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 Fall 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 — suburban women, we salute you — 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,”