Power Mode: The Force of Fashion
The Museum at FIT, New York
December 10, 2019 – May 9, 2020
The Museum at FIT presents Power Mode: The Force of Fashion, an exhibition that explores the multiple roles fashion plays in establishing, reinforcing, and challenging power dynamics within society. Power Mode features over 50 objects from the museum’s permanent collection, many of which have never before been on public view. The word “power” frequently appears in discussions of fashion – power dressing, power heels, the power suit – but what do these terms actually mean? What makes a suit or a heel “powerful”? In terms of kinetic force, like electrical power, an inanimate item of clothing does not generate or contain power. Instead, the force of fashion is symbolic. It is social. It is related to political position and economic status. It is also tied to military strength, sexual authority, rebellion, and protest. Power, in this sense, is part personal identity, part behavior, and part visual expression.
Power Mode is organized thematically into five sections that focus on the influence of military uniforms, status dressing, suits, resistance, and sex. Men’s and women’s clothing are considered side by side, and pieces from as early as the 18th century are juxtaposed with looks from contemporary collections. 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. The exhibition continues with a section devoted to the suit. A sharply tailored suit is perhaps the most conventional example of “power dressing”. Indeed, the term “power dressing” is typically used to describe big-shouldered suits worn by upwardly mobile businesswomen during the 1980s, but the history of the suit is more nuanced, blurring lines across traditional gender, social, and economic divisions. Looks on view in this section include a man’s black suit from the 19th century and a woman’s white suit from the 1910s – the same style as those worn by American suffragettes. It also includes more recent examples such as an oversize Marc Jacobs suit made famous by Lady Gaga, who wore a version of it to the 2018 Elle Women in Hollywood event, and a custom “shrunken” suit by Thom Browne in the same style as the ensembles worn by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2018 NBA Playoffs.
From suits, the exhibition then moves to consider the role of resistance in power 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 rather than dominating. It is the power of protest and rebellion. There is a tension between resistance clothing and “fashion,” with the latter often being dismissed as surface-level commodification. But the relationship is not so simple; fashion can also be a vehicle for protest. Power Mode examines this tension with looks by Kerby Jean-Raymond for Pyer Moss, Patrick Kelly, Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior, and Public School, which are shown alongside protest T-shirts, hippie denim, and examples of both a pussyhat and “Make America Great Again” hat. The final section explores the impact of sex and fetish wear on fashion. There are many fashion objects that are culturally coded as “sexy.” Corsets, leather, lingerie, and high-heeled boots are but a few examples. On view in this section are a pair of 1930s “kinky” boots by Diana Slip and a black leather fetish ensemble. The power dynamics of these garments are inherently complex. They can vacillate between dominance and subjugation. How a look is interpreted depends on the interpreter (both wearer and observer). Designers such as Gianni Versace, Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, and Ricardo Tisci have often engaged with this complex power dynamic by drawing direct inspiration from fetish wear. Examples of their work, among others, will conclude the exhibition.
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.