FEMMES FATALES – Strong Women at Gemeente Museum, Den Haag.

Having worked on an haute couture magazine for nearly a decade I was looking forward to this exhibition, and in many ways, I was not disappointed. There are two aspects to this show – one is the incredible creativity of designer-women, the other is the inspired and witty use of protest placards and slogans for women’s rights that accompany them. The excellent design of the exhibition is a homage to women who had to work harder than men and protest for decades to be heard. There is an abundance of visual surprises and exquisite details of the fashion industry. The exhibits focus on the women-designers who have been as influential in fashion as their louder, flashier, not to say controversial male counter parts. Paul Poiret famously dismissed Coco Chanel as ‘that little seamstress’. In truth he feared her competition as she had her finger on the pulse of the real woman. She designed many outfits in the 1920s which would still make women look good today. Chanel was surely the original strong woman.

Different fashion periods are displayed. The French Revolution section includes the elaborate Marie-Antoinette-style dresses with the pannier or side-hoop skirts. So absurdly exaggerated are they that my companion remarked that a bike could be parked under them. Next to it lurked a cardboard guillotine –nice context touch by the exhibition designer. Designers like Elsa Schiaparelli sold the customer the dream of the perfect, seductive, salon-dwelling woman. Mary Quant, Sonia Rykiel and Barbara Hulanicki (Biba) were the post-war 20th century liberators of young women. There are fascinating background videos, drawings and beautiful supporting material. Some avant-garde designs are stunning – Rei Kawakubo’s one-off stagey creations for Comme Les Garçons  (Lady Gaga or Madonna in her hey-day style?) – as well as the must-see, extraordinary, outer-wordly, super elegant, etherial creations of Dutch designers Iris van Herpen. The technology of her textiles and designs are hard to comprehend.

The title of the show leaves me somewhat conflicted – to me the terms Femmes Fatales (manipulative) and Strong Women (fighting for their rightful place) don’t mean the same thing, though they can overlap. Women fashion designers were strong women to survive in their industry, a few were real ‘femmes fatales’. Across the decades and through the 1950s most women could sew; they tried to incorporate elements of the fashions they saw in magazines into their outfits, but those days are gone. Why sew when you can find a cat-walk copy at H&M or even Primark, albeit in poor execution and even poorer quality materials.  

Designers Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood weaponised the T-shirt. Westwood displayed clothes as her own political rebellion; Hamnett was a messenger and scandalised Margaret Thatcher with a T-shirt reading: ‘58% don’t want Pershing’ (intercontinental missile). Her later T-shirt message ‘No more fashion victims’ was intended to mean: no more slave labour to produce fashion. Yet both designers’ clothes come with too hefty a price tag for the ordinary mortal. Hamnett’s message is probably well-intended; perhaps she feels virtuous, but will the T-shirt price tag of £25-£29 save anyone locked in a Bangladesh factory for sixteen hours a day? I would like to know what percentage of this price tag is translated into dealing with the problem of child labour. And does the average buyer care or simply boast that they have a Hamnett designer T-shirt? Recently it was revealed that workers trying to support families are paid 28p per hour in the factories producing the hugely successful Superdry clothes.

The message-T-shirt has long been misused and encouraged seriously unhealthy, overweight young women to proudly display the message ‘I look great’ or ‘I’m a star’ on their chests. This is set against the continuing trend of images of starved, skeletal models that are staring down at young girls from every shop window – anorexia anyone? At either extreme, the fashion industry, today more than ever, has a lot to answer for when it comes to fashion victims.

Special mention must go the exhibition designer (I was unable to find her/his name anywhere) for the witty, humorous and playful settings. I loved the attention to detail like the succession of pressing irons marching around an entire room in homage to all those ‘little seamstresses’. There is much to admire in this exhibition.                       

Astrid Burchardt         20th December 2018