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Fashion and Feminism: A Historical Link

This week on the ‘Emma is obsessed diaries’, we are looking at the history of the Feminist movement. I love a bit of historical research, I wholeheartedly believe in knowing your past before starting to create anything new. In order to properly explore how feminism plays a part in fashion (and vice versa), I began to research how this link occurred across history.

The Suffragettes/Suffragists (in this context, I am focusing on the UK-based WSPU and NUWSS) used Fashion in a few ways. Their use of the 3 colours; Purple (dignity and loyalty), White (purity) and Green (hope), identified them as part of the movement and allowed for a conversation to start. Early suffragists tended to wear the latest fashion trends and look ‘well dressed’ in order to give weight to their words by looking like well-placed women in society. This also meant that people weren’t distracted by their clothing so it was more likely for people to pay attention to what they were saying. Later suffragettes donned a more ‘suit’ or ‘uniform’ attire to create a sense of solidarity, particularly as methods became more militant and extreme.

Wendy Parkins (1997) talks about this in her paper ‘Taking Liberty’s, breaking windows: Fashion, protest and the suffragette public’.

“Visual representation of women’s bodies had always been a central emphasis in the suffragette movement…Whether staging elaborate processions or devoting space to fashion in the suffragette newspaper ‘Votes for Women’, the movement had consistently linked the spectacle of women’s bodies with the campaign for political representation for women in Britain. ‘Spectacularized’ suffragette bodies were not, however, objects of passive display; rather, it was actively dissenting bodies which were spectacularized.” (page 37)

A great link with information on these are:

Another easily recognisable example is Mary Quant’s iconic mini dress design. Quant is synonymous with 60s British fashion and is the most notable influence on the shortening of hemlines and creating a-line shapes. The 60s sparked the beginning of the second-wave in Feminism; and a new relationship with women’s bodies, sexual liberation (made possible by the availability of the contraceptive pill in 1961), beauty and fashion. Second-wave feminists are linked with the rebellion against fashion as a concept, birthing this ‘bra-burning, anti-beauty’ stereotype we have for Feminists.

Pamela Church-Gibson (a key writer in the link between Feminism, Fashion and Beauty standards) talks about the impact fashion had on second-wave feminism in her 2012 chapter of ‘On Rereading Beauvoir’s The Second Sex After Thirty-Five Years’ entitled ‘“To Care for Her Beauty, to Dress Up, Is a Kind of Work”:Simone de Beauvoir, Fashion, and Feminism’.

“Here we find a seemingly straightforward equation of elegance with bondage in a description of the haute-bourgeoise, the “woman of fashion” who “has chosen to make herself a thing” ([1949] 1997, 550) in order to showcase her social status and to please her affluent husband. This gave second-wave feminists invaluable ammunition in their sustained attack on fashion as a man-pleasing manipulation of the “natural” woman. In 1985, Elizabeth Wilson in Adorned in Dreams argued convincingly that fashion, feminism, and socialism could happily coexist”

“I would argue that Beauvoir has been unjustly treated, first by those who did not appreciate the overtly political nature of her intervention in 1949 and second by those who still read the pages on “fashion” as an unambiguous attack on pleasure in dress and self-adornment. It is problematic to separate the section on dress in the chapter “Social Life’ “from the full text of a book that itself may best be understood through a full appreciation of its context.”

McElvain, Sklar and Harpham discuss the argument that second wave feminism did have a direct impact on fashion (as suggested by Church-Gibson when discussing Beauvoir but just in a more positive light). In their 2017 paper ‘Dior to Disco: Second Wave Feminism and Fashion‘ they identify correlations from the 60s through to the 90s; the entirety of the second and into the third wave.

“This research strives to identify ways in which second wave feminism triggered lasting change in fashionable dress, and to distinguish these instances of significant change from the natural ebb and flow of the fashion cycle….the silhouette shifted from the ultra-feminized and rigid hourglass figure promulgated by Christian Dior, to a boyishly thin figure donning Mary Quant’s mini-dress in the 1960s…”

“Did fashions with increasingly more body exposure contradict or reinforce feminist concepts of independence and personal agency?”

“The tension between second wave feminism and the idealized beauty of the fashion system is a point of departure in plying apart contradictions between hedonic power and a dominant male culture. There is indication that second wave feminism did play a role in shifting fashionable trends. Individual agency and willingness to experiment with gender stereotypes struggled against a desire to appear as an idealized woman.”

Mary Quant’s mini skirt arguably acts as a symbol of women’s sexual freedom. However, if you consider Beauvoir and Church-Gibson’s standpoint on fashion, could it be considered as just another form of female objectification?

If you haven’t seen the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A, I highly recommend it! Get tickets here

Twiggy in 1966 Mary Quant

An iconic example of design being influenced by the needs of women is Chanel’s 1921 suit. Earlier iterations of her trend-setting suit began in 1914, but the 20s design is the most recognisable of the brand. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was well known for wearing menswear for comfort and practicality. Women’s styles at the time were incredibly restricting and uncomfortable, meaning they were unable to participate in numerous leisure activities. This meant women were literally dolls, objects. French designer Paul Poiret created a slightly shorter hemline, and tighter fit in a male attempt at women’s liberation from billowing cumbersome skirts. This became known as the ‘hobble skirt’ as the women wearing these were so restricted in movement, they could only take short wiggling steps. Women became even more objectified, artists even created what we would now refer to as ‘memes’! Chanel wanted to create styles that were truly comfortable and easy to move around in. By putting a female slant on a menswear, the Chanel suit was born. The boxy, loose fitting silhouette released women from the need to wear corsets. Pockets and practical elements made this a popular, and comfortable outfit to wear, finally causing a breakthrough in the fight to rid women of the patriarchal confines of being an object to please the male eye.

An early 1900s postcard poking fun at the hobble skirt

The 1921 Chanel suit

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