When it comes to curating any major exhibition, there are more than a few roadblocks to consider. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame assistant curator Meredith Rutledge encountered an unusual set of problems in 2010 when she tried to go about borrowing the meat dress Lady Gaga wore to the VMAs for a new show celebrating female rock musicians.
Gaga and her team agreed, but they hoped it would be allowed to rot as a part of the exhibit—something Rutledge wasn’t too keen on. The crew didn’t know they had to shape the dress over a mannequin, so it dried in the wrong shape. A taxidermist hired to preserve it did so with formaldehyde, but the dress—made out of Argentinian steak—went from looking like prime red meat to brown beef jerky. Eventually the dress was painted a vibrant shade of red to more closely resemble its original look. “There’s less marbling now,” jokes Rutledge. “It’s a much less tender cut.”
The meat dress currently hangs in a case as one of the star items in “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power,” a vibrant new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The show is timed to coincide with the second half of the museum’s 25th anniversary year, in stark contrast to its predecessor—an elegant exhibition of 18th- and 19th-century French paintings borrowed from the Louvre. “Women Who Rock” is a much more contemporary show, but it’s no less detailed: Rutledge has collected a fascinating trove of artifacts and memorabilia from 70 artists from rock history, from Billie Holiday’s fox-fur stole to Janelle Monae’s tuxedo jacket.
Inevitably, as with most collections related to iconic women, the stars of the exhibition are the clothes, although Rutledge tried hard to gather items that show the women featured were far more than clotheshorses, including a set of lyrics written by Janis Joplin (the writing smudged with what looks like whiskey, tears, or both); Ruth Brown’s Tony Award for Black and Blue; and Aretha Franklin’s daybook, complete with musings on her upcoming contract negotiations with Arista Records. There are also instruments galore, from Patti Smith’s clarinet to Bonnie Raitt’s guitar.
But somehow it’s the clothes that most effectively capture the spirit of the women who wore them. Joplin is most frequently thought of as an extremely talented train wreck, but the presence of a dress with intricate beading she stitched herself gives some idea of the person behind the performer. Cher’s Native American outfit with a six-foot headdress is typical of the artist—full of bravado, feathers, and over-the-top stage presence.
The artist also known as Our Lady of Gaga has a few other relics in the show, including a turquoise sequined jacket with outrageous shoulder padding and the piano on which a young Stefani Germanotta first discovered playing music. There’s also the iconic gold Dolce & Gabbana cone dress Gaga’s predecessor Madonna once wore, as well as Chrissie Hynde’s signature red leather jacket.
The artists who declined to lend items, or who couldn’t otherwise be represented, are present in musical form—through videos screened on the wall, or record covers studded throughout the show. And the exhibition is careful to set its items in historical context, so directly across from a Siouxsie Sioux outfit are plaques noting that in the 1980s, Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman nominated on a presidential ticket and Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court. It’s details like these that help underline how much women rock musicians helped break boundaries, and continue to do so.
Rutledge admits that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still largely dominated by male artists. “It’s a constant . . . I don’t want to say battle. Challenge,” she says. “It takes a while to change very engrained ideas of what rock and roll is, and who creates it. We just have to keep pushing.”
“Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from September 7 through January 6. For more information, visit the museum’s website.