On a cold Friday afternoon in November, Jenny Leigh- Du Puis was rearranging a costume covered in red loops of ribbon. The eye-catching outfit had been worn in marches by the activist Sylvia Goldstaub whose son contracted and then died of AIDS. The red ribbons symbolized AIDS awareness.
This outfit is one of many pieces in the collection titled “Women Empowered: Fashions From the Frontline.” Serving as student curators, Leigh- Du Puis and her fellow classmates have helped to create this exhibit as part their anthropology of the fashioned body class at Cornell University. This class is part of their four-year program to obtain PhDs in apparel design.
“We wanted to focus on symbols of women’s empowerment, so fashion items such as dresses or things like judicial collars from supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Leigh- Du Puis. “These are items that can show how different women wear empowerment or how pieces can empower them.”
The exhibit hosts an array of fashion items, ranging from the outfit worn by the president of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards as she testified before Congress to the shoes worn by Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez while she campaigned, to an assortment of Pussy Hats worn in the Women’s March. Some pieces, such as the US men’s bobsled uniform that is displayed, were not worn by women but were designed by them.
The collection is separated into four spaces selected by the curatorial staff: the stage, the arena, the academy, the government and the street. Each of these spaces demonstrate women’s empowerment through various pieces in their unique ways, and some spaces overlap. For example, the government and the street spaces occupy the same display area because the curators felt that this would then “show both sides of the spectrum.”
In coming up with the tagline “Fashions From the Frontline,” the curators had to decide what exactly the “frontline” entailed, and in turn what that meant.
“We had a lot of discussion about what the frontline means, and really what it means is the closest point to your enemy,” said Kate Greder, another PhD student curator of the exhibit.
“Then we had to think about what the enemy is, and for us, we thought about it as the patriarchy. This exhibit is confronting the enemy that is the patriarchy.”
The exhibit is made possible through a grant that was sponsored by the Cornell Council for the Arts. The grant was secured by Dr. Denise Greene, the instructor of the anthropology of the fashioned body class. Dr. Greene oversaw the exhibit with the theme of “women empowered,” but after giving the overarching view of what the students should look for, she allowed them to “run with it” in terms of developing what they thought was most appropriate, said Leigh- Du Puis.
Overall, this exhibit has become a wide sweeping space that uses visuals and ideas to demonstrate how the student curators and their class have interpreted women’s empowerment. The spaces ultimately show the vision of the class and what resonated with the students.
Now, with the exhibit unveiled and open to the public eye, those who helped bring the exhibit to life are anticipating watching how others react now to their work.
“As a class we’ve worked hard in curating these pieces,” said Sian Brown, also a PhD student curator of the exhibit. “Just to see that other people view it as important makes us all really excited.”