Feminism through Fashion

Genesis Hansen, outfitted in antique pastel plaid dress, white tights and headscarf.

by Jo Carstensen

How women shaped fashion of the future

In an era where power suits come in pastel colors and slips double as cocktail casual, never in American history have women been more free, to choose what they wear.

This revolutionary idea that a woman can stand at her closet and choose an outfit based on preference, instead of societal expectations, is an opportunity that most forget came from generations of fashion fighters.

Women risked their seats on the Senate floor to demand the right for women to wear pants. Women jeopardized their vogue reputation to spur movements for female social and sexual liberation.

It is historical women like these, that we must never forget and remember them as inspiration when using the power of fashion to fight for equality in every sense.

The fashion between 1900 and 1925 changed drastically when white women began entering the workforce in industries such as cinema and advertising. Linda M. Scott, author of Fresh Lipstick; Redressing Fashion and Feminism explains that the new working woman had neither the time nor the reason to, “obediently squeezed themselves into corsets, burdened themselves with yards of fabric and forced their feet into minuscule [pointed] slippers.” Newly employed as typists, filing clerks, and stenographers, women were also still expected to be the beautiful “tiny-waisted ladies with huge skirts and pointed toes,” yet after The Great War, their jobs in new industries made this restrictive style of dress unreasonable.

Enter Coco Chanel. Athletic, chic, it-girl Chanel appealed to women, inspiring them to opt for comfort and mobility. Serving as a fashion icon in boat neck sweaters and slender clothes, her modern style revolutionized fashion with tubular dresses which had no waistlines, short loosely bobbed hair, and above the knee hemlines. The uptake was immediate and exactly what the working woman needed. Overnight, women’s fashion turned from suffocating to sensible. 

Once Chanel’s straight silhouette revolution ended, fashion bounced right back and entered the New Look era. In A-line skirts and puffed sleeves, once again women squeezed into body shaping undergarments to create the perfect hourglass figure. Debbie Sessions, writer and founder of Vintage Dancer narrated that, ”Many women were outraged,” in once again having to conform to the nature of fashion, “Women had just gained a large amount of equality and weren’t ready to give it up.”

Like many fashion trends proving everything eventually comes back in style, so to did mobility and once again, a feminist stepped forward to create a new wave. Fashion designer Mary Quant coined the term “Mini” to describe a skirt that hit high above the knee. Quant spread the viral trend of the Mini during her London Boutique Bazaar in 1964. Founder of the fashion blog Sammy Davis Vintage, explains that by showing more leg than ever before in fashion history the miniskirt “represented the democratization of fashion and fueled movements for female social and sexual liberation.” The shorter hem of the Mini freed women from the restraining sheath dresses of the New Look era, allowing them the freedom and mobility they so craved.

 Another controversial debate in fashion history is the idea of women in pants. The freedom to wake up in the morning and throw on a pair of jeans is something a vintage lady would have had to fight for – and she did.

 In the 18th and 19th centuries, countries such as the US, England, and France would actually jail women for wearing pants. Mary Walker, an assistant surgeon during the US Civil War, refused to wear a skirt due to its unconventional nature and choosing instead to wear pants was once arrested for “impersonating a man.”

 This idea was faux pas up until just 30 years ago and it wasn’t until 1970 when pants finally became socially acceptable for women to wear. One of the most influential feminist moments during the early 1990s was when Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, the first African-American woman US senator, selected her favorite pantsuit and walked to work. At this time there was an unwritten rule forbidding females to wear pants on the Senate floor, which was enforced through peer pressure and doorkeepers who could turn anyone away they didn’t think looked “appropriate”. But that morning when Senator Moseley-Braun walked into the capital in a pantsuit, she made history as the first woman ever to wear pants on the Senate floor.

 Despite decades of feministic moves like those of Chanel, Quant, Walker and Senator Moseley-Braun, we’re still fighting for equality. Just this past March, a Federal Court had to intervene when a North Carolina charter school prohibited girl students from wearing pants. Later that same month, Pennsylvania high school student Hannah Kozak had to stand up to her school board when her graduation dress code stated that girls were not permitted to wear pants and had to wear a “light-colored dress or skirt.”

 This past April, college students, elected officials, and businesses made a social fashion statement for this year’s 21st annual Denim Day, a visible means of protesting against misconceptions surrounding sexual violence, specifically concerning the victim’s clothing.

 And most recently, this year at President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address roughly fifty female members of both parties wore white as a symbol of solidarity and in support of gender equality.

 Protests and uproar due to injustice is happening all over America and through power and influence, fashion will make positive change.


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