Fashion's Aid in Feminism
Updated: Mar 19
From the beginning of time, the average woman's voice was limited or non-existent. Whether it was our rights or our sexuality, in the past we had to fiercely fight to be in charge of our own autonomy which is something that men had always been granted. Although many would say that fashion oppresses us, in my opinion it was our secret weapon that men had overlooked, deeming it insignificant. Throughout ages, it liberated many from the restraints of the patriarchy because it is a form of self-expression that is heard even when one is silent.
Expression through fashion goes all the way back to the 1800's when one of the first women's right advocates Amelia Bloomer wore trousers, or pantaloons to be more precise. Women's fashion in the 19th century was extremely uncomfortable and unpractical since there was not much demand for practical clothing yet. The corsets were tight and itchy and the petticoat severely restricted movement when paired with the floor-length dress. Amelia's controversial fashion choice sparked hysteria, with a magazine over-dramatically writing that "the model bloomer leaves her poor young husband pouting and weeping at home." By the simple act of wearing pantaloons, she challenged very rigid gender roles of the past as by wearing 'masculine' garments, she went for comfort that men were always granted and tried to establish her place in society as an equal to a man.
In 1908, the Suffragettes, as named by Daily Mail, used colours and conventional outfits to identify and unify their movement. They were the first wave feminists fighting for women having the right to vote but the press and postcards began mocking their movement, perceiving it to be women trying to be 'mannish' and dressing in suits and assumed that their goal was to abandon their husbands and children. The movement beginner, Emmeline Pankhurst said that a "more radical approach (was) needed" and it was declared that "the Suffragette of today is dainty and precise in her dress." They wore specific colours to popularise the movement as they used purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope. In 1910 in the US, 'American Ladies Tailors' designed the Suffragette suit- a divided skirt that allowed the marcher to take long strides. Many Suffragettes were also radical dressers and liked looser and more comfortable clothing, they desired the freedom of movement which was a practical necessity during WW1 as an increasing number of women joined the workforce. In 1918, women finally got the right to vote and in the 20's, the flapper girl style and trousers were finally a familiar sight.
When the 1960's rolled around, fashion became a key element in expression and rebellion. British fashion designer, Mary Quant, became inspired by the young women in the fashionable borough of Chelsea in London and in the early 60's began experimenting with hemlines- rolling the skirts up and cutting them shorter. In 1964, she finally designed the thigh-grazing mini, named after her favourite car. She sold her creation in her boutique at King's Road and her bright mini's were paired with colourful tights and Peter Pan collars. Her garment was in high demand as she commented, "From the very start, customers were four-deep outside the window... within ten days, we hardly had a piece of the original merchandise left." The controversial mini was met with its critics with Chanel commenting in a magazine, "Have they all gone mad?" Despite the criticism, the miniskirt came at the perfect time; paired with the commercial availability of the pill in '61 which started the sexual liberation, the mini came at the perfect moment to be a hit. It was loved by many, so much that when Dior released their own longer skirt, the 'British Society for the Protection of Mini Skirts' began protesting outside its window.
In the '80's, clothes finally stopped hindering the movement of women and being detrimental to their health. Women began entering male-dominated professional spaces and stopped being seen as mere housewives that should invest all their energy into raising children. The power-suit helped to establish them as equals at work, fully deserving to be there. The shoulder-patted blazers made women look powerful; they concealed dainty shoulders by making them look bigger with stronger frames. Although the idea that women need to look like men to be taken seriously is outdated, it's important to focus on the fact that it let women enter the work-force fully which was a big feminist achievement.
Today, we no longer have to dress like men to be taken seriously or seem deserving of equality as clothes are made for women to wear and enjoy rather than for the observation of men sceptical of our validity as a human being. Although feminism has changed and we fight for different inequalities, we still challenge the patriarchy similarly to the Suffragettes: we embrace femininity because it's not something to be ashamed of and it's the only way to show women and men are equals.