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A history of the relationship between fashion and feminism.

The relationship between fashion and feminism has a long and varied past in which the two have influenced each other in a number of ways. When studying the history of fashion it is evident how fashion has been influenced by feminism, for instance, the abandoning of the corset, whilst the opposite effects are fashion related issues that need to be addressed by feminism. It could be stated that the first good example of the relationship between feminism and fashion was during the 14th to 16th century. During this time fashion was the only means that allowed women to show good taste. Indeed, it was the only form of art that women were allowed to express this in and resulted in the fame of such female figures as Lucrezia Borgia and Eleonora di Toledo. However, at present the relationship between the two has taken on other issues, for example, whether it is possible to be both a feminist and fashionable at the same time? Some feminists believe that the fashion sector is highly sexist, quoting the sexualisation of women in fashion media and the promotion of certain unachievable body standards for women through the use of size 2 models and photoshopping in fashion advertising and editorials. However, this issue is being addressed through such writers as Polly Vernon in Hot Feminist, and recent issues of popular fashion magazines such as ELLE and Vogue having feminist friendly issues, such as British Vogue’s ‘The Real Issue’ published in November 2016. However, this essay will not be concentrating on the modern day debate between the two subjects, but will pinpoint the historical events where fashion and feminism have both connected and influenced each other. Fashion since the beginning of the feminist movement has had an important role in presenting the cause as well as liberating women's bodies. This can be seen in all generations, from the practical invention of ‘Bloomers’ during the 1850s to Mary Quant designing the Mini Skirt for a new generation of women in the 1960s. This article shall discuss further these moments of liberation and conflict between the two subjects, and the development of fashion to meet modern women’s needs during each decade. The discussion will follow a chronological order, from the invention of the ‘Bloomers’ in the nineteenth-century to the present day, thoroughly working through the historical and social context of these moments not only in relation to women’s fashion but in their rights and roles as women.
The 19th Century Fashion, Feminism, and Bloomers
 During the 19th century, the place of women within society and the role they were expected to play was heavily influenced by the myth of their inferiority to men. This view was actively maintained by all classes. Working women encouraged into the factories created by the Industrial Revolution were soon encouraged back out of them by husbands who realised that, being willing to work for less, their wives were taking their jobs. Women of more affluent classes were dressed up and treated as ‘child-like dolls’, a point illustrated by the character of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). This perceived weakness of women and their acceptance of this role was, however, not unique to the 19th century being fiercely criticised by Mary Wolstencraft in 1792. In what is the first known feminist text A Vindication on the Rights of Women Wolstencraft challenged women’s acceptance of their role as well as the society that encouraged it, writing: ‘I do not wish them (women) to have power over men; but over themselves.’ Nineteenth-century fashion for women relied principally on the corset (necessary for creating the impression of a tiny waist), large bell-shaped skirts (created by a crinoline and various layers of petticoats worn underneath the main gown), long or short sleeves depending on the time of day and bonnets. However, and perhaps ironically, the restrictive nature of women’s clothing at this time began a necessity in clothing which ended up creating an item pivotal in feminist fashion; ‘Bloomers’, so called as they were adopted and promoted by the feminist Amelia Bloomer in her magazine The Lily, were inspired by the dress of Turkish women and provided the first trousers for women seen in Western society. Seen to promote women’s health, the bloomer was initially rejected by most of society and instead was adopted as a symbol of female rights, being worn by a large number of feminist until the bloomer became such an object of fascination for the public that feminists saw them as a distraction from their main campaign and returned to traditional dress. However, this was not the death of the bloomer as their practicality became utilized by women wishing to take part in the fashionable hobby of cycling. Rather than risking the various layers of their skirts being caught up in the cogs of bikes, the bloomers became a safer alternative. Bloomers, however, are not the only evidence of the adoption of more sensible fashion for women during the Victorian era. During the late 19th century, there began a movement which promoted the abandoning of the corset as well as general comfort in clothing. Known as the “Rational Dress Movement”, this movement consisted of various reformers creating more sensible versions of the popular fashions of the time. Mostly concerned with women’s fashion, the movement raised the issues with tight lace corsetry and created such inventions as the liberty corset. Despite this, the movement's ideals and inventions achieved little and the corset was not fully abandoned until the inspiration of Paul Poiret in the 1910’s explored later in this article.
