Fashion is defined as the prevailing style of dress in a particular time period and for a particular society. It includes clothing, accessories, hairstyle and even body posture. Many believe that fashion is a form of self-expression, and a way to portray the customs and traditions of a community. It is also a benchmark to look at the way societies and norms have changed over time. All over the world, people use what they wear to express themselves and to present the world with the image of themselves that they want others to see. However, others argue that to give importance to fashion is shallow and useless. Now let’s understand how evolution of feminism began.
When one looks at history, it is clear that fashion and clothing have played important roles. In the Indian freedom Struggle, for example, nationalist leaders urged the Indian people to wear khadi clothes made in India. This was both to promote the rural industries as well as to send a message to the British. They also boycotted British factory-made clothes to cultivate nationalism and patriotism among Indians.
Similarly, fashion has been used by women and men for decades to promote the feminist movement. This evolution began a long time ago, during the Suffragette movement.
Is Fashion Anti-Feminist?
Many would argue that it is, in fact, anti-feminist. In recent years, the idea that outside clothing does not matter has grown. It is what is inside that matter, they say. This corresponds to the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover”. And this is true, because one can never understand the heart of a person through their clothing. Looks can be deceiving, after all.
But it is also true that there is a reason fashion is given so much importance. There are entire events centred around fashion and new ideas for clothing. There are several points to support this. Fashion, as a growing and highly successful industry, offers the individual a chance to express their identity, their thoughts and emotions, their ideals. It also provides confidence in front of crowds and is a way to communicate with people far away. One cannot forget that this is one industry in which being a woman is not perceived as a disadvantage. Most importantly, fashion is a tool, a weapon for feminists to broadcast their opinions and fight for gender equality. They use fashion to identify with a movement or an evolution and to provide a voice to those who need it.
The 19th Century
Before this period, society expected women to wear tight corsets and ankle-length gowns to look appropriate . These clothes were so ridiculously tight that most could not manage any activity more strenuous than a brisk walk. Some even fainted as they could not breathe. As at the time it was not considered suitable for women to perform any exercise, many did not see the problem.
The ideas of the Suffragette movement began to gain recognition only in the 19th century. At the beginning, women who were a part of the movement wore dresses that conformed to the ideals at the time. They projected Edwardian standards of femininity. This was actually to garner popularity for their cause. They believed that wearing outrageous clothes that were more masculine would damage their cause. Masculine clothes for women did exist, such as the loose trousers and tunic invented by Amelia bloomer, but were not popular. Many satirical images had been drawn of women in trousers who looked and acted like men did. They norms of the time were strict with women who did not obey the fashion declared appropriate then. These women were mocked and not taken seriously, or worse, were ostracized from society and even charged with crimes like public indecency.
By showing the world that they were elegant women who simply wanted more rights, the Suffragettes managed to bring about slow change that did not scare the conservatives.
Another weapon used by the Suffragettes was colour. Specifically, three colours. They chose green (for hope), white (for purity) and purple (for loyalty and dignity). The women who were part of the movement were told that they would wear these colours as “a duty and a privilege”. They wore these colours at all events. In major marches, they wore white frocks with a badge pinned to their breast. The white allowed better visibility of the three shades.
However, women continued to wear corsets and long skirts that restricted motion in order to not derail the movement.
The Early 20th Century
The New Woman’ was a symbolic figure that emerged at the turn of the century, one who had an individualistic spirit, who was self-reliant, educated and intelligent. This figure continued to inspire women for long.
The 20s and 30s saw dressed that were more practical. They were not created with the purpose of displaying curves. Straight silhouettes became popular. Hemlines of dresses were also raised to mid-calf, corsets were forgone and bobbed hairstyles became more common. This period thus rejected traditional notions of femininity in favour of ease of movement and a bold style.
In the late 30s, several women began to wear actual menswear. At the time, this shocked society. Women such as Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer, invented radical clothes such as the Chanel suit for business-minded women, the little black dress and other clothes that aimed to make clothing more comfortable for women. She thus proved to men that women had much more potential than just being housewives. This was just a start for an evolution!!
The Late 20th Century
n the 1940s, not much importance was given to fashion due to the war and fabric shortage. Instead, as women began to work in factories while the men fought, clothes became plain and utilitarian. Some factories even issued uniforms with overalls or short skirts and jackets. Clothes were boxy with no shape, suited to the hard labour required. Sportswear and practical footwear were mass produced.
In the 50s, slimline pencil skirts were popular.
It was in the 60s, however, that the second wave of feminism occurred. Women of this peiod saw nothing wrong is showing skin. Twiggy shocked the public by wearing a miniskirt, an incident that is still famous. This also paved the way for the miniskirt movement.
The 70s were dominated by hippy fashion, and clothes became more masculine. The lines between men’s and women’s clothes became blurred, and women wearing pants (such as bell bottoms) was a common sight. Gender neutral clothes and androgynous stars became popular.
The 90s was yet another era of feminist fashion, with the punk rock look being adopted by more and more women. Girly symbols were given tough meanings, and several female political figures rose to power. They used their style as a way to make statements.
The Current Scenario
While the past twenty years since the beginning of the 20th century have shown much greater progress or an evolution, this success is not uniform in all areas. Women’s rights have a long way to go, and several protests are still happening. These utilize fashion in unique ways to make their point.
Clothing can be used to educate people about events and to warn them of possibly dangerous futures. For example, about two years ago, women in several countries donned red robes and white bonnets. The outfit was inspired by the dress worn by women in the Handmaid’s Tale, a novel by Margaret Atwood. The novel describes a dystopian society where some women are exploited by the state for their child-bearing abilities. Their reproductive rights are taken away from them.
The protest was against the new restrictions on abortion. One major advantage for the movement was that no one could protest against the clothing. It was not indecent, and there was no public disturbance being caused by them. It was silent movement that invoked visual symbols by pro-choice women to protest anti-abortion laws in countries that still viewed women’s bodies as property of the state, to be used as incubators for children. The intent was to convince the state to give women back the right to choose for their own bodies.
Another example is the Golden Globes Awards 2018, in which several actresses wore black dresses in solidarity with sexual assault victims. It was an initiative launched by Time’s Up, an organization to fight against the sexual harassment prevalent in many industries, including acting. This was in the wake of the many allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and the actresses on the red carpet recounted their motive. Time was up for these predators, and women were coming out to protest. The women also addressed issues such as the wage gap and favouritism towards men at the awards. In this way, the dress code of the event allowed women to express their solidarity. It forced the people to look into the widespread misconducts in the industry. So this is how an evolution of feminism in fashion was about.
While feminism has come a long way since the days of corsets, it still has a long journey ahead. Women now consider fashion to be unimportant, a waste of time, frivolous. It is true that the fashion industry lacks variation and has impractical body ideals. It too needs progress. However, it is also true that fashion is a powerful empowering tool that needs to be used for an evolution. For it is only by voicing demands in all ways, including through appearance, that true equality can be achieved.