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This Exhibit Explores How Clothes Reshape Power, Sex, Status and Politics

“Power Mode: The Force of Fashion,” on display at the Museum at FIT, is small in scale but potent in message.

Installation view of “Power Mode: The Force of Fashion.”

From the strictest military uniform to the wildest fetish ensemble, fashion has been a symbol of status and sex for generations. In its latest exhibit, called “Power Mode: The Force of Fashion,” the Museum at FIT in New York shows how these dynamics have changed — and how the term “power dressing,” which was first discussed in the ’70s, is open for new interpretations.

The show, which was organized by associate curator Emma McClendon, is small in scale but potent in message. It highlights and explores five aspects of power: military strength, sexual authority, rebellion, political position and economic status. Clothing — the settings it’s presented in and the people it’s presented on — can provoke visceral reactions. It can piss us off. It can inspire us. It can allow us to fit in, to rebel, to assume different identities. It can make us feel vulnerable. It can make us feel invincible as well.

McClendon is well aware of the power of clothing as messaging. She tells me: “[I] wanted to fuse some of this theory with object analysis” — with clothing, that is. “We want to try to grapple with these hard conversations and come to terms with our reactions to certain objects.”

Especially today.

“The kind of social and cultural context that we are in, a post-2016 presidential election world, it seems that people are more and more curious about the power dynamics inherent in the clothing we wear,” she says.

A red “Make America Great Again” cap alongside Public School’s version, which reads “Make America New York.”

To menswear designer Greg Lauren, what makes fashion so interesting is how it allows us to “to live out our fantasies. We can be the people we want to be.”

For Iranian-American writer and fashion blogger Hoda Katebi, fashion is a vehicle for changing people’s views and even shift the paradigm of power. She talks about her own experience growing up in Oklahoma as someone who wears a hijab and how it shaped her relationship to clothing today.

“I started wearing a hijab in sixth grade,” she recounts. “It was the worst year of my life. Oklahoma is a very white and conservative state — I was physically assaulted, people tried to pull off my hijab.” The experience made her realize that “how we dress really impacts the way people engage with us. If I had worn a scarf across my neck, I probably wouldn’t have gotten punched in the face.”

In “Power Mode,” McClendon uses juxtaposition to play with perception and break down assumptions one might have about clothing. For example, in the suiting section, a 1913 Auburn State Prison Uniform stands alongside a suit by contemporary designer Jay Marie Douglas, which bears the words “convict,” “thug,” and “public enemy” (first image).  Both are made from denim, but their connection runs deeper: McClendon explains that the Marie Douglas design is part of a project titled “Rebranded,” where she “worked with previously incarcerated individuals to rebrand pejorative terms [and then printed them on] garments of power to deconstruct — and then reconstruct — them.” 

In these instances, you see “Power Mode” pay respect to the clever details that turn the wheels of an industry that can often appear frivolous. “You see stuff you expect, but you also see stuff that’s going to challenge something you thought you [knew],” McClendon says.

From left: a fetish ensemble from 1982, a shirt from Seditionaries by Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren and a top by Alexander McQueen for Givenchy from 1997.

When it comes to fashion today, the options to express ourselves are limitless. We can mix high and low. We can promote logos and brands. We can challenge dress codes. And we can wear clothes that simply feel good — clothes that are maybe not about the image but a personal experience. Fashion is “just the way we make our bodies socially legible in various situations,” McClendon says.

Of course, there are still cultural dynamics at play; power, class and status, communicated through what we wear. “Whether or not we think we’re into fashion, we are engaged in that dialogue with [what] we put on our bodies,” she adds.

Clothing means “different things to different people at different times,” McClendon says. “It’s all about context and who’s observing you and what messages you are trying to send.” But at the very least, fashion gets people talking — about a message, about sex appeal, about status, about values, about our assumptions.

A puffer jacket by Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga from 2016.

These days, Katebi lectures at universities, often finding herself in front of predominantly white audiences. Sometimes she’ll wear a shirt with a print but no logo or slogan — but others, she’ll wear one that says, “Demilitarize,” a deliberate choice meant to change views and open minds. “That makes even more of a statement when it’s worn by someone with a hijab,” she says, “because the Muslim identity is politicized already.”

As Katebi declared in one of her lectures: “Provoking conversations with your clothes — that’s power.”

“Power Mode: Forces of Fashion” is on view at The Museum at FIT in New York until May 9.

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