The 1900’s Fashion, La Belle Epoque, The Suffragette Movement and it’s use of Fashion
 At the beginning of the twentieth-century little had been achieved with regards to female liberation it was, however a time where fashion was at its height in terms of luxury and adornments. Paris was seen as the fashion capital of the world, and it was a time when there was a constant exportation of French dress models into countries such as Britain and America for dressmakers to recreate the highest French fashions for their clientele. This period in France was known as La Belle Epoque, where extravagance and richness were displayed not only in fashion but also in art, home décor and architecture in a style termed Art Nouveau. The popularity of luxury and adornments did little to promote the feminist cause. As in the nineteenth century women were still dressed as little dolls, with frills, laces, silks and feathers throughout their dress. The corset was also still prevalent, but it’s shape changed to create the ‘S Silhouette’, exaggerated by the giant bustles and trains worn at the back of the dress. High collars and long sleeves were very fashionable in day wear and large brimmed hats were worn with adornments such as feathers and lace. The style of hats was changed however when the innovative Coco Chanel began to create her own more simplistic hats in 1910. The designer shared what can perhaps be interpreted as being a feminist quote referring to the style of hats at the time saying; ‘How could a brain function normally under all that?’ This style and the general feeling in society at the time emphasised women as more of an adornment to the family, in the way that she was something to show off and represent the family rather than having a more meaningful function, hence the invention and popularity of the Promenade were women walked to display the families wealth and respectability through their dress. Despite this, this was also the time, especially in the England where first wave feminism was starting to truly take hold. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst created ‘The Women’s Social and Political Union’, dubbed by The Daily Mail as ‘Suffragettes’. This movement was known for the unusual methods in which they protested; Hunger Strikes resulting in the imprisonment and force-feeding of many members. An interesting area of the suffragette movement was their use of fashion. The group were painfully aware as to their portrayal as unfeminine old spinsters by the media, therefore the group's emphasis on feminine dress was seen as important to further the cause. Indeed, Sylvia Pankhurst has been quoted as saying that ‘Many suffragists spend more money on clothes than they can comfortably afford, rather than run the risk of being considered outré, and doing harm to the cause.’ The suffragettes also utilised fashion in presenting their movement, choosing the colours purple, white and green. These colours representing purity, hope, loyalty and dignity. It is interesting to consider how the suffragettes originally used fashion as a tool in order to be taken seriously, and how now a feminist who likes fashion is considered a subject for debate.
The 1910’s Fashion, Paul Poiret’s Natural Line and the effect of WWI
From 1910 onwards the feminist movement began to gather momentum, the course of women's lives slowly becoming unshackled from the restraints of female gender roles and further liberation beginning to be achieved. It was an age of fresh simplicity and an appreciation of the body was beginning to take hold. This is evident when we examine the dramatic changes in fashion and especially the designs of a certain man who echoed women’s voices at the time; Paul Poiret’s innovative new straight line finally ‘banished’ the corset. Poiret was a French fashion designer born, and raised in Paris, who recognised the necessity not for the abandoning of corsets but for the loosening of them and the introduction of the brassiere. As it states in 20th Century Fashion by Elizabeth Ludwig: What Poiret did do, beyond controversy, was to loosen the constricted waist, an almost constant feature of all previous fashions, and relieve the pressure of the “S”-Shaped corset on the stomach, thereby getting rid of the exaggeratedly curved hips and producing a natural or near natural figure. However, as Elizabeth Ludwig also states, ‘Poiret was expressing a decisive change in women’s attitudes which was coming to the surface.’ The loosening of the corset was not the only thing that Poiret did to revolutionize women’s fashions. He also introduced a sense of Orientalism to fashion at the time. Inspired by The Ballet Russe, Poiret began to design tunics and harem pants for women, as well as a variety of fashion that brought this sense of richness and exoticism. This was assisted partially by a the new public fascination with actresses; these stars and the fashions that was adorned on them whilst on stage mirrored the comfort that feminists had been campaigning for. However, there was also another need for comfort in fashion as sport became a common past time for women. In previous centuries full gowns would have been worn during sporting activities despite their impracticality, but with the new decade came the revolutionary idea to adapt fashion for sport in order to make it more comfortable and practical for women. However, a more important need for practicality in fashion began in 1914. The outbreak of WWI dramatically changed society, and it was to have a particular effect on the lives of women when, for the first time, they were being actively encouraged to work. This change occurred not as a result of the efforts of the suffragette movement, but simply because countries involved in the conflict needed women to replace men in the workforce. A direct result of this was a simplification of fashion, not only because of the shortage of textiles during the war, but because of the necessity for working women to wear clothes that were easier to move around in. Rising hemlines were one aspect of fashion that changed to accommodate this.
