Powerful, intimidating, sexy: Do clothes maketh the woman?

Story highlights

  • 'Women Fashion Power' exhibition opens at London Design Museum
  • Chronicles how women have used clothes to empower themselves
  • Includes rare outfits from Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher, Zaha Hadid
  • Mayor of Paris opens show, says clothes are 'representation of ourselves'

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(CNN)You wouldn't necessarily expect a blockbuster exhibition on women's clothing to open with a giant image of a naked lady.

But step inside London's Design Museum and you'll find Eve in all her unclothed glory, hand clasped around an apple before the first bite that sends the rest of us grasping for cover.
    We've been dressing ourselves ever since, say the curators of "Women Power Fashion," a show chronicling how women have used clothing to empower themselves -- from Joan of Arc's criminally short tunics, to Joan Collins' eye-gouging shoulder pads in Dynasty.
    "This isn't an exhibition about fashion, despite the fact that we use 'fashion' in the title," said co-curator Colin McDowell, rather cryptically, at the opening.
    "It's about clothes and how women have used them to empower themselves, to intimidate people, and to make them feel sexy."
    Gaze beyond Eve's naked form and you'll find the black sequined dress given to Princess Diana on her 36th birthday, and a baby-blue two-piece worn by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after becoming leader of her party.
    Indeed, what really brings this exhibition to life is not simply the lovingly preserved garments -- but imagining influential women wearing them in a very different world.
    "We wanted to look at how fashion mirrors what's going on in society," explained co-curator Donna Loveday.
    "As women's roles changed over decades, so did what they wore."
    Among the vast collection of painfully rigid 19th century corsets, battered broad-brimmed hats worn by the Suffragettes, and towering Manolo Blahnik stilettos, are the personally selected outfits of 26 modern-day movers and shakers.
    The simple trousers, jacket, silk blouse, and red and white striped scarf owned by Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo may not immediately appear eye-catching -- but it has a special emotional pull.
    "This scarf is my lucky charm, it's the one I wore on the evening I won the election for Mayor of Paris" explained Hidalgo, the first woman to have job, and one who cites former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as a role model.
    "How one dresses is very important," she said at the official exhibition opening, herself clad in a sleek black leather jacket.
    "The garment is the presentation of ourselves to others. It's a world in which we have some authority. And by definition, women are considered as not having authority, as being powerless."
    Among the faceless mannequins draped in clothes usually worn by some of the most influential women in the world, is a sweeping white satin Prada cape owned by celebrity architect Zaha Hadid.
    The Iraqi-born British architect also designed the exhibition, creating a maze of mirrors and lime green perspex signs that guide visitors through the decades.
    "She behaved in exactly the way one wants Zaha Hadid to behave -- we never saw her," said co-curator and fashion journalist McDowell with a wry smile.
    "We worked with her, and got missives passed backwards and forwards, but it was an Olympian performance," he adds, perhaps in reference to the architect's work on both the 2012 London and upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
    One thing's for sure -- this is an exhibition dressed to impress.