An arbiter of style is a tastemaker (whether publicly anointed or self-proclaimed) who has the authority to judge and dictate what is fashionable. Female designers are one group of women who set fashion trends—but they are not the only female arbiters. From the eighteenth-century marchande de modes to the twenty-first-century department store executive, women have consistently been a driving force in the fashion industry. This exhibition focuses on the female creators, promoters, and influential clients who have helped to shape the course of fashion for more than 250 years.

Historically, the fashion industry has benefited from forward-thinking women who have advocated and disseminated the newest trends to a wider public. The historian Anne Hollander notes that it is “realistic to consider such innovations as beginning with the need for a change of look or a variation of look and then being accomplished and sanctioned by some fashionable person.” Textile designers, photographers, and fashion executives are examples of arbiters who work behind the scenes, often unrecognized by the general public.

Women’s roles within fashion are interconnected, creating bonds that strengthen and sustain the industry. Executives wear and promote the work of designers who in turn are inspired by and learn from the work of their peers. The camaraderie and competition of the fashion world provide the perfect atmosphere in which arbiters of style thrive.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895-1989)
Diana Vreeland wearing a suit from Henri Bendel, on a deserted movie lot in Phoenix, Arizona
Harper’s Bazaar, January 1942, p.38
The Museum at FIT, 74.84.329
Gift of Louise Dahl-Wolfe