The 1920s, the New Woman and the Fashion that reflected her
Coming out of the First World War, the generation of the 1920’s was one of modernity and freedom. The population had decreased due to war fatalities, yet there was a new-found sense of hope for the younger generation. Paris was still considered the center of fashion despite America’s efforts to catch up with fashion production during the war years and for women, it was the first time their equality to men was realised and, although the feminist movement still had a long way to go, they were given the same rights and freedoms. They could drive, smoke and finally, due to the vital role they played during the war, were given the right to vote from 1918. This new generation of feministic women were known as ‘new women’. A term coined in 1894, it never had a truer namesake than in the 1920’s. The fashion of the time represented this with dropped-waist dresses, a hem that ended just below the knee, short bobbed hair, flat chests achieved by a brassiere (no restrictive corset to be seen), and a string of pearls or beads worn around the neck. During this period there was also an increase in female fashion designers such as Vionnet and Schiaparelli. One woman who helped to further progress women’s fashion during this time, however, was Coco Chanel. Following the war Paul Poiret and his designs fell out of fashion and Coco Chanel became influential in revolutionizing fashion for women. Her recreation of men's sailor's jackets and pullovers for women began a new fashion trend that supported the comfort and practicality that was required by women at the time. It could be argued that Coco herself was a prime example of the new woman in the fact that her ideas spoke of the requirements of her generation. This can be seen especially in her creation of the Chanel suit. She has been quoted as saying ‘I make fashions women can live in, breath in, feel comfortable in and look younger in’. It is safe to say that Chanel more than achieved this and has continued to do so until this day.
1930’s Fashion and Schiaparelli
Despite the new revolution in a boyish style created by designers in the 1920s, by the 1930s the short skirts and dropped waists of the previous decade were rejected in favour of a new more feminine style of dress. It can be argued that this return to the ‘feminine’ resulted as a backlash against feminism created by the Great Depression. Women’s clothes had a natural waistline, long skirt (for the evening, knee length for the day), plus the invention of the halter neck and backless dress. In spite of this the 1930s was a successful period for female protagonists such as Chanel, but perhaps even more so for Chanel's rival, Schiaparelli. Inspired by the Surrealist movement, Schiaparelli was seen as a female protagonist due to her creative and artistic methods when it came to fashion. She wasn’t afraid to make a shoe into a hat and was determined as a working woman for success in all things. Her collaboration with many famous artists such as Dali, and her inexhaustible imagination made her a notable female figure in the 1930s. Despite a more feminine trend, fashion also proceeded to become more accepting of female suits and padded shoulders to almost masculinate the female body. Also the designer Madeleine Vionnet during this time was creating revolutionary fashion for women, that was comfortable, corsetless and highlighted the natural female figure. Unfortunately, the abundance in fashion of the 1920s and 30’s was soon to end with the outbreak of WWII in 1939.
