Friday, February 16, 2024

Feminism in Fashion

 Feminism in Fashion

Isabella Krieg

Fashion throughout time has tackled the topic of femininity and the sexualization of women. It's shown through different ways, whether one chooses to embrace masculinity or femininity itself, fashion means representation and the construction of identity. Fashion has been very important to feminism since the 1920s, since "Feminism, as we know, produced an important vocabulary for discussing the ways in which representations of the female body construct femininity. If we see women's fashion as a field of representations of the female body then it becomes a significant text of how culture constructs femininity and how it addresses that representation to women," (Evans, Thornton). It's important to understand how femininity has been seen or defined throughout history. For the most part, masculinity was the norm, while femininity was something different than the norm. Fashion early on was important because it gave women access to expression that's been notoriously denied to them by the men dominating the fine art world.

Let's look at two examples from the 1920s. Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli both challenged
traditional gender norms at the time, with Chanel grabbing inspiration from masculinity while Schiaparelli "embraces the decorative, the superfluous and the nonfunctional in a repudiation of the restrictions of the masculine dress which Chanel adopted to signify control," (Evans, Thornton). Chanel was able to popularize pants as a fashion staple, when they were worn almost exclusively by men. Jersey, the fabric used mainly to make men's underwear, was a favorite of Chanel and was used in many of her dresses. Chanel's main point was that she "wanted women to move and breathe in her clothes, just like men did in theirs," (Cerini). Schiaparelli, on the other hand, embraced femininity and the idea of vulnerability. Her most famous peace, the Tears dress, uses a pattern designed by Salvador Dali. The piece plays with the idea of the body's vulnerability, as the pattern features "rips" or tears. This almost violent imagery is "counter imposed by the elegance of the dress, its existence as sophisticated fashion, the fact that it is not rags, not torn... Violence and eroticism are simultaneously displayed and made to disappear, beauty is brought to bear on rupture," (Evans,               Thornton). The significance of Schiaparelli associating her work with Surrealism is that it brings a psychoanalytical perspective to the piece. In Surrealism, there is a concern with how sexuality is shown through feminine representations that were often eroticized, as well as being a play on appearances, and a discussion of illusion. Schiaparelli was eager to explore these themes, and her "approach to dress centers around an understanding of how it acts simultaneously to repress the body and to bring it into the realm of language- the symbolic," (Evans, Thornton).

Even Vivienne Westwood in the 80s had her own take on feminine expression. She believed that femininity was determined by the woman herself, and the idea that they have full control over their own self expression. Her clothing focused on issues regarding women's bodies, sexualities, and identity. Her punk collection promotes the idea of self expression and challenges sexual messages. With her influence, "Bondage dress allowed women to express the crudest will to sexual power... they looked like prostitutes but were not. They were women but were not 'feminine,'" (Evans, Thornton). These ideas were a display of power - not of what could be done, but of what could be signified. Westwood's mini-crini from 1986 was a cross between the 19th century's crinoline, and the more modern mini skirt. It was meant to represent history's constantly changing definition of the female body. In the 19th century, crinoline designs were drawn on women with overly exaggerated hips, a sign of the time where child bearing was of great importance. Westwood believed "Femininity is stronger... At my age I'd rather have a bit of flab, I actually think that's more sexy." To Westwood, "sexiness" was defined by the wearer. If the wearer thinks it's sexy, then it is. Her clothing was made outside the male definition, something which is "crucially, linked to our experiences of our bodies," (Evans, Thornton).

Feminist fashion doesn't just stop at designer fashion. The Women's Liberation movement started in
1968 with a protest outside the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. Women threw their bras, cosmetics, heels, and girdles alongside copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan into a "Freedom Trash Can." They were angry at the current image of women and femininity. Women were being "regulated to menial tasks such as typing while men occupied decision-making rules but... men sexually objectified them." The American media was filled with images of women being sexualized and advertisements for cosmetic products were aimed towards men, encouraging them to expect women to fit into an idea of what a woman should look like. By playing up these fashions, the status of women as sexual objects was perpetuated, and this became the most basic form of oppression. Women were expected to look pretty, expected to act feminine, all while "ugly" women were "scarce because they [were] actively discouraged," (Hillman). To combat this, many women cut their hair, or stopped shaving their legs and armpits. Lesbian feminist Colletta Reid stated, "Female clothing, just like feminist hair styles... are all aimed at making the differences between men and women readily apparent. If men and women dressed and acted alike... how would men know who to treat as inferior, who to hire as secretaries, who to rape?" By cutting their hair, women were symbolically cutting themselves off from the patriarchal standards of feminine beauty. They were rejecting the idea that their identities were tied to femininity, because as one feminist stated in 1968, "no woman can be free, as a person, until she loses her femininity."

Works Cited

Cerini, Marianna, "How Coco Chanel Changed the Course of Women's Fashion." CNN, 9 Jan, 2021,

Evans, Caroline, and Minna Thornton. "Fashion, Representation, Femininity." Feminist Review, vol. 38, 1991, p.48,

Luther Hillman, Betty. ""The Clothes I Wear Help Me to Know My Own Power": the Politics of Gender Presentation in the Era of Women's Liberation." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, 2013, p.155,

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