women wore was turned into a legitimate matter for comment.
On one level this is merely an interesting anthropological development, to do with women having their own money, and the corresponding development – as clothes moved from serviceable to disposable – of a mass fashion industry that is now worth £26bn. But making choice available to everyone implies that they will be exercising judgment. Any judgment so public as the clothes a woman decides to wear, coinciding with the slow intrusion of women into public life, inevitably becomes part of the weaponry directed against them.
This trapped women between the thought that caring about clothes is trivial and the thought that what you wear is such an integral part of your identity that – the moment you step out of your front door – how you look amounts to a personal manifesto. There is an image of Germaine Greer in the Design Museum exhibition that is contrived such that it alone could be used as a handbook on second-wave feminism – trousers, big leather boots, legs anything but demurely crossed.
As result of this shift, millions of people, hardly any of them men, were left uncertainly navigating a difficult space. How much to care, and how obvious should the caring be, and why not just wear black trousers and a shirt every day, like men do. That is the answer for at least one of the successful women – the engineer, Morwenna Wilson – that the Design Museum has persuaded to open up about their relationship with fashion.
Wilson is unusual. Most of the women who have contributed an outfit and the reasons why they like it to the exhibition, successful lawyers and business women, love colour and pattern. What they are not – with the exception of the newly elected mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo – are politicians.
Maybe it’s no surprise, after the promotion of some women in this summer’s reshuffle prompted the infamous Downing Street catwalk pictures, that every single British woman MP was too busy to contribute – even Theresa May, who boldly established a political identity with her choice of leopard-print kitten heels. Nor was Hillary Clinton, “the woman who owns the pant suit” available. Like May, Clinton was said to be keen but unable to participate. All there is to represent perhaps the world’s most irrelevantly judged class of women is an image of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel – a woman who is the living antidote to fashion.
The curious thing is that if politicians are reluctant to engage publicly with fashion, the fashion world is suddenly unusually keen on politics. Victoria Beckham was at the United Nations last month, newly appointed an Aids ambassador. Karl Lagerfeld turned his latest show into une manifestation, with the models waving placards claiming to be “Feminist but Feminine!”
Vivienne Westwood says that “power is being able to play with your identity”.The Design Museum bravely cries: “Women, fashion, power. Not a multiple choice.” It wants to crumple up the whole intolerable burden of women being what they wear and bung it into the back of the wardrobe. It wants to show that women are no longer the victims but the masters. I hope it works.
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