The 1940s and 1950s, Wartime Fashion, Fascism and Gender Roles and Dior’s New Look
 The Second World War was to change fashion dramatically. A limitation on the production and consumption of fashion was placed by governments, and this resulted in more simple styles. Due to the occupation of France, Paris disappeared from the fashion world map, no longer able to retain its title as the fashion capital. For female fashion skirts again began to rise to just below the knee, and fashion, in general, became more masculine than any previous generation, consisting of a skirt, shirt, and jacket or a simple short sleeve dress. Once again women were required to take men’s place in factories, in the countryside and in the work place, and this once again, resulted in the popularity and necessity of wearing trousers. A popularity that continues to this day. During wartime, roles for women were vastly different on the opposing sides of the war. Whilst in Britain and America there was propaganda to promote women leaving the house and working, in Italy and Germany, where Fascism reigned, there was an emphasis on what they considered to be natural gender roles, with women encouraged to stay at home, fulfilling their roles as wives and mothers. The importance of family and the production of healthy children key to the idealism of both fascist Italy and Germany. After the end of the Second World War however, both America and Britain’s propaganda on the centrality of the working woman rapidly changed. After the horrors of the war, the soldiers returning now found their mothers, daughters, sisters and wives taking their place in the workforce and enjoying it. Women were reluctant to return to the home to continue their roles as wives and mothers, returning husbands finding their role as ‘provider’ now challenged by their financially independent, working wives. The media was soon quick to promote a new kind of propaganda, promoting an ideal family lifestyle, especially in America. However, the media in America and Britain isn’t the only sphere where this is evident. With the re-establishment of Paris as the fashion capital, Dior’s New Look released in 1947, put women back into the constraints of feminine corsetry. The small waisted Bar Jacket and wide skirt created a delicate feminine woman, that corresponded with the need to promote gender roles. The look obviously required a corset, and some saw the rigidity and constraints of it. Though undoubtedly stylish and beautiful this obvious return to constraint created anger amongst feminists who had earned their equality as part of the war effort. They could see the obvious setback that was to arise in women’s emancipation and actively protested against Dior’s New Look. Unfortunately, these protests did little to change the effect of fashion or women's lives for the next ten years. In the 1950s, once again fashion took on the tiny, corseted waist and large skirt that was central to Dior’s New Look. It was a time in women’s fashion where a new feminine elegance was born that did nothing to assist the emancipation of women during that era. Media influence, including the portrayal of women in cinema and television, for example The Donna Reed Show, ensured that the dissemination of what was considered to be the ‘ideal’ housewife and woman, crept through American society. As Betty Friedan writes in The Feminine Mystique: ‘Over and over again, stories in women's magazines insist that women can know fulfilment only at the moment of giving birth to a child (…) There is no other way she can even dream about herself, except as her children's mother, her husband's wife.’ Fortunately for the next generation of women, a revolution was about to take place that was not only to change the lives of women, but society all over western Europe and America.
The 1960s and 1970s, The Youthquake, Pill and Mini Skirt
It has been claimed that the publication of Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 marked the starting point of second wave feminism, but events in the 1960s, much like the 1910s and 1920s provided the ‘right’ moment for women to officially gain their liberation. The roles of women, however, were not the only things that began to change from the 1960s. The term “Youthquake” coined by fashion editor Diana Vreeland, can be used to sum up this revolutionary period. Society became youth-orientated, rock and roll music such as that of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones took the lead, drug abuse was everywhere, and a new sexual freedom, due to the invention of the Pill, was represented in such fashion photography as the work of Bob Richardson and David Bailey. In terms of fashion media, the change to a representation of a youth-orientated culture is demonstrated by the abandoning of the ladylike fashion models previously featured in fashion campaigns and editorials, to the introduction in non-conforming models such as Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. The Pill, however, was perhaps the most advantageous invention of the 1960s for women in terms of sexual liberation. The Pill allowed women the advantage of being able to control their own sexual freedom, something that had never been previously thought of. With the new generation came an abandoning of the centrality of home in women’s lives with young women once again taking their place as part of the work force. This new-found liberation affected the lives of women of all classes. The ‘sexual revolution’ that occurred in women’s lives is best demonstrated in fashion with the creation of the ‘Mini Skirt’. The British fashion designer, Mary Quant is often attributed to be the inventor of this age-defining look, though this had been debated upon, she at least definitely gave the look its name, and perfectly summarises the feeling and change in women’s lives: ‘It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini. I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move, in which you could run and jump and we would make them the length the customer wanted. I wore them very short and the customers would say, “'Shorter, shorter.'" All these elements helped to further the cause of second wave feminism and, as the decade ended, one of the most famous and stereotyped women’s protests happened in America. In 1969 at the annual ‘Miss America’ competition a demonstration against the sexual exploitation of women took place where it was claimed that the feminine protesters burnt a number of feminine objects such as pots, false lashes and bras resulting in the term ‘bra burners’. Although this has been claimed to be highly misrepresentative of the protest by the attendees, the term was quoted by the media and the term stuck. With the arrival of the 1970s a freedom in skirt length became apparent. Now women could choose the skirt length of their choice between maxi, midi or mini, or indeed jeans/trousers if they desired, these having become more than acceptable for women to wear on a daily basis. In terms of fashion, or more fashion media and feminism, an interesting contrast can be made. Despite the protests and rallies made by second wave feminists, an apparent and disturbing sexualization of women was clear in fashion media. The work of Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, featured in such magazines as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, created a disturbing sexual violence along with fetishism in their photography, that heavily featured young models. This is evident in such work as Helmut Newton’s Chained Bust photo or Guy Bourdin’s work for Charles Jourdan. It is perhaps ironic that during this time it wasn’t the sexual violence contained within the work of these photographers, but the unsexual seclusion showed in Deborah Turbeville’s Bath House series, published in 1975, that caused the most shock to readers.

