When clothes used to talk, they screamed ‘feminism’

The discussion begins

With my mind set on the ever-relevant issue of feminism and the expression of it, I often try to stir the way I dress to help me express that cause. But it wasn’t always like that. There once was a time when the everyday news wasn’t bombarded by who wore what, which 9 trends to follow for a perfect fall look with women spending hours every morning to achieve it, and why Vogue’s editor-in-chief didn’t use a woman of color for his second cover. There was a time when women did not hide behind their screens, went out to voice their views and the clothes they wore, were another means of expression. Deirdre Clemente, historian of 20th century American fashion: “I always stress to my students that clothing trends aren’t ‘reflective’ of change, but rather constitutive of change. So women didn’t say ‘Hey I’m sexually liberated, I need to go get a mini-skirt.’ Rather in wearing the mini-skirt they live out the identity that they are. Clothing is not reactive but pro active.” Clothes say it first, and the movement follows.

This is a story of how feminism was manifested and embedded into the social life of women through clothing, in vast co-relation with the social background of each decade, starting from the 20th century. This perspective is crucial because clothing is an aggregation of costume pieces and each costume piece is a testimony of a historic event or situation, as Quicherat, Demay and Enlart, philosophers of the 19th century reflected and wrote on that matter.

The 1900s

The world-known movement of the Suffragettes set the stepping stone of womens’ emancipation, advocating for feminism and the right to vote. Among their activities was one that applied to the visual world. They adopted a color triplet: green, white, and purple. Green is the most restful color for the human eye–it symbolizes growth and hope, represents the nature, and has a strong emotional correspondence with safety. White is considered to be the color of perfection – it’s associated with light, goodness, innocence, and purity and can represent a successful beginning. Purple combines the stability of blue and the energy of red – it depicts power, ambition, wisdom, dignity, independence and creativity. The Suffragettes used these three colors to visually demonstrate the complexity and importance of their cause from a very personal to a very public point of view. They used them on banners, flags, rosettes, and badges. Later, they were used on jewelry and incorporated in items of companies who committed to the movement’s cause.

The 1920s

The Roaring Twenties or ‘années folles’ were a turning point in cultural and social history. The WWI had ended, there was a growth in the industrial field, consumerism and the emergence of Art Deco. The Gibson girl had died, and the Flapper woman was born. She was a woman who celebrated the sexual revolution, disdained the notion of acceptable behavior, listened to jazz music that had just blossomed, smoked and drank in public. She strived for liberation and the idea of up-to-dateness, alertness, and growth. The media’s feed shifted from the discussion of suffrage to more negligible news concerning celebrities fashion choices. One of the most frequent debates was the ‘To Bob or Not to Bob’ one.

As Victoria Pass said, “While on the one hand cutting your hair short doesn’t suddenly signify your liberation, it was a powerful symbol of allegiance to a modern way of being a woman, one that terrified people who wanted to restore order after the traumatic upheaval of World War I.” The women of the previous decade fought for emancipation, and were now bringing it into their everyday life, their marriages, their style, beginning with seemingly nonchalant but crucial acts like that. It was one of the shackles they could break that imprisoned them into a ‘general feminine helplessness’ as Mary Garden wrote in her article ‘Why I Bobbed My Hair’. They wanted to be taken seriously, as smart, active – and finally voting – members of the society, and if having a bob was one of the ways to achieve their goal, they went for it.

The 1930s

Despite the Great Depression, the crisis and the instability that mangled the U.S., the growing fascism and the fight between Right and Left surrounding Europe, people were looking for a way to cast away the bad cloud over their heads. The goal was achieved through a growth of cultural trends such as literature, arts, music, photography, and cinema.
In Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, whose influence flew through the Atlantic, actors and actresses emerged to the social spectrum, and more women with careers fought for space in the public sphere and expressed their views in politics. One of these women was Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel did, a founder and a designer of her own business. Although being accused of having close relations with the Germans, she managed through her designs to provide a new way for women to carry themselves through fashion. She designed and launched the two-piece suits, comfortable, powerful but still elegant, liberating women from the fetters of the ‘corseted silhouette’, drawing inspiration from her lovers’ clothing and dynamic behavior. She popularized a feminine, sporty, casual chic sense of style, suitable for the woman she was. Besides her creations or her beliefs, Chanel was one of the first women to create a name for herself and penetrate into the male-dominated world of the ‘30s.

The 1940s

With the beginning of WWII in 1939, a fusion between gender clothing appeared in fashion. But it was not yet conscious – it was somewhat of a support towards the soldiers in the war through fashion. Women’s clothing started echoing men’s traditional style and supported a rather masculine military look – wide padded shoulders, nipped in high waist tops, man-tailored dresses, coats, and hats. No matter the purpose, it was at least one of the first steps towards breaking the strict fission in binary clothing. With the end of the war in 1945, women’s closets were filled with colorful patterns, long and puffy skirts, and a lot of fabric. This is when Dior, waving goodbye to the war, presented the New Look – soft, extreme hourglass figures, using corsets, bust and hip padding, and enormous skirts with many layers of fabric. It was the first time when plus-size, big curves and a fuller figure was accepted and embedded into fashion, as both designers and the public came to realize the diversity in women’s bodies, and that fashion should comply with their needs.

