Skip to main content

The relationship between women (including non-profit founder Camila Batmanghelidjh), clothing and power is the subject of a new exhibition in Britain.

"My basic look is a portable curtain, wallpaper, furniture shop, art house, ramshackle, second-hand outlet," says Camila Batmanghelidjh, an imposing figure in thick-rimmed specs, screaming-pink nails and robes that could pass for Joseph's Technicolor Dreamcoat. "No matter what I wear, it's suitable for the crack den or the palace." Batmanghelidjh is the founder of Kids Company (a London non-profit supporting at-risk children in deprived areas) and veritable patron saint of south London. One of the most successful women working in the city today, she oversees a staff of 600 and is a ubiquitous figure in the society pages – in both senses of the word.

Batmanghelidjh is also the unofficial star of Women Fashion Power, a survey of fashion's evolution among double-x Type As; it recently opened at London's Design Museum. Ostensibly a gander at the wardrobes of formidable female figures from Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I to Coco Chanel and Margaret Thatcher, the show in fact pursues the thread between professional success and an unflinchingly individual persona. Batmanghelidjh, who collages her muu-muus, turbans and fingerless gloves from bits of fabric collected by her charges from neighbourhood Dumpsters, was the among the most valued "gets" by Design Museum curator Donna Lovejoy.

"There is a discrepancy between the madness of my outfits and the rigour of my brain," says Batmanghelidjh. "Fools think I'm a fruitcake. The smart ones realize I'm just having a bit of fun."

Organized by Lovejoy and fashion journalist Colin McDowell, Women Fashion Power began as a trawl through clothing archives and decades of best-dressed lists. The first section of the exhibition illustrates with mesmerizing photography how women have projected authority through dress. A timeline snaking around the second gallery looks at key moments of emancipation: the evolution of the corset throughout the 19th century, Edwardian riding habits and swimming costumes, the suffragette's blouse-hat combo.

By the time you reach the powderblue Mansfield suit worn by Margaret Thatcher on the day she was elected leader of Britain's Conservative Party in 1975, you get the sense that the men'sclub look is nearing an ominous peak.

"The power suit was largely derived from a male construct," Lovejoy tells me in the run-up to the opening, referencing its "almost aggressive" eighties heyday, when Mugler and Versace reigned. "Then, as the decade wore on, the suit became softer. The shoulders go, the trousers come in. [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel is interesting because the power suit is adapted to her in bright, unexpected colours."

The pivotal design in Women Fashion Power, however, is the wrap dress. Lovejoy and McDowell secured one of Diane von Furstenberg's earliest versions from the mid-1970s. At this point, Lovejoy says, women's clothes begin to "give confidence and project authority, but in their own style."

The wrap dress is also a prelude to the Diana Years. The princess's power came from a fraught and complicated struggle against the British establishment, yet her low-cut beaded black 36th-birthday gown (her final birthday, it would turn out) epitomized an era when women doffed the traditional uniform of power and all its masculine connotations. Diana wore what she liked – and who was more powerful in her time than Diana?

The princess's influence on women in the public sphere was undeniable. "Professional women are now engaging with contemporary fashion," Lovejoy says. "They no longer feel the need to follow rules. Women in positions of influence use fashion to find their place in the world. And in most cases a unique, distinctive style works for them."

In an interview last month with Britain's Observer newspaper, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, lawyer and wife of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, concurred. "One of the differences between the new wave of feminism and previous ones is that feminists do not seem to care any more about what clothes women wear." Gonzalez Durantez appears in the show's final bang, a series of q&as with a crosssection of powerful women working in Britain today (Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and Kazakh executive Alfiya Kuanysheva are non-Brit exceptions). Each has chosen a seminal outfit to display in the show. Looking at their choices, there is an overwhelming feeling that their talent and ambition are matched by their refusal to play by male sartorial rules.

Representing the fashion sphere is the fuchsia-haired designer Zandra Rhodes, who has dressed such celebrities as Diana Ross, Freddie Mercury and Jackie Kennedy. "I have never been in a situation where I felt I had to toe the line," she told me.

Rhodes is in good company at the Design Museum – and not only among fashion folk. Morwenna Wilson, a mechanical engineer with the commercial developer Argent, accessorizes her work-site trousers and flannels with flamboyant vintage scarves and vibrant blazers. Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human-rights campaigner Liberty, has a predilection for Vivienne Westwood.

One of Lovejoy's favourite quotes about fashion and the workplace is from a July interview with Hillary Clinton in the Telegraph. "When I was younger and women first started to get in public positions," Clinton said, "we went through a period where we wore those little ribbon ties. Now you can be aware of conventions but not be a slave to them."

Clinton, of course, is no Zandra Rhodes, but their message is the same. As Lovejoy's concludes, "I think, invariably, it doesn't matter what we wear."

Women Fashion Power runs until April 15, 2015. For details, visit www.designmuseum.org.