Clothing can pack a punch, as evidenced in the Museum at FIT’s new exhibition “Power Mode: The Force of Fashion.”
While big-shouldered Eighties-friendly power suits might immediately come to mind, that is only one of the emboldening styles that is on view in the Fashion & Textile History gallery through May 9. Visitors are meant to mull over the roles fashion plays in establishing, reinforcing, and challenging power dynamics within society. Many of the 50 objects from the museum’s permanent collection are being shown to the public for the first time, including an oversized Marc Jacobs-designed suit that Lady Gaga wore last year and a Thom Browne shrunken suit that’s similar to the style worn by LeBron James during last year’s NBA playoffs.
Set up as a curatorial exploration more than a comprehensive overview, “Power Mode” is broken down into five categories – military uniforms, suits, status, sex and resistance. Emma McClendon, associate curator of costume at The Museum at FIT, who organized the show, said, “Power gets used so much in relation to fashion and there are so many ways people think about power and fashion. There is no way that we can show every possible example of a garment that might be considered powerful. Instead this show — through the themes — is trying to explore and examine the various multifaceted ways that power is expressed in clothing.”
While military uniforms like the 1945 World War II “Ike” jacket or the military-inspired, like a fall 2010 Burberry ensemble, may be obvious choices, the suit section features the expected power suit, and the more unexpected prison suit. Vetements’ DHL $250 shirt is another new acquisition that is on view. That design by former creative director Demna Gvasalia was an immediate sellout and is one of McClendon’s favorite looks in the show. A “biting twist on the branded status dressing of contemporary high fashion,” she said the shirt’s high price tag and limited distribution made the garment a status item in its own right, “raising issues about class, aspiration, and power.” A Pyer Moss ensemble designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond and inspired by 19th-century black cowboys is another personal favorite.
As for those gallery visitors who may have preconceived notions of power dressing, McClendon aims to refresh their views. “My hope is that they will see objects that they recognize but then they might find others that challenge their perception of the particular theme. One of the more startling is the prisoner uniform being shown in the suits section. It reframes and calls into question how we even define the suit,” she said.
The resistance section highlights current political and societal influences like the hot pink knit hats worn by many supporters in the national women’s marches. T-shirts imprinted with “Black Lives Matter” and white suits — a favorite look with some U.S. female politicians as a nod to the Suffragette movement — are also featured in the exhibition. There is also a red “Make America Great Again” hat.
The idea for “Power Mode” was sparked by McClendon’s research for previous exhibitions “The Body,” “Denim” and “Uniformity” at the Museum at FIT — all of which explored the power dynamics inherent in clothing. “That led me to take a step back to consider what makes a garment powerful and as a conduit of societal power,” she said. All in all, McClendon wants visitors to think about the social meanings in their clothes. More than two years in the making, the exhibition was first envisioned during the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The fact that the 2020 election is approaching seemed fitting from her perspective.