The Design Museum: How Powerful Women Dress, From QEI to Clinton


“Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice.” These giant stenciled words jump out at you as you approach the Design Museum‘s conspicuous white building on the historic riverside street of Shad Thames, a five-minute walk east from Tower Bridge. It’s not an exhibition about power dressing–though plenty of the outfits on display have impact–it’s an exploration of women’s relationship with fashion throughout history. Most interestingly, it’s about how powerful women have used fashion to send signals about who they were and what they could accomplish. Fashion is often seen as frivolous, but the women featured in this exhibit are anything but. Go with your girlfriends and immerse yourself in the incredible pieces of clothing and accessories on display, as well as the gorgeous photography, vintage magazine covers, and video footage that shows how women’s fashion has evolved over the years.

As you mount the dazzling white steps up to the Design Museum exhibition, you’ll see five simple wall stencils of women across the ages. Walking into the room, you look up at the light fixtures, which appear to be huge shards of a broken mirror, and see yourself.

The first section of the exhibition examines power through dress, featuring images of Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Elizabeth I – taking you right up to the present with Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel. You and your lady friends will be struck by how many women have adopted a masculine silhouette to emphasise their power. Next you’ll start following a timeline from 1850 until the present day – not a history of fashion as such, but rather a collection of critical moments of political and social change seen through the lens of women’s apparel.

Beginning with eight Victorian corsets, the timeline shows the evolution from restrictive garments to a looser silhouette. It examines how women began wearing trousers then moves on to the suffragettes (look out for an amazing suffragette hat from 1900), women’s work and sporting attire (including the birth of the bathing suit), right through to Coco Chanel dress suits, Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses, Vivienne Westwood punk apparel, and today’s popular fashions.

You end on a series of 28 fashion portraits of contemporary women from politics, business, culture, and fashion – including Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, partner of an international legal firm and Nick Clegg’s wife; Natalie Massenet, founder of designer fashion portal Net-a-Porter; and model Naomi Campbell. Each woman has been asked to choose an outfit that represents empowerment to them, and each one has answered a Q&A about how clothes fit into her working life. By the end of the exhibition, you and your girlfriends might be rethinking your wardrobes.

Follow the Priceless Cities blog on Twitter.

The Design Museum

28 Shad Thames London SE1 2YD

44 020 7403 6933

Get Directions

Our writers' favourites

- Enter Your Location -
- or -