From the housewife dress to the mini—let’s look at how far we’ve come
by Charlotte Heather
“Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”
—Fashion advice from Constance Markievitz, the first Irish female cabinet minister.
If fashion and feminism were lovers, they would be tempestuous: they’d clash and merge, kiss briefly, and then kick one another in the teeth. Throughout the last century, fashion has ignited feminist attitudes, whilst again and again feminism has influenced fashion, from the corset-be-gone loose fit dresses of the 20’s to the power dressing, shoulder pad clad 80’s. Here are some of the greatest hits of fashion and feminism’s brief encounters.
The Second World War proved that women could do the things men could. Once the war was over, however, the notion of the ‘working woman’ lost its ‘vogue’; it was reiterated to women that their place in the home should take priority. One should cook, clean, reproduce, and dress just like one’s darling mother. Subsequently, mainstream women’s fashion of the 50’s and early 60’s was modest, flattering, and feminine. Perhaps this was a tactic to ward them off from getting carried away with a notion of gender equality in the post-war boom. The female identity seemed to blur into the single image of middle class homemaker. Helped by the fact that mass-production and commercialism were at an all time high, women’s fashion became formulaic, dainty, and prescriptive. There was a general propaganda myth that nobody had had it better than after the war. But the seeds had been planted and though the second-wave feminist movement was not coined until the early 60’s, quietly, a revolution was brewing: Eleanor Roosevelt shifted her viewpoint on the Equal Rights Amendment to complete equality and the International Planned Parenthood Organization was on the rise. Though the clothes of the 50’s felt uniform, particularly in hindsight, people were realizing that we humans were not; that perhaps everything wasn’t so great and there were still important battles to be fought.
There was a radicalizing of women’s fashion during the 60’s and excess modesty ebbed away. Many trends and many movements swung like orangutans through this era but let’s look at the mini. Mary Quant and André Courrèges pioneered a world of legs. Beautiful knobbly knees emerged throughout London and Paris because the hemline had retreated a good six inches!
“The women kept on dancing while their long skirts crept up, and their girdles dissolved, and their nipples burst through like hyacinth tips and their clothes withered away to the mere wisps and ghosts of draperies to adorn and glorify…”
– Germaine Greer
Feminists were forging women’s liberation and this was reflected in fashion. Ankles were no longer risqué. The contraceptive pill and the beginning of acceptance of a woman’s sexuality came with the freedom to flash some flesh. It was a celebration of the female figure and a middle finger up at the parts of society that sought to bind women back up.
In the early 70’s, blue jeans graced the cover of Vogue. Such liberal fashion festivities occurred as the Equal Pay Act became law in the UK, the Equal Rights Amendment was sent to the US, the first feminist magazine was launched, and for the first time women were allowed into the London Stock Exchange. It was a time when women fought and won many equality battles, and in tow, fashion reflected such progression with women’s right to ‘wear the trousers.’ Whilst posing a threat to the older generations, jeans became a socially acceptable choice of apparel and went on to march two-legged into our current era in so many different styles that now most High Street stores have their own denim sections.
These days, it’s difficult to imagine a world without girls in jeans. And now, more omnipresent that the mini, jeans don the wardrobes of nearly every person I know. Hopefully this illustrates the strides in which we have come in the battle for equality. However, when Googling “jeans and feminism,” some of the first sites that appear are the cyber homes of extreme anti-feminist groups that preach that women who wear trousers are gender confused and an abomination to their sex. An alarming attitude, yes, but also an insight into how fashion continues to provoke and challenge lasting archaic perspectives on gender.
Today, having had much of our freedom paved out for us by our mothers, many of us feel that there is little left to fight for. But has our apathetic turn in the feminist narrative allowed fashion and feminism to again turn on their heads? Flashing flesh and highly-sexed clothing can be rightfully interpreted as a conscious appeal to the male gaze; that what was once a statement of empowerment is now another offering for male fulfillment. This is manifested in plunging necklines, push-up bras, come-hither heels and the barely-there shorts that linger in every High Street. It’s interesting that for the loose fitting alternatives (boyfriend jeans, blazers, cardigans, collared shirts, or t-shirts) fashion designers and retailers feel inclined to impose a fictionalized male narrative, like “boyfriend jeans.”
The 50’s style has now, in most cases, been subverted. High fashion lingerie from designers like Agent Provocateur are taking inspiration from the 50’s with long line bras and high-waisted undies, but the modesty aspect has been twisted into a cheeky burlesque look. As well as that, 50’s inspired outerwear has shifted from its original role and impression, too. Women in rockabilly (housewife) frocks tend to be driven, have careers, and are often feminists. Admittedly a generalization, but it’s interesting that these strong women choose to wear outfits that represent a restrictive decade.
Though its popularity has ebbed and flowed, the mini skirt (and it’s partnering bare legs) has remained a constant since its conception in the 60’s. From rah-rah skirts to bum hugging body-cons, tanned ladies legs claim the beaches of San Tropez or goosepimple in a Glasgow winter. That the mini is no longer a statement in the way it once was, and that it has seamlessly floated into the generic fashion canon, proves an achievement for feminism in itself.
The high-end fashion industry has always been questionable in the eyes of feminism. Gangly teenage girls disappear into their ribcages as they grace the catwalks of Paris, New York, Milan, and Tokyo. It’s often been said that since the industry has historically been governed by gay men, these female models are more the embodiment of prepubescent school boys than women. Theories aside, enthroning such unhealthy body ideals for girls and women alike (and denying the female curve) continues to prove destructive. And while more fashion designers are advocating healthier looking models today, Mark Fast and Rick Owens for his Spring 2014 collection to name a few, skinny remains très vogue.
Fashion and feminism will never be best mates: we still have the body image issues that high fashion often cultivates, the problems with advertising (don’t get me started on thigh gaps and Photoshop) and in its essence fashion is mostly prescriptive. But, when they do dance in unison, sometimes it can be that little bit revolutionary.