From Katharine Hepburn to Margaret Thatcher to the Spice Girls, liberation comes out of the wardrobe
Robin-Dutt-176In this latest show of female garb, one is presented with an historic panoply of clothing styles and references that chart the liberation of the female form from the tyranny of the corset. But was there tyranny of other kinds?

Restriction of movement in the form of the corset (the hobble skirt and garter not far behind), skyscraper heels, discouragement from mobility and so on may very well typify the female sex as subservient and controllable. Is not a heavy diamond parure some form of imprisonment, however glittering? But here is an interesting conundrum.

All of the above may be as weights around necks and ankles, but at the same time, corsets, high heels and even the attendant objectification can be sources of power too. Think Madonna, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian – if you must. Restriction can be power. In an interview with the late fashion designer Franco Moschino, I asked him why women put up with wearing high heels. His answer? Every day she must appreciate pain, the better to understand comfort.

The Design Museum has amassed a huge collection of costumes and reference points – though the Duchess of Cambridge declined to donate an outfit. Perhaps she does not see how she dresses as an expression of personal power. Actually, it’s not. And indeed, what is power itself? Often this involves, however revolutionary, the hijacking of menswear to make a point.

Amelia Bloomer’s 1850s leg-separating outfits were perfect for bicycles. Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn did wonders for mannish trousers. Elsa Schiaparelli powered her way through the 1930s and 1940s with shoulder pads, and Joan Collins glitter-barged hers through Dynasty. And although former premier Margaret Thatcher softened her power suits with pussycat bows, that mannish snap cannot be denied. Perhaps also, it was the first time that a handbag took on the personality of a weapon. And as for the so-called Spice Girl ‘Girl Power’, don’t get me started.

Does power have to mean confrontation? Is sensuality not its more subtle equal? Ditching tight-fitting clothing or sporting a Wonderbra may not always be, shall we say, wunderbar. Hello boys or no. At least in terms of female expression and emancipation. Although Mariano Fortuny took women out of corsets with his pleated Delphos dresses, it wasn’t long before a clamour was raised for a return to sculpted shape. Ah, plus ça change.

The tough-girl imagery of any female power-seeker puts in mind some lyrics from the Sparks hit Don’t Leave Me Alone With Her: ‘Unwitting chaperones, how come you cannot see, a Hitler wearing heels, a soft Simon Legree.’ Power? It’s all pants.

Until 26 April 2015 at the Design Museum, London SE1: 020-7403 6933, www.designmuseum.org