Women Fashion Power – Design Museum, London (part 1)

DSCF0950This is my second visit to the Design Museum this year. And as small museums go, this is one of the best. The exhibitions are exceptional in their content, presentation and accessibility. I have already railed against the British Museum. The contrast could not be greater. Whilst there are no opportunities to touch the artefacts (mainly items of clothing), they are all exhibited in such a way that one can view at close quarters. If you want to look carefully at the stitching, you can.

The exhibition runs until 26 April 2015. It starts, naturally, with corsets (examples above left). These were essentially garments of control with dress makers designing only forDSCF0953 those – largely wealthy – women with hour-glass figures. Change comes with the arrival of the concept of, what seemed to me, commercial fashion. French couture became showcased bi-annually in Paris. And that many shows requires constant change. And for women, this was progressive change.

In parallel, Amelia Jenks had the audacity to offer women ‘bloomers’ (right) and the ‘shirtwaist’ – essentially, women were able to wear 2-pieces made up of a shirt and skirt.

DSCF0955But then women took to sport: sea bathing could not realistically be undertaken with even Jenks’s liberated wear. The bathing costume then appears (example left) along with clothes suitable for cycling (another piece of technology eagerly adopted by women). And tennis. And motoring. The brands then emerged led by Creed, Redfearn and Burberry.

The campaigning Suffragettes in the early 20th Century deliberately dressed modestly so as not to conflate political liberation and DSCF0958 decency. But Suffragettes did adopt uniform colours – purple white and green. They also had accessories such as the medal (right). This is a reproduction, but it is a beautiful piece.

The next driver identified in the exhibition is the rise of the department store and mass production itself driven by the rise of the middle-classes, mass consumption and the growth in women’s disposable income.

And finally, in this section, is the patenting in the brassiere by Mary Phelps Jacob. The concept was liberating, it is argued, because it was designed to flatten breasts rather than accentuate them. It was an important de-sexualisation of women.

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