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  • Saumya Sonkar

FASHION AND FEMINISM: THE ROLE OF CLOTHING IN THE WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT

Author: Saumya Sonkar,

Faculty of Law, University of Allahabad


“Feminism is layered and its power comes from its diversity.”

- Scarlett Curtis

Introduction

Since time immemorial, there has been a close connection between Fashion and feminism. As women strived to seek liberation from all walks of life, the sense and spirit of Fashion evolved. The attire too has been playing a significant role in the women’s outlook and appearance.  There is no deniability that clothes and fashion go hand in hand and empowers the personality of a person, not just women. It has been observed that women have come a long way in styling their outfits in such an amazing way that the Fashion sense has not only been restricted to celebrities and models but also to the general and common public. In this article, I have  tried to explain briefly the different waves of the Liberation Movement with respect to Fashion and Clothing.

1)    First Wave aka Early Feminist Fashion[i]


First Wave aka Early Feminist Fashion

“Let men be compelled to wear our dress for a while and we should soon hear them advocating a change”

-Bloomer[ii]

Prior to the 1800s, women were bound to wear restrictive and tight corsets which were highly uncomfortable for them, however, they had no choice but to abide by it. With the onset of the 1800s, a feminist Amelia Bloomer designed the ‘Bloomers’ which were soon adopted by women due to their body-comforting fabric and breathable design. One of the advocates of the dress was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who argued that it offered more comfort and freedom than the tight-fitting garments worn by American women at the time. Bloomer became a symbol of the liberation movement but undoubtedly received negative reactions. Due to this reason, it soon went away from the women’s closet and women got back to their traditional dress.[iii]

The Industrial Revolution brought significant changes to the roles of women in society. Initially, many women found employment opportunities in emerging factories and industries. However, by the 1840s, a backlash against working women occurred, and they were pressured to return to their domestic duties at home. They had to wear bulky and heavy dresses in the mid-1900s which were too difficult to take on and off. The role of women in the society widened its horizons by the 20th century in terms of domestic sphere and women were seen in the occupations such as secretaries. And because of this particular rationale, their clothing choices enhanced via discarding the traditional dress code of the previous eras. Sports and horseback riding were among the fields where they commenced participating and wore cycling shorts and matching outfits respectively. This period gained momentum of the suffragette movement and thereby, they adopted white, purple, and green as their official colors to convey their message and values in the society. White was a colour of femininity and purity that challenged the stereotype that feminists were unfeminine and radical. Purple was the colour of loyalty and dignity which showcased the suffragettes' commitment and respectability. These colours were prominent in the banners, badges, and clothing to promote the cause of women's rights.[iv]


The era of the primitive 20th century observed a radical change in the Western fashion and harem pants, also known as jupe-culotte or jupe-pantaloon were ushered in. These were long, loose pants with an ankle fit which provided the wearer with a voluptuous, exotic shape. Now, guess who was the pioneer of this style? It was none other than Paul Poiret who was a French couturier inspired by Middle Eastern styles and cultures. Liberation of women from the constraints of corsets and skirts by offering them a more comfortable and modern alternative were some of his greatest contributions. In contrast, harem pants ignited fire and criticism in the public as they questioned the Western society's standards of decency and femininity. “The later recognition of the trousers became one of the most radical developments for women and now they were no longer considered either eccentric or strictly utilitarian,” wrote historians Amy de la Haye and Valerie Mendes.[v]

 “Chanel did much to accelerate this move and was often photographed during the day wearing loose, sailor-style trousers, known as ‘yachting pants.”[vi]

Gradually in 1925, Coco Chanel designed the revolutionary Chanel suit, which defied conventional notions of women's fashion. It comprised a straight skirt and a boxy jacket made of tweed, a fabric which is more often associated with men's wear. The outfit also encapsulated the essence of the flappers, who eschewed long skirts and corsets in favor of more pragmatic and freeing clothing. A short bob hairstyle, a necklace of pearls, and a cigarette holder were common accessories worn with the Chanel suit to create a stylish yet rebellious image. Later, many of the designers reintroduced and redesigned the Chanel suit over the years, but to no avail. However, the most notable work was done by Karl Lagerfeld and the reason being that he had enumerated components of sensuality and modernity to the classic silhouette. With so much newly- designed outfits, the Chanel suit still stands out as an icon of fashion history and an epitome of power and sophistication for women.[vii]

2)    Second Wave 

There came a marked a dramatic shift in women's fashion by the epilogue of World War II. During the Industrial Revolution and period of war, they had delightfully more freedom and practicality but later, women were expected to return to their domestic roles and dress accordingly. This major shift was best represented by Christian Dior's New Look, which featured feminine accessories, long skirts, nipped waists, and soft shoulders. Not all people, nevertheless, adopted this look since some women thought it represented oppression and retreat.[viii]



In the early 1960s, Mary Quant created the mini-skirt and eventually it transformed into a totem of the sexual revolution that was ignited by the reach of contraceptive pills. This was also a period when women commenced working, they dressed more like males, wearing jackets over skirts and padded shoulders. This was referred to as "power dressing" and was done in an exercise to appear elegant. While some feminists welcomed feminine clothing as a symbol of emancipation, others contended that this look undermined the movement. Diane Von Furstenberg's wrap dress, introduced in 1974, combined these two perspectives. It was a dress that tied at the waist and could be easily put on or taken off.[ix]

The Santa Maria Times, a daily American newspaper on California's Central Coast, captured the changing mood of women's fashion in the late 1960s. In an article published in 1969, the paper wrote that: "decrees issued from the inner sanctums of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses aren’t clicking. Women aren’t paying attention to sweeping generalisations in fashion. They are approaching fashion subjectively. They’re wearing clothes that suit them, not designers…For once, women are captains of their own ships and designers are riding the crest of the trend.” This statement reflects the growing sense of individuality and empowerment that women expressed through their clothing choices at the time.

