Women Empowered: Fashions from the Frontline

Women Empowered: Fashions from the Frontline

December 6, 2018 - March 31, 2019

Level T of the Human Ecology Building


Exhibit curators at the opening reception, photograph by Simon Wheeler
Front row left to right: Dr. Denise Green, Tori Pietsch BS '19, Akua Kwakwa BS '20, Jane Levya MA '20, Margaux Neborak BS ' 19, Sian Brown MA '20. Back row left to right: Jessica Guadalupe Estrada MA '19, Rachel Getman MA '19, Chris Hesselbein PhD '20, Cindy Cordoba Arroyo PhD '21, Lynda Xepoleas PhD '22, Fabiana Berenguer Gil BArch '19, Kate Greder PhD '21, Mary Louise Dubose BS '18, Jenny Leigh Du Puis PhD '22,

WOMEN EMPOWERED: Fashions from the Frontline chronicles how women have strategically and persistently used fashion to empower and uplift. From activists to politicians, academics to servicewomen, artists to athletes, entertainers and everyday unsung heroes, WOMEN EMPOWERED uses fashion to tell the stories of women on the frontlines. The exhibit is therefore organized according to physical spaces - The Street, The Government, The Stage, The Arena, The Academy - where fashion transforms, at times transgresses, and ultimately empowers.

The Government and The Street represent places of power and protest, while The Academy showcases outfits of intellectual pioneers that have empowered through education. The Arena highlights athletic achievements while The Stage explores empowerment through entertainment: celebrations of life and joy alongside the display of pain, loss, and healing. In each of these spaces women are on the frontline, using fashion to empower themselves and others.

As part of the 2018 Cornell Council for the Arts Biennial, WOMEN EMPOWERED engages the biennial theme of DURATION: Passage, Persistence, and Survival, through an array of garments and accessories alongside the narratives of the women who wore these frontline fashions.

This exhibition is the culmination of collective ideation and concept development between 14 students, one professor, and numerous people who have helped us along the way. From meetings to emails, photo shoots to archives, connecting with women across North America, and ending up on the media frontline, WOMEN EMPOWERED is a visual representation of fashion’s potential in creating change.

Coretta Scott King speaking at the Full Employment Action Council ca. 1975, photo by Ed Snider, courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University Library
Supreme Court Portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg '54, 2016
Rachael Williams, who holds the 1981 Ms. Leather title, stands above Elexis in the mid-1980s, photo by Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Human Sexuality Collection, Cornell University Library #7822 (box 2, folder 19)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by Andres Kudacki for The Intercept
Image from Debi Sundahl & Myrna Elana photoshoot, photographer unknown, ca.1982-1990, in the Susie Bright Papers and On Our Backs Records, #7788, box 24, folder 52, Human Sexuality Collection, Cornell University Library
Cecile Richards in 2016, photo by Lorie Shaull

CURATORIAL: Jenny Leigh Du Puis PhD ‘22, Kate Greder PhD ‘21, Chris Hesselbein PhD ‘20, Fabiana Berenguer Gil BArch ‘19, Jessica Estrada MA ‘19

RESEARCH: Lynda Xepoleas PhD ‘22, Margaux Neborak BS ‘19, Mary Louise DuBose BS ‘18, Akua Kwakwa BS ‘20, Jane Leyva MA ‘20

GRAPHICS: Rachel Getman MA ‘19, Sian Brown MA ‘20, Cindy Cordoba Arroyo PhD ‘21

EXHIBIT WEBSITE: Rachel Getman MA '19

LOGISTICS & BUDGET: Tori Pietsch BS ‘19

FACULTY ADVISOR: Dr. Denise N. Green ‘07

We began with a question: How do clothes empower? According to the Oxford English dictionary, empowerment is “the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.” In seeking to define our interpretation of empowerment, we turned to different aspects of power: having agency, choice, and a voice. We asked: How do we embody and perform power? Do we wield it, like a weapon (or a hockey stick)? How do we harness it? Do we use it as an inner reserve with which to amplify our voices? Or do we wear it on our skin like a costume, or a signal, or a symbol of strength?

If the body is a place where we harness, store, perform and wield our sources of empowerment, is it not also a space where we negotiate our ideas and identities? Because fashion marks the boundary between the body and the social world, the fashioned body is the frontline; clothing allows us to extend our bodies beyond that which is reached by our skin. The frontline is also a physical space: there is a frontline in every field, in every profession, and in every walk of life. The frontline is defined both individually and collectively and therefore, we’ve chosen to focus on public, physical spaces where women use fashion to empower and uplift.

Now, looking back, perhaps we would revise our original question, “How do clothes empower?” and instead turn to what we’ve learned from the amazing women featured in this exhibit: How can we use clothes to empower others?

Film by Daniel Chamberlain

FUNDING: The Cornell Council for the Arts, College of Human Ecology, Cornell Costume & Textile Collection, and the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: To all the women, past and present, who offered pieces for our exhibition and to all of the individuals, archives, and institutions involved in coordinating this display, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Along the way, many helping hands arranged deliveries, kept correspondence, coordinated paperwork for loans, all of which contributed to making this exhibit a reality, and we wish to express our deepest gratitude for their efforts. Most importantly, thank you to all the brave, fashionable women worldwide--visible and otherwise--who are on the frontlines.

THANK YOU: Susan Taber Avila, Reggie Baker ‘74, Charles Beach, Gizelle Begler ‘08, Annette Becker, Gretchen Fehm Blake, Steven Calco, John Cawley, Daniel Chamberlain, Katherine Clark, Peter Corina, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Craig, Susan Craig, Pam Crosby, Terry Cvetan, Risa Cyr, Melissa Dawson, Louise Derraugh, Biannica Dominguez/Black Widow, Kelsie Doty, Michele Draiss, Rachel Dunifon, Patty Edmonson, Dorothy Schefer Faux ‘69, Stephanie Brown Fehm, Renate Ferro, John Foote ‘74, Rosa Fox, William Gilbert, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ‘54, Rebecca Dunford Grant, Kim Balch-Hammons, Patricia Heckart, Sarah Hennies, House of Merlot, Maggie Hurchalla, Ithaca IndiVISIBLE, Terri Jackson, Mary Kaszyca, Candace Kling, Carol Laborie, Nancy Law, Amanda Perez Leder ‘99, Susan B. Kaiser, Mark Kaiser, Eileen Keating, Janine De Lorenzo, Michael Mamp, Penney Mapes ‘74, Brenda Marston, Jenny McGuire, Julie McInnes, Helen McLallen, Anna Dunford Meacham, Amy Meckeler, Lindsay Elise Van Meter, Nickole Muse, Timothy Murray, Eisha Neely, Kay Obendorf, Kimberly Phoenix, Rachel Powell ‘17, Joy Powers, Kelly Reddy-Best, Katie Rehner, Norma Rice, Sarah Rice, Cecile Richards, Laura Robert, Lily Root, Betsy Root, Jeanette Perez-Rossello, Olivia Royale, Kristen Rupert ‘74, Eulanda Sanders, Susan Sarabasha, Alia Saurini, Linda Friedman Schmidt, Leah Shafer, Mardelle Shepley, Brenda Siegel, Marie Sirakos, Karen Steffy, Deborah Surine, Meital Tvor, Tracey & Jolleen Watts, Kristen Welsh, Christianne White.