WOMEN EMPOWERED: Fashions from the Frontline


Nov. 7, 2018

Contact: costume@cornell.edu

Location: Human Ecology Building, Level T Display Cases

Hours: 8 AM – 8 PM on weekdays, 9 AM – 4 PM on weekends

We are always free and open to the public!

Exhibition, WOMEN EMPOWERED: Fashions from the Frontline, features items worn by prominent activists, politicians, artists, athletes, academics, and everyday unsung heroes.

Coretta Scott King speaking at the Full Employment Action Council ca. 1975. Photo by Ed Snider.
Courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University Library.

Ithaca, N.Y. – As part of the 2018 Cornell Council for the Arts Biennial, the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection will launch an exhibition titled Women Empowered: Fashions from the Frontline on Dec. 6, 2018. This groundbreaking fashion exhibition chronicles how women strategically use fashion for empowerment and collective upliftment.

Graduate and undergraduate students in Professor Denise Green’s course Anthropology of the Fashioned Body have spent the semester interpreting the meaning of the “frontline” and researching individuals, movements, and material culture associated with women’s empowerment.

“In formulating the overall concept for the exhibit, we found ourselves repeatedly returning to the idea of physical spaces where empowerment might occur: the sports arena, the street, stage, academy, and the government,” says Jenny Leigh Du Puis, Cornell graduate student and member of the curatorial team. “ In each of these public spaces, women have used fashion to overcome obstacles, become visible, and share their voice.”

From activists to politicians, artists, designers, athletes, scientists, organizers, mothers, and everyday unsung heroes, Women Empowered is curated according to the physical and public spaces where women’s bodies have carried messages of empowerment.

“Fashion has far too often been misunderstood and misrepresented as superficial. The garments and accessories in this exhibition show the very opposite: fashion is a highly visible and forceful medium that commands attention and communicates possibilities,” says Denise Green, assistant professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design and Director of the Cornell Costume & Textile Collection. “Feminism and fashion have the potential to go hand in hand, and the pieces in this exhibition prove just that.”

Featured items in the exhibit include: collars from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ‘54; campaign shoes worn by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; a WWII WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) uniform worn by Major Katherine Hopwood Payne who worked on important degaussing projects while serving the United States Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve); the inaugural suit worn by Texas governor Ann Richards and the skirt suit worn by her daughter Cecile Richards when she testified before congress as President of Planned Parenthood in 2015; a local #1199 cap from the “Union Power, Soul Power” campaign for healthcare workers’ rights, led by Coretta Scott King in 1969; a skirt suit worn by Janet Reno ‘60, the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney General; a gown worn by College of Human Ecology co-founder Martha Van Rensselaer when she met with the Queen of Belgium after helping to rebuild their libraries following the destruction of WWI; Cornell University hockey jerseys from the early 1970s alongside a recent jersey signed by 2014 Cornellian Olympic gold medalists; a “power suit” worn by Dorothy Schefer Faux ’69, former Women’s Image Director of Vogue and later the Executive Editor of Mirabella; a gown worn by suffrage advocate Olivia “Livy” Langdon in the 1880s; items worn by suffragettes in the early 20th century; an outfit covered in red ribbons and worn by author Sylvia Goldstaub to show her support for people living with HIV/AIDS; an original knit gown designed by Dr. Eulanda Sanders, the first African American female department chair at Iowa State University; a dance shawl worn by Suuwayaqawił (Colleen Watts) a distinguished dancer and seamstress from the Hupač̓asatḥ First Nation; outfits worn by sex educator and activist Deborah Sundahl;  ephemera from women who participated in the first ever Gay Games in 1994; a U.S. American flag hijab worn by Haute Hijab’s creative director Gizelle Begler ’08; an original design by Rachel Powell ’17 that engages with the #metoo movement and addresses rape culture; a selection of Honey Lee Cottrell’s photographs, which defined lesbian erotica and empowerment in the 1980s; outfits worn by women circus performers; a small quilt by Liberian seamstresses featuring commemorative cloth that depicts President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female head of state in Africa; the blue jacket worn by Representative Katherine Clark when she led the sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to protest the GOP’s refusal to hold votes on two gun-control provisions in 2016; and the political t-shirts, pussy hats, and other items worn by everyday women to convey solidarity and collective empowerment.

The exhibition will be displayed on Level T of the Human Ecology Building, December 6, 2018- March 31, 2019, and the opening reception will take place from 5-7 pm on Thursday, December 6, 2018, in the College of Human Ecology Commons. If you wish to attend, please register for the opening reception here.

The exhibition features items on loan from the Texas Fashion Collection (@texasfashioncollection), the Hockey Hall of Fame, Western Reserve Historical Society (@clestartshere), and private collections, in addition to artifacts from Cornell’s various special collections including the Human Sexuality Collection (@cornellsexcollects), Kheel Center for Labor Management Documentation and Archives (@kheelcenter), the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (@rarecornell), and the Cornell Costume & Textile Collection (@cornellcostumecollection).

Cornell University’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, within the College of Human Ecology, maintains the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection (CCTC), which includes more than 10,000 items of apparel, accessories and flat textiles dating from the eighteenth century to present, including substantial collections of functional clothing, technical textiles, and ethnographic dress. The collection is used for exhibition, research and teaching.


Title: WOMEN EMPOWERED: Fashions from the Frontline

Dates: December 6, 2018 – March 31, 2019

Location: Level T, College of Human Ecology Bldg., Cornell University central campus, Ithaca, NY 14853

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

Social media: Facebook: @cornellcostume Instagram: @cornellcostumecollection #frontlinefashions #ccabiennial2018

Supreme Court portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 in 2016.

Image from Debi Sundahl & Myrna Elana photoshoot. Photographer unknown. Circa 1982-1990. In the Susie Bright Papers and On Our Backs Records, #7788. Box 24, folder 52. Human Sexuality Collection, Cornell University Library.

Rachael Williams, who holds the 1981 Ms. Leather title, stands above Elexis in the mid-1980s. Photograph by Honey Lee Cottrell and courtesy of the Human Sexuality Collection, Cornell University Library #7822 (box 2, folder 19).

Cecile Richards in 2016. Photo by Lorie Shaull.

3 thoughts on “WOMEN EMPOWERED: Fashions from the Frontline

  1. As a beginner in the fashion world I am so inspired to read about this fashion collection and see the history of fashion empowering women. I love RGB’s lace collar. She is such a beacon of hope. And she loves fashion! I have created a collection of Martin Boots for women with a slogan to stand for what you believe by adding your own words to the design Check it out! https://shop.kirsteinfineart.com/blogs/news/stand-up-for-what-you-believe-wearing-your-own-one-of-a-kind-designed-kirsteinfineart-martin-boots Fashion can be an empowering statement.

  2. I’d love to see this exhibit hit the road. Any chance of bringing it to Berkeley CA?

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