40s all

The 1950s

The ‘50s took a big step back, especially for women. As men returned from the war, women were starting to cut back on the independence they had when their husbands were away, such as working in office and factories, having their own businesses, being in charge of their economics. There was a rise in racism, anti-communism, conservatism – everyone was trying to look proper. However, women weren’t ready to give up everything they had fought for so easily, and many of them were outraged by Dior’s New Look – lots of fabric which was difficult to care for, corseted silhouettes, the need to accessorize heavily to achieve a perfect image.
So sporty-chic came into fashion; casual fabrics like elastic, cotton, wool, nylon, polyester, rayon, thought to be ‘miracle fabrics’ due to their easy use. That style targeted the woman in action, either a housewife, a working woman, a student, or a combination of them. As Victoria Pass mentions, “Wrap dresses could be quickly thrown on for a suburban dinner party, and fasteners like buttons or hooks and eyes on the side were easy for a woman to work with (as opposed to a zipper in the back). Even looking at her ads you can see a different kind of woman depicted where the women in them might be seen as a working woman or a woman in a domestic space”
A lot of designers were also opposed to the New Look, such as Chanel, who returned to the industry after closing it due to the war, with slim suits, in wool and tweed – boxy jackets without a collar, straight and comfortable skirts, and Hubert de Givenchy, with his sack dress presented in 1957, loose around the waist, creating a new silhouette far for the mid-nineteenth century one that the New Look resembled to.

The 1960s

The ‘60s was a time of great change, and that was reflected in fashion. Cosnumerism peeked and tons of disposable goods were manufactured. The Civil War in the States had abrogated slavery, but the discrimination against people of color continued, and that was when the civil-right movement emerged, and struggled for social justice and equal rights, and african -american models and clothing inspired and reflected the movement. The energy that was oppressed in the ‘50s exploded in the ‘60s and for the first time London and the Mod style was in the foreground. The Mod subculture was created by ‘a fashion-obsessed and hedonistic cult of hyper-cool young adults’ as said by Paul Jobling and David Crowley, with strong but self-consious and critical elements of consumerism and shopping. There was a rise of divorce rates, and a sexual reclaiming, and women, freer than ever, dressed androgynously, with short haircuts, used men’s clothes, flat shoes, and showed more skin than ever. Mary Quant brought the mini-skirt into the world, for the new ‘single girl’ with a cosmopolitan attitude. As mod people began using their disposable income to buy stylish clothes, the first youth-targeted boutique clothing stores opened in the center of London. Mary Quant explained: “It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini. We would make them the length the customer wanted. I wore them very short and the customers would say, ‘Shorter, shorter.’” Deirdre Clemente, historian of 20th century American fashion said “I always stress to my students that clothing trends aren’t ‘reflective’ of change, but rather constitutive of change. So women didn’t say ‘Hey I’m sexually liberated, I need to go get a mini-skirt.’ Rather in wearing the mini-skirt they live out the identity that they are. Clothing is not reactive but pro active.” Clothes say it first, and the movement follows.

The 1970s

A powerful idea of womanhood had flooded the ‘70s. Women’s equal rights advocates emerged to the public eye and tried to extend women’s liberation beyond the bedroom and joined people of color, the lgbtq+ community as well as other marginalized people who continued the fight for equality that had started in the ‘60s. Diane von Furstenberg exalted the concept of both the office working girls and the Park Avenue cocktail crowd through one of her inimitable creations, the wrap dress; silk relaxed, suitable for every body shape, and showed them off where else – in studio 54. The famous nightclub had a great influence in the lifestyle and fashion choices of people in the ‘70s. David Bowie had that unearthly sense of being every gender and no gender at the same time and was an ardent proponent of blurring gender boundaries and establishing gender fluidity; and that was expressed in his fashion sense too with spray on leotards, foil flares, face paint, one-legged catsuits, tie-dye suits and embroidered dress coats. In 1971, Roz Kraveney, a trans poet wrote about Bowie that she was finally allowed to be ‘loud, queer and happy’ because ‘I could dance to him in fishnets’. His example was followed by numerous artists who partied in studio 54; Andy Warhol, Cher, Grace Jones, Bianca and Mick Jagger, Divine, and the list goes on. It was a revolutionary and visionary group of people that brought a massive change, each og them in their own field and all of them together in fashion history.

The 1980s

In an era who brought the collapse of traditional communism, the ending of Cold War and the rise of technology due to its accessibility, women came to understand that they could use fashion to establish their authority in a professional and political environment dominated mostly by men. Power dressing, and more specifically power suits gave women an empowering feeling that shrieked of possibilities; they could be anybody they chose to be. Shira Tarrant, professor and author of Fashion Talks: Undressing The Power Of Style, said that “Wearing a pantsuit was the expectation at the time if you were to be taken seriously as a business woman, but women were still criticized for trying to emulate men, because it was a derivative of menswear.”

Jo Paoletti, professor and author of Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution wondered: ”If they wanted authority, they had to take the focus off of their gender. They were feminist in purpose. They helped women enter male-dominated professional spaces — but anti-feminist because they were based on a masculine model of  ‘power dressing’. Should a feminist adapt masculine dress? Or celebrate femininity? Should she even have to stick with these traditional binaries of what is male and what is female? The fact we are still talking in these terms shows how ingrained they are.”

Thus, in a span of almost a century, fashion for women in correlation with feminism and how it was expressed through clothing had done a full rotation around itself. From fighting for equal rights, exemplifying femininity, to dominating the business world, there have always been critics and different points of view about how one’s opinions and views – no matter what they identify as – should or should not be mirrored on their attire. We have witnessed numerous ways people extol feminism, degrade the notion of binary, spread their acceptance and love for diversity and expression of it through clothing. And for me, one thing is unequivocally true; all of them are valid – as long as they are genuine.

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