3)    Third Wave

Feminist fashion is not a new phenomenon, but a reflection of the changing roles and aspirations of women throughout history. From the Bloomer dress in the 1850s, which challenged the norms of feminine attire and advocated for women's rights, to the distinct suffragette colours in the early 20th century which depicted a sense of loyalty, purity and hope and as a consequence of women's suffrage, fashion proved to be an effective remedy for showcasing feminist values and solidarity. Coco Chanel was one of the advocates of feminist fashion and the introduction of trousers, suits and simple dresses liberated women from the constraints of corsets and frills. She famously said, "I don't do fashion, I am fashion."

The fashion of the feminist revolves not only around the garbs of clothing but also around attitude and identity. It’s all about deciding what one has to wear by filtering out preferences and comfort instead of what the society or other people opine about. It is also regarding the celebration of diversity and individuality, instead of blindly following the stereotypes and expectations. Challenging the status quo and asking for the equality and respect in the place of discrimination and oppression is the major factor of Feminist fashion. It relates to activism and spreading awareness by using clothing as a way to uplift social issues and support movements that demand women's rights. For instance, if we look at the election of Donald Trump, the women from all around the globe chose to present themselves by wearing "hot pink pussy hats" at the worldwide Women's Marches and celebrities sparked the Golden Globes red carpet to bolster the Time's Up campaign in 2018. Natalie Portman wonderfully graced the Oscars red carpet the previous year when she rocked a Dior dress wrapped with a cape that was embroidered with gold thread and the print of the names of female designers that were passed over.

Can we consider the Feminist fashion as a monolithic or static concept? NO, because it is a dynamic and diverse phenomenon that transforms with each passing day and year. One cannot term it as a prescriptive or exclusive style, but an inclusive and expressive one since it embraces distinct styles and interpretations. It is a significant and didactic form because it is a reflection of women’s values and visions. Feminist fashion is not a regular trend or a fad, but actually a statement and a liberation that has sculptured and will continue to sculpture the history of women.

Although the hiring of Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior in 2016 and Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy in 2017 as the pioneer of female directors by the grand brands have taken place but does this reflect true progress towards the gender equality in the industry? In fact, as Vogue Australia[x] reports, "about 80% of garment workers globally comprise women, most of who are between the ages of 18 and 35," and they work under the harsh conditions and very poor wages. In fact, majority of these women have to undertake the responsibility to support their families and children with their trivial income.

Conclusion

Therefore, it can be summarized in a nutshell that the Fashion has proved to be a significant weapon in the liberation of women in the 21st century. It has empowered the women to vocally express their rights, traditions and also resistance in different forms. For instance, some Muslim women continue to wear hijabs or burkhas as an epitome of their faith, dignity, and autonomy. At the same time, the African women dress in vibrant fabrics and patterns that reflect their heritage and beauty. Similarly, the Western women's choose to wear the sport slogan T-shirts or pins that support causes such as reproductive rights, environmental justice, or racial equality. Hence, Fashion is more than a way of getting ready to a way of living, pondering, and rocking roles for women who seek liberation.

Altogether, it is well-noted that one of the most prominent features of fashion is that it imparts a means of articulation of our individuality and identities. When you wear a band T-shirt, for instance, you can clearly showcase that you are a fan of a specific musical genre or performer. You can exhibit that you are an ally or a member of the LGBTQ+ community by flying a rainbow flag. Demonstrating your encouragement for gender equality can be accomplished by rocking a feminist pin. Another noteworthy feature of this industry is the ability of fashion as tool of protest and resistance against the inequalities and oppression. It can aid us in vanquishing the preconceived notions and stereotypes that confine our opportunities and potential in any manner.

References

[i] www.lofficielusa.com ( last accessed on June 20, 2023).

[ii] Sam Pennington, Feminist fashion: How clothes helped fuel a fashion, https://www.weareyugen.com/blogs/stories/feminist-fashion.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Dana Perelberg; 'The History of Women's Movement Fashion', retrieved from https://www.lofficielusa.com/fashion/womens-movement-feminist-fashion-history .  

[v] Supra note 2.

[vi] Supra note 2.

[vii] Dana Perelber, The History of Women’s Fashion Movement, (2022) July 7, retrieved from https://www.lofficielusa.com/fashion/womens-movement-feminist-fashion-history (last accessed on June 20, 2023).

[x] Vogue Australia, retrieved from https://www.vogue.com.au/ ( last accessed on September 15, 2023).

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