Karen Walker pays homage to suffragettes

SARAH CATHERALL
Last updated 11:51 06/08/2014
Karen Walker
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POLITICAL WEAR: Karen Walker's autumn/winter 2014 collection, The League, combines fresh femininity with a masculine twist.

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Karen Walker is intrigued by the way suffragettes used their clothing as placards to fight for the vote both here and beyond.

It's fitting that the fashion designer who has broken down barriers in the fashion world has designed a collection that's a nod to the early feminists who won the vote in New Zealand and Britain.

Her autumn/winter 2014 collection, The League, hits the shops this week, a celebration of suffragettes and the way they used everything at their disposal - bags, dresses, pennies - to get their message across.

Walker says she grew up knowing New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote in 1893. And her collection reflects the militant stance many British suffragettes took, when they shunned traditional prettiness and chose modern, utilitarian clothing as a sign of their feminity and strength.

The colours and fabrics Walker has chosen for her collection are a contemporary view of the clothing worn by these revolutionaries - military pants, full skirts, tunics and working coats in blues, executed in brushed cottons, drill and suede.

In the UK, Walker says the suffragettes chose just three colours but were typically seen in white. The white dresses and bags were turned into canvases across which they scrawled "Votes for Women".

"I loved the idea that they used every single thing they could to convey this message.

"Suffragettes in the UK used to take one-penny pieces out of circulation and stamp "Votes for Women" on to them.

"I liked how it was so guerilla and they'd use anything and everything to get their message across."

To tie together the collection, Karen Walker has designed statement bags as metaphors for the attitude of the modern woman: "Hello and Goodbye," "Faster Better Stronger" and "Liberal Miserable and Cynical." Again, it's a reference to the way the suffragettes used their bags as placards in Edwardian England.

One British suffragette is believed to have died when she was trying to pin a "Votes for Women" banner beneath the King's horse in 1913, while around 1000 suffragettes were imprisoned in British jails for their militant tactics.

The League also features cropped balloon pants, a peacoat in needlepoint rose print, and graphic prints designed by Walker's partner, Mikhail Gherman, such as a graphic hand, hammer and broken heart design, along with roses, and fighting angels.

Blouses and full skirts in the collection look as though they've stepped off the streets of early 20th-century England, with a modern twist. The overall feel is of fresh, feminine looks in masculine fabrics like canvas, drill, flannel, suede and twill.

Says Walker: "Some of the garments have got very high necks and they're styled with a collar or a frill . . .

"A lot of them have embroidery which is a nod to Edwardian times."

Walker doesn't usually include black in her collections but The League features black jumpers, dresses and tops, many emblazoned with a graphic, fighting spirit print.

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"I'm a navy girl. Navy is the colour of the gods."

Nor does she usually design full-length formal dresses.

In The League, though, Walker has included four full-length gowns, one made out of burned red velvet she found in a French mill. This time, she was motivated by her own desire to see women dress up for formal events.

"I get so sick of going to black- tie events and no-one is wearing black tie.

"Everyone is in cocktail dresses. I thought, 'Maybe they can't find the right full-length dress'."

When she presented the collection at New York Fashion Week in February, one reviewer from Style.com raved that The League was one of her best, "full of upbeat, easy-going looks with an undercurrent of real toughness".

- The Dominion Post

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