The 1980s and 1990s, The New Working Woman and The Power Dressing Style
In the 1980s women began to achieve higher positions in the workforce, other than the debate of men and women’s salary which is still ongoing to this date, this new generation was encouraged to have it all; the career, house, husband and child. However, the debate whether this is physically possible is also still being discussed, and a severe separation occurred between working women and housewives even as early as the 1950s and 60s. Nevertheless, the new generation of working women lead to the creation of what has become termed as ‘Power Dressing’. Power dressing for women meant feminine suits e.g. matching skirts and jackets but with padded shoulders to give a masculine look. However, the purpose wasn’t to dress as a man but more to give working women a style in which to aid them in looking professional: ‘You’re the first woman I’ve seen at one of these things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman', and to help them break through the glass ceiling ever present for women climbing the work ladder. Unfortunately, this did not necessarily help as sexism in the workplace is still here to this day. With the birth of the new decade came the birth of a third wave in feminism with its own ideas with regards to gender and sexuality in women. Part of this third wave are the radical feminists, who with their arguments for reproduction via artificial insemination and the obsoletion of the sexual act, have done much to diminish the attempts of feminists to lose their ‘bra burning’ image. Perhaps because of this, in terms of fashion, the media image and stereotype of a feminist was much the same as it was during the suffragettes decade. The idea that feminist are unshaven man-haters, could very much be compared to the ugly spinster idea portrayed decades before.
The 2000s to Present Day, Fashion and Feminism Now
It can be agreed in terms of women's rights, that the current generation is dramatically better off than the struggles the suffragettes experienced over 100 years ago. The current fashions and freedom of choice presents a freedom not experienced by any previous generation, at least in the Western world. How fashion and feminism interlink is also vastly different. As stated in the introduction, one of the current debates is whether you can be a feminist and be fashionable at the same time, but there are also much deeper and more important debates raised by feminism that affect women all over the world. The issue of judging a rape victim by what she was wearing, or whether her sexual assault was warranted through her choice of dress, as well as the strict dress codes and devaluing of female education evident in schools, attributed to the belief that inappropriate’ dress will distract male students are all vitally important issues. Perhaps more recently, is the debate that has arisen when certain celebrities choose to publish nudes of themselves, and if this is proposing body positivity or a sense of irony as small minded groups seem to believe. Perhaps the most feminist related fashion item during the last ten years is the ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt. This T-shirt was created in order to help dispel the idea of a feminist stereotype and promote the fact that the belief in equality is shared by many different people. Recently advertised in ELLE magazine the T-shirt has now become seen as a very fashionable item. It is safe to say though that the current fashion has been affected by the waves of feminism that have allowed women to wear such items as Trousers, Mini Skirts, and Suits without the shame or ridicule that was imposed upon first wave feminists. Conclusion. To conclude we have seen that the relationship between feminism and fashion is a long and complicated one. Fashion has always been affected by the feeling of the time, and over the past hundred years, the emancipation of women, through a steady progression, got us to where we are today. The creations of Paul Poiret influenced by the sense that women needed looser and more comfortable fashions, very much so in the way Mary Quant saw the need for fashion that women could jump and run in. As we have explored in our last chapter feminism and fashion, and a way a woman dresses is perhaps much more debated now than in previous decades, but women’s ability to choose what to wear, as well as the slow revealing of the body over the past hundred years shows that the interlink between feminism and fashion has been revolutionary and that it is possible to document the emancipation of women through looking back at fashion history and how women’s dress changed.

Project Tags

  • fashion history
  • feminism

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