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By Peabody Essex Museum
Since the early suffragettes led marches in head-to-toe white ensembles, fashion has been political. More recently, women lawmakers of the Democratic party wore white to express solidarity at the 2020 State of the Union address and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wore a gleaming white pantsuit to deliver her acceptance speech in Delaware.
It’s easy to dismiss fashion as superficial, frivolous, and vain. But a new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) proves it’s so much more than that. In a year that marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, granting some women the right to vote, PEM is examining how women have pursued equality and greater opportunity in the world of fashion.
The stories of over 70 remarkable women are told in Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion, opening at PEM on November 21. The exhibition covers 250 years of fashion through the eyes of women, whose experiences intersect with the history of women’s ongoing struggle for equality.
“We hope to bring attention to the names and stories of women, some famous, some lesser-known, to expand our understanding of the lasting impact these individuals made,” says Petra Slinkard, PEM’s Director of Curatorial Affairs and The Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles.
Organized in collaboration with Kunstmuseum Den Haag in the Netherlands, the exhibition incorporates 25 ensembles from PEM’s renowned fashion collection, including sportswear by 20th-century designer Claire McCardell and pieces from the retail empire of L.P. Hollander, founded by a pioneering Boston businesswoman in the 19th century. Designers featured include Valentina, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, Phoebe Philo, Vivienne Westwood, Donna Karan, and Tracy Reese, among many others.
One of the names to know where fashion and politics intersect is Elizabeth Keckley. Born into slavery in 1818, she first learned how to sew from her mother. Despite enduring decades of harsh treatment, her reputation as a high-quality dressmaker grew, and she was able to purchase her freedom in 1855. Keckley soon opened a dressmaking business in Washington, D.C., and rose through the ranks to become a leading designer for the social elite, including the personal dresser and couturiere to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
Keckley’s book, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, shares her dramatic and determined life story, including the years spent as a civil rights activist and in close proximity to President Lincoln and the First Lady.
“Mr. Lincoln was generous by nature,” Keckley wrote, “and though his whole heart was in the war, he could not but respect the valor of those opposed to him. His soul was too great for the narrow, selfish views of partisanship. Brave by nature himself, he honored bravery in others, even his foes.”
Fashion can serve as psychological armor and social pronouncement, giving us the courage to broadcast to the world who we are and how we would like to be seen. It’s also an effective vehicle for putting political ideas in writing as designer Katharine Hamnett found when she met with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984 while wearing an oversized T-shirt bearing a nuclear missile protest message. As Hamnett knew and subsequent designers continue to affirm: you can’t NOT read messages on T-shirts.
Today, fashion designer Carla Fernández advocates for socially conscious business practices and works to foster partnerships with people in Indigenous communities. She creates garments that ask questions like: “Yes, I dream of a wider world, should I dream of a worse?”
Throughout this exhibition, museum visitors can celebrate moments in time when women made vast contributions to an entire industry, advancing causes and influencing policy along the way. “In times of instability and challenge, these women persevered to enable us to live in this moment and occupy this space,” says Slinkard. “They recognized that fashion could serve as a catalyst for change.”