Fashion & Textile History Gallery
December 10, 2019 – May 9, 2020
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Today, we see a multitude of sartorial power symbols, from “power suits” to “power
heels.” But what makes a garment “powerful”? According to sociologist and political
theorist Steven Lukes: “We speak and write about power, in innumerable situations,
and we usually know, or think we know, perfectly well what we mean ... And yet, among
those who have reflected on the matter, there is no agreement about how to define
it, how to conceive it, how to study it, and, if it can be measured, how to measure
Reebok by Pyer Moss Collection 1, fall 2018. Photo courtesy of Pyer Moss shot by Maria
Christian Dior by Maria Grazie Chiuri, spring 2017. Photo firstVIEW.com.
Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, shoes, cruise 2009, France, gift of CHANEL. 2012.63.1
If we think of power in terms of kinetic force (for example, electrical power or a
person’s physical power over another), clearly an inanimate item of clothing does
not have actual power. The force of fashion is symbolic. It is social. It lies in
the sphere of interpersonal relations and cultural dynamics. There is no single, universally
accepted definition of power. Power means different things to different people at
different times. As such, its connection to fashion is multifaceted, and a multifaceted
approach is necessary for considering the role fashion plays in power dynamics both
historically and today.
The exhibition is organized into five thematic sections, each devoted to a particular
type of sartorial “power.” In each section, men’s and women’s clothing are considered
side by side, and pieces from as early as the eighteenth century are juxtaposed with
looks from contemporary collections.
The first section considers military uniforms and their transformation into fashion
items. Modern military uniforms combine tailoring with an elaborate code of patches,
braiding, stripes, colors, and metalwork that makes the solider a walking extension
of the state’s power. In fashion, a company logo replaces the state’s seal, but uniform-inspired
silhouettes, colors, textiles, buttons, etc., become visual shorthand for the power,
strength, and authority of the military. It is the power of association.
WWII “Ike” jacket, 1945, USA, gift of Mary Jane Pool. 90.171.5
Burberry, ensemble, fall 2010, England, gift of Burberry. 2010.62.1
The second looks at status dressing from ermine capes and luxurious brocade fabrics
to contemporary “It” bags and logo-covered products. Wealth and class are key to understanding
the role status dressing plays in modern society as are issues of taste. In 1899,
Thorstein Veblen laid out his theory of “conspicuous consumption” to highlight the
performance in owning and displaying status goods. While status dressing was
once reserved for monarchs and aristocrats, today Peter McNeil and Giorgio Reillo
observe that “consumers think that luxury is something that everyone should aspire
to.” This is the paradox of contemporary status dressing — accessible luxury.
The exhibition opens with a display of military and military-inspired ensembles, including
a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel’s “dress blue” uniform, a World War II–era “Ike” jacket,
and looks from Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry, and Ralph Lauren. Modern military uniforms
combine tailoring with an elaborate code of patches, braiding, stripes, colors, and
metalwork that makes the soldier a walking extension of the state’s power. In fashion,
a company logo replaces the state’s seal, but uniform-inspired silhouettes, colors,
textiles, and buttons become visual shorthand for the power, strength, and authority
of the military. It is the power of association.
The next section focuses on different modes of status dressing that have emerged over
the last 250 years, from ermine capes and luxurious brocade fabrics to contemporary
“It” bags and logo-covered products. Aspiration, wealth, and Thorstein Veblen’s theory
of “conspicuous consumption” are key to understanding the role status dressing plays
in modern society. An 18th-century robe à la française demonstrates the importance of ornate, expensive textiles to courtly dress, while
a Balenciaga puffer coat shows the way brand names have become crucial decorative
elements in luxury fashion today.
Robe à la française, 1760-1775, USA, museum purchase. 2017.2.1
Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, necklace, fall 1991, France, gift of Depuis 1924. 2013.56.1
Vetements, Demna Gvasalia, T-shirt, spring 2016, France, museum purchase. 2018.46.1
From status dressing, the exhibition moves to consider the history of the suit. The
sharply tailored suit is perhaps the most conventional example of “power dressing.”
Indeed, the term power dressing was often used to describe the big-shouldered suits
worn by upwardly mobile business men and women during the 1980s. However, the history
of the suit is more nuanced. Anne Hollander points out, “Heads of state wear suits
… and men accused of rape and murder wear them in court to help their chances of acquittal.”
In court rooms and office spaces, the suit isn’t just a symbol of authority. It is
also a sign of blending in — submitting to established norms and dress codes.
Yves Saint Laurent, suit, 1979, France, gift of Lauren Bacall. 86.101.17
Thom Browne, man’s suit and bag, 2018, USA, gift of Thom Browne. 2019.5.1
The next section considers the role of resistance dressing. Blue jeans, printed T-shirts,
and black leather jackets have become some of the most common symbols of resistance
in clothing. They signal a certain type of power that is subversive of established
authority. It is the power of protest and rebellion. There is a tension between resistance
clothing and “fashion,” with the later often being dismissed as surface-level commodification.
But the relationship is not so simple — fashion can also be a vehicle for protest
as seen in the recent work of Kerby Jean-Raymond for his label Pyer Moss.
Off-White, Virgil Abloh, “Hoodie” sweatshirt, fall 2018, Italy, gift of Off-White. 2019.8.1
“Pussyhat,” 2017, USA, gift of Colleen Hill. 2018.14.1
Shorts, circa 1970, USA, gift of the Nancy Hariton Gewirz Collection. 2016.20.3
Finally, the fifth section analyzes objects associated with sex and sexuality. are
culturally coded as “sexy.” Corsets, leather, lingerie, and high-heeled boots are
but a few examples. The power dynamics of these garments are inherently complex. How
a garment is interpreted can fluctuate between dominance and subjugation. As fashion
critic Holly Brubach once said of Versace’s famous 1992 bondage collection, it “riles
women who think this is exploitative and appeals to women who think of his dominatrix
look as a great Amazonian statement. It could go either way.” Power Mode is a curatorial experiment. It aims to combine theory with history and object analysis
in order to better understand the complex nature of power in fashion as well as the
ways fashion can be key to a broader understanding of power dynamics in culture.
Diana Slip, fetish boots, circa 1930, France, museum purchase. 2013.50.1
Givenchy, Ricardo Tisci, ensemble, spring 2011, France, gift of Givenchy by Ricardo
A more in-depth discussion of the themes represented in the exhibition will be articulated
in the lavishly illustrated accompanying book, also titled Power Mode: The Force of Fashion, edited by exhibition curator Emma McClendon and published by Skira. The book delves
deeper into theory and history to investigate how certain garments have come to be
culturally associated with power, as well as how their meanings have evolved over
time. It also examines how fashion designers have interpreted these stylistic archetypes
— both to convey and to subvert power.
Chapter texts by McClendon are joined by object-based essays from renowned fashion
scholars Valerie Steele, Christopher Breward, Jennifer Craik, and Peter McNeil, as
well as Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Robin Givhan. The book also includes an
essay by Kimberly M. Jenkins on the intersection of race, fashion, and power. This
collection of texts will offer readers a variety of perspectives to help form a theoretical
framework for considering the power dynamics inherent in fashion objects.
Power Mode: The Force of Fashion is organized by Emma McClendon, associate curator of costume.