SALEM — There’s something wonderfully, subversively conspicuous about an exhibition on the history of game-changing women in the fashion industry that begins with a mannequin in jeans and a T-shirt. That’s your first clue that “Made It! The Women Who Revolutionized Fashion,” freshly opened at the Peabody Essex Museum, is about more than perfectly-made pretty things. To sharpen the point, the show’s dressed-down cold open sites itself in a constellation of activist declarations of female self-worth, from sources as disparate as the designer Carolina Herrera and the 19th-century journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells. (“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them” is her quote.)
So it shouldn’t surprise that the T-shirt isn’t just a T-shirt. “We should all be feminists” it reads, simple black block letters on white. It was the centerpiece of Maria Grazia Chiuri’s debut collection for Christian Dior after she became the storied fashion house’s first-ever female creative director in 2016.
That’s right: Until four years ago, a woman had never led one of the most iconic women’s fashion brands in its 70-year history. Ever. Chiuri’s blunt corrective paraded down the runway at the Musée Rodin for Paris Fashion Week in September, 2016, and it serves as a fitting opening salvo for “Made It!” It’s a show determined to transcend aesthetic ingenuity to grapple with the social history inherent in every stitch of women’s wear, spanning centuries.
More than that, “Made It!” is about taking power to share power, bit by bit — a quiet revolution against the arbitrary strictures of gender, cloaked in lace and lamé and chiffon. “Made It!” is a joint effort between the Peabody Essex Museum and the Kunstmuseum den Haag in the Netherlands, but it’s dressed up in American garb. That’s owing both to PEM’s own extensive fashion and textile collection, well-represented here, as well as the show’s timing. Even delayed many months by the pandemic, the late-November opening meant that PEM curator Petra Slinkard could still dedicate the exhibition to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, just as she planned. That she was able to open the show the very same month that women played a critical role in bringing about change in the White House feels significant, indeed.
Not that those seeking opulent ingenuity won’t find it. There are plenty of Chanels and Lanvins, Kawakubos and McQueens. But the point of “Made It!” isn’t to celebrate uncomplicated beauty so much as it is to pay homage to the revolutionary beauty that overcame mountains of complications — social, political, economic — to thrive and empower women from one generation to the next.
In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Slinkard makes a case for the historical entwinement of fashion with social and economic power. The opening paragraphs of her essay “At the Cutting Edge: American Fashion as Catalyst for Change” dives right into the 1824 strike of 102 women at a Pawtucket, R.I., textile factory, the first major factory strike in American history. It’s an emblematic tale about agency and opportunity taken, not given. Almost a century before they could vote, women became an organized labor force in an industry where they dominated, providing a model for generations to come.
Staking their claim in the economy also gave women blossoming power over their own appearance, which, traditionally, had been determined by how men liked to see them (one word: corsets). Mass production dominated by women led to some significant shifts in comfort, among other things. In the mid-19th century, as the ranks of women garment workers ballooned by the tens of thousands, the rational dress movement — a name you have to love — moved from tightly-wound torso binding toward loose and comfy garments like bloomers.
“Made It!” takes this foundational tale and runs with it, backward and forward. The first gallery, called “Breaking In,” is about women forming their own tailoring guilds in Europe in the late 1600s after centuries of being forbidden from fabric cutting. The space features elaborate gowns in intricately-patterned silk and linen, with gravity-defying side bustles. It’s followed by a gallery named “Gaining Momentum,” which begins by celebrating 19th- and early 20th-century pioneers: Lucy Duff Gordon, whose “fashion parades” laid the groundwork for the contemporary catwalk — a pageant of feminine power if ever there was one — and Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a slave but came to earn enough through her expert dressmaking to buy her own freedom and set up shop in Washington, D.C. Keckley dressed luminaries such as first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. A sweet little black-and-yellow caped number here suggests Lincoln stood a little short of 5 feet, almost a foot and a half below her husband.
With 100-plus outfits, “Made It!” is a brisk tour of historical feminine empowerment; we leap a full century from Keckley in just a few steps, past the rising hemlines of Chanel and Sciaparelli to a section called “The American Look,” pioneered by the unlikely fashion executive Dorothy Shaver. Fired from her job as a schoolteacher in 1914 for daring to attend a dance unchaperoned, Shaver landed a few years later at the Lord & Taylor department store, where she rose from entry-level to executive, democratizing fashion along the way. By the 1930s, Shaver made opportunities for American women, designers and consumers both, by creating affordable lines made by more than 60 young, unknown designers like Elizabeth Hawes, who became the first American to show a collection in Paris in 1931. Shaver, for her part, became Lord & Taylor’s first female chief executive in 1945, and the highest-paid woman in American history at the time.
“Made It!” overflows with juicy tales like these — hidden histories of surreptitious success achieved almost when white male America wasn’t looking. Another I can’t resist: Ann Lowe, mid-century American fashion’s “best-kept secret,” a Black master-seamstress who made red-carpet gowns for the likes of Olivia de Havilland, and a wedding gown for eventual first lady Jacqueline Bouvier. These stories unite around a common theme, of fashion as a Trojan horse for the forbidden ambitions of women across generations, race, and nationality.
It was a quiet revolution that would now and then reach fever pitch. You’ll see it in the rise (pardon the pun) of Mary Quant’s micro-mini, mass-marketed in the 1960s by big-box retailers like J.C. Penney, and in full-blown declarations of freedom like the wildly expressive, improbably constructed wearable sculptures of Rei Kawakubo. (“I make clothes for women who don’t follow what their husbands think,” she once said.)
But “Made It!” is ultimately a show about momentum, gathered both in small steps and grand leaps. (A section on the bias cut as an innovation that set free the limitations of body shape struck me as one for the fashion nerds; I don’t doubt the point, but never having worn a bias-cut garment, all I saw were the drapes of exquisitely pretty fabrics that seemed both loose and form-hugging at once.) The sense of forward motion is constant and irresistible. Rounding the last bend of the show, it’s hard not to appreciate the 1980s and ’90s appropriation of menswear into the high-fashion office outfits of Donna Karan or Prada, given our journey so far. And the punk-rock protest wear of Katharine Hamnett and Betsey Johnson feel like the quiet part finally said out loud, to which the Mexican designer Carla Fernández adds her more recent voice. Her huipiles (or traditional Indigenous Mexican garments) made for the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., were emblazoned with aphorisms. “YES I DREAM OF A BETTER WORLD” reads one, on a winglike drape of black fabric.
From past to present to what feels like the future, “Made It!” throws, finally, to what that better world might look like with five designers busy breaking new ground: Natalie Chanin, who bucked convention by going home to Florence, Ala., to reactivate dozens of out-of-work textile plant employees left high and dry when the local Tee Jays factory went bust in 2005. She’s presented alongside the Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock designer Jamie Okuma, with a remarkable dress composed of uncut squares of fabric to eliminate waste; Dutch material genius Iris van Herpen, who makes improbable garments from impossible things; the Greek designer Mary Katrantzou; and Detroit-based Tracy Reese. The final sense is of an industry evolving, as it always has, in parallel with women’s ambition, though no longer quietly. “Made it!” justifies its exuberant title with a triumphant story, ever-ascending, rife with happy endings still being written and growing in number all the time.
MADE IT! THE WOMEN WHO REVOLUTIONIZED FASHION
At the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through March 14. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.