“Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion,” a new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, explores 250 years of fashion through 79 women designers—innovators, entrepreneurs and activists who fostered social and political change won more equity and freedom in the world.
If you’re someone who thinks of fashion as frivolous, you may be overlooking the fact that it’s a global industry with a net worth that hovers between $1.9 and $2.5 trillion and employs millions of people. Or perhaps you’re just reacting to a sexist snare: When women show an interest in fashion, we may inadvertently signal a lack of interest in matters of consequence.
A new exhibition opening Nov. 21 at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Mass., nixes such assumptions. “ Made It: The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion ” explores 250 years of fashion through 79 female designers—innovators, entrepreneurs and activists who fostered social and political change as women won more equity and freedom in the world. Katharine Hamnett, an English fashion designer, with Margaret Thatcher. (Courtesy of PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo) Petra Slinkard, PEM’s curator of fashion, instigated the exhibition after learning about “ Femmes Fatales: Strong Women of Fashion ,” a 2018 exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, The Hague, Netherlands. Slinkard had been itching to draw attention to female designers whose contributions aren’t widely known. When the Kunstmuseum agreed to collaborate on “Made It” as a traveling exhibition, she was thrilled that the 2020 opening nearly coincided with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification. At the PEM, Slinkard and her colleagues have expanded the original exhibition by layering in additional international and American designers.
Tracking feminist progress isn’t the primary goal of “Made It,” but it turns out that fashion’s female firebrands shed a distinct light on feminism.
“To walk through ‘Made It’ is to witness our global impact and our experience as women—which you’ll see reflected not only in the garments, but in quotes by designers and women like Amelia Bloomer, Lucy Stone and Ida B. Wells-Barnett,” Slinkard told Ms .
Our slow, plodding struggle for equality is underscored in the exhibit by five 18th century garments that show women’s first efforts to claim turf. Born into slavery in 1818, Elizabeth Keckley (right) first learned how to sew from her mother. Despite enduring decades of harsh treatment, her reputation as a high-quality dressmaker rose, and she was able to purchase her freedom in 1855. ( “Not only are women commanding a presence in their fashion; they’re literally taking up more space in the footprint of their clothing,” Slinkard said of the era. “It represents a time when women are making strides professionally for the first time in a really powerful way and evolving into what we know today as the fashion industry.”
The exhibit’s opening night offers a virtual tour and a chance to meet the team behind the project. You’ll see 107 ensembles drawn from collections owned by the Kunstmuseum, PEM, MFA Boston and the Chicago History Museum as well as private collectors and lenders such as the house of Christian Dior, Katherine Hamnett and Natalie Chanin for Alabama Chanin. Here’s how women designers—past and present—carry the torch of feminism.
The Gender Paradox
While aimed at women and braced by our talent and spending, the fashion business has always been dominated by men. Recent surveys show that only 12 to 14 percent of major fashion brands have a female executive at the top.
Until 2017, Dior, the 70-year-old fashion house known for heralding a feminine aesthetic, hadn’t ever had a female creative director. From the outset, Maria Grazia Chiuri has used […]