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When the historical significance of fashion is discussed, the multi-talented artist Jean Cocteau is often quoted as having said, “Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.”

Many of the garments at the “Fashion and Interior Decoration in the 20th Century” exhibition, however, are far from “simple.” Ball gowns reveal intricate hand-stitched details and embellishments, while unusual cuts show technical skills that seem almost baffling. But while the outfits are spectacular and beautifully crafted, the Shiodome Museum also puts them in historical context, which, as Cocteau suggested, reveals a complex relationship between style and women in society.

The exhibition begins with an elegant early 1900s garden dress by Paul Poiret, the designer who is credited for liberating women from the restricting corset of the Belle Epoch by reviving the high-waisted Greco-Roman empire line. It was a seminal point in womenswear at a time when France was experiencing inklings of feminism, but it was not until the early ’20s that the evolution of loose, flowing designs became more symbolic of societal change.

As a valuable work force during World War I, women desired practical and comfortable clothing, a trend that continued into the Jazz Age. This change, however, wasn’t met with open arms. The tomboy haircuts, dropped-waist short dresses and androgynous figures, as depicted in the exhibition’s Gazette du Bon Ton magazine illustrations, offended those who yearned for a postwar return to traditional feminine values. Women who partied, drank and danced in such garments were viewed as a rebellious threat to patriarchy as were the fashion houses who championed the “modern woman” style.

Whether those outfits actually contributed to the feminists’ cause or were a projection of wishful thinking, however, is debatable. After all, the French suffragettes had already failed in the early 1900s, and it wouldn’t be until 1945 that women in France would win the vote. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that by the 1930s, despite the enormous success of flapper dresses, old-school femininity returned via gently accentuated waistlines and floaty full-length skirts such as those of Elsa Schiaparelli’s chiffon Circus Collection dress and Madeleine Vionnet’s gold-embellished tulle evening dress.

With the World War II occupation of Paris bringing France’s golden age of fashion to a grinding halt, the exhibition skips over the early postwar years and heads straight to haute couture’s revival from the late ’40s.

Oddly, despite women’s wartime efforts and winning the right to vote, postwar fashion took a nostalgically lavish and impractical turn. Christian Dior’s embroidered ball dress and Cristobal Balenciaga’s jacketed cocktail dress, brought back the late 19th-century hour-glass silhouette — full, structured skirts and tightly cinched waists. Ironically advertised as the New Look, it matched a lull in feminism as the number of nuclear families rose and women were encouraged to revert to the roles of housewife, hostess and mother.

If the classic glamour of the ’50s was a reflection of a bleak period for women’s liberation, the final section of the exhibition — the ’60s — illustrates the backlash against domesticity. The sexual revolution and a questioning of authority combined with new technology led to an acceptance of the drastically lifted hemline of Andre Courreges’ miniskirt, Yves Saint Laurent’s resurrection of wartime pants, and unconventional textiles, such as Rudi Gernreich’s revealing transparent-paneled tunic and Paco Rabanne’s metal mesh dress. It was an era that undoubtedly brought women’s rights and equality to the fore, and with it came the long-deprived prerogative to wear whatever they wanted. The results were garments that were not just innovative but also eclectic.

The “interior decoration”promised by this exhibition’s title is scant, but don’t let that disappoint you. These garments bring their own rich backdrops. Fashion trends may be a simple concept to some, but as visual historical markers, they always have a lot to say.

“Fashion and Interior Decoration in the 20th Century” at the Shiodome Museum runs until Nov. 23; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Wed. panasonic.co.jp/es/museum

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