‘That little seamstress’ is how the renowned Coco Chanel was once disdainfully described by her contemporary Paul Poiret. He targeted her because she was a woman, but in fact he saw her has a major competitor. Times have changed. More fashion houses are now run by women than ever before. A perfect moment, therefore, for an exhibition that focuses on strong women in fashion. Femmes Fatales, which can be seen this autumn at Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, will be the first exhibition in fashion history to focus exclusively on female designers. Do they design differently for women than their male counterparts? What influence have they had? What does being a woman mean in terms of their creations? And what is their vision for fashion? The exhibition will include work by Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mary Quant, Vivienne Westwood, Sonia Rykiel, Miuccia Prada, Maria Grazia Chiuri (Dior), Dutch greats like Fong Leng, Sheila de Vries and Iris van Herpen, and many others.
Femmes Fatales - Sterke vrouwen in de mode
Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior, Miuccia Prada, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garçons), Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen and, until recently, Phoebe Philo for Céline. They are all of them strong women. Their designs dominate today’s catwalks and some of them also campaign for women’s rights or make explicit political statements. Kawakubo took the Paris catwalks by storm in the 1970s under the name ‘Comme des Garçons’, which literally means ‘like the boys’. Throughout her career, Vivienne Westwood has been politically engaged, campaigning for a range of political causes and for the environment.
In the 1980s Katherine Hamnett used the T-shirt as a vehicle of expression. A photograph showing her shaking hands with Margareth Thatcher while wearing a protest shirt is known the world over.
More recently, in her first collection for Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri referred to a lecture and publication by activist and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. She printed this statement on T-shirts in her Spring 2017 collection, which were worn as part of an ensemble inspired by the New Look. A year later, Chiuri again posed a provocative question on a T-shirt: ‘Why Are There No Great Women Artists?’. Chiuri says that the rise of Donald Trump, the women’s protest marches and the #metoo movement have prompted her to become engaged in the public debate. The same applies to Angela Missoni (Missoni). In her autumn 2017 collection show she brought the ‘pussy hats’ designed as a protest against Donald Trump from the street to the catwalk.
With such strong women who not only produce fabulous designs, but also show courage and are not afraid to make clear statements, one can barely imagine that the first female designers had to make their way in a man’s world. Until the abolition of the guilds after the French Revolution, tailoring was exclusively a male profession, as were embroidery and corsetry. Women sewed wool or linen items for women’s wardrobes, made undergarments and children’s clothes, or fine decorations for gowns. In the nineteenth century more and more women worked as ‘couturières’, French for seamstress. But it took a man, the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth, to upgrade their profession, when he coined the term ‘couturier’. Soon afterwards, female couturiers started to open their own couture houses. They included Jeanne Paquin and Jeanne Lanvin, and later Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Grès (Alix Barton) and Elsa Schiaparelli. Like true femmes fatales, they made good use of their femininity when it was expedient to do so, exploiting the fact that they were women to emphasise that they understood completely how best to clothe the female body.
The period after the Second World War saw the emergence of visionary designers like Mary Quant, Sonia Rykiel and Barbara Hulanicki (Biba). This young generation also focused on femininity and comfort. The wrap dress that Diane von Furstenberg designed in the 1970s now seems so natural, but it was a revolution at the time.
Femmes Fatales – Strong Women in Fashion will feature work by an impressive list of Dutch and international female designers. Besides the internationally famous names, the exhibition will also consider the women behind the scenes of many fashion houses, whose far-reaching influence is something that has been completely overlooked in fashion history.
A lavishly illustrated catalogue in English and Dutch will be published by Waanders & De Kunst, in collaboration with fashion journalist Georgette Koning.