Feminism’s Influence on Fashion: Empowering Style and Identity

The intersection of feminism and fashion is a historical tapestry woven with intricate threads, resulting in a dynamic and ever-evolving relationship. In our contemporary era, the advent of social media has brought about a seismic shift in how we perceive and engage with fashion, amplifying its potential as a catalyst for profound socio-political change. Clothing, once primarily an aesthetic choice, has transcended its traditional role to become a potent means of conveying messages—a medium for asserting identity, advocating for causes, and fostering empowerment.

In this article, we embark on a journey through time, tracing the fascinating connection between feminism and fashion in an age marked by unprecedented interconnectedness. We delve into the evolution of clothing, from a mere aesthetic preference to a strategic tool for effecting change, with social media acting as an influential amplifier of these messages. As we navigate the intricate interplay between feminism and fashion, we unveil the various ways in which fashion has served as a conduit for reshaping societal narratives, challenging entrenched norms, and promoting inclusivity—all shaped by the enduring influence of the feminist movement.

The History of Feminism within the Fashion Industry

As we embark on a historical journey into the realms of feminism and fashion, we will navigate through three distinct phases.

The First Phase

In the year 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft penned a groundbreaking feminist text known as “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” In this work, she vehemently challenged women’s passive acceptance of their prescribed roles in society, advocating for their empowerment with the powerful assertion, “I do not wish them [women] to have power over men, but over themselves.” (1) Wollstonecraft’s ideas sparked a profound shift in ideology, which reverberated across various aspects of women’s lives, including their fashion choices.

Black and white portrait of the first bloomer invented

In response to Wollstonecraft’s call for women’s self-determination, a notable transformation unfolded in the realm of clothing. Women cast aside their constricting corsets, opting instead for garments inspired by Turkish pantaloons, later dubbed ‘bloomers.’ The term ‘bloomers’ itself was a nod to women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer, a prominent advocate of this liberating attire. As such, bloomers became a feminist statement, often referred to as the ‘first trousers for women.’ However, society’s reception of bloomers was complex. Initially, they were embraced symbolically by many feminists, but their adoption as a mainstream fashion choice was limited, often viewed as a distraction rather than a genuine symbol of empowerment. Consequently, women eventually reverted to traditional dress.

In the 19th century, society held firmly to the belief that women should occupy a subservient position to men, a viewpoint that was actively upheld across all social classes. During the Industrial Revolution, working women were initially encouraged to join the workforce. However, this trend was short-lived, as husbands soon realized that their wives’ willingness to accept lower wages posed a threat to their own job security. Consequently, women were pushed back into the domestic sphere. However, women belonging to affluent classes also faced a paradoxical situation. They were often dressed up and treated like “child-like dolls” because of a prevailing notion that men’s desires were rooted in infantilizing women and perceiving them as innocent and fragile. In addition to the bloomers that gained attention earlier in the 19th century, there emerged the ‘Rational Dress Movement.’ This movement aimed to create more practical and comfortable versions of popular fashion garments. For instance, the “liberty bodice” was introduced to “liberate” women from the discomfort of heavy boning and tight lacing associated with corsets.

As the 20th century dawned, Paris emerged as the epicenter of fashion and luxury. Amidst the backdrop of the burgeoning Art Nouveau movement in décor and architecture, the popularity of luxury items hardly seemed to align with the feminist cause. However, a notable shift occurred in the realm of women’s fashion, particularly in the realm of hats, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Coco Chanel in 1910. The Suffragettes, too, harnessed the power of symbolism through their clothing choices. They adopted the colors purple, white, and green, representing purity, hope, loyalty, and dignity, respectively. These hues were incorporated into their traditionally feminine attire to avoid being ridiculed in satirical newspaper cartoons for dressing in a more conventionally masculine manner. Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst once noted, “Many suffragists spend more money on clothes than they can comfortably afford, rather than run the risk of being considered outré, and doing harm to the cause.” (1) In the midst of these sartorial developments, the 1910s brought about another transformative trend in fashion through Paul Poiret’s introduction of Middle Eastern harem-inspired trousers to the Western world. These trousers emphasized practicality and freedom of movement, slowly but surely making these attributes a priority for women’s attire.

Three jersey outfits by Chanel

The Second Phase

The 1920s witnessed the emergence of the “new woman” in the aftermath of World War I, signifying a profound shift in both fashion and societal roles. These women embraced dresses that ended just below the knee and often opted for short bobbed haircuts. Influential figures like Coco Chanel played a pivotal role in introducing adaptations of men’s sailor jackets and pullovers tailored for women, ushering in a sportier and less traditional look that challenged prevailing gender norms. This trend continued to evolve during World War II when an increasing number of women entered the workforce. They demanded practical clothing options, including trousers and durable workwear. This shift also led to greater financial independence for women and challenged the traditional roles of their husbands upon their return from war.

However, as World War II drew to a close in 1945, women unfortunately found themselves being pushed back into their traditional domestic roles, with the independence they had gained during the war being taken away. During this era, a resurgence of ultra-feminine fashion became prominent, characterized by dresses featuring zipper-backed closures and figure-hugging shapewear. This return to extreme femininity was seen as a setback for the feminist movement, and certain elements of this style, such as the emphasis on red lips and high heels, began to symbolize the perceived oppression of women. In 1946, during the first post-war summer of liberation, Louis Réard introduced the bikini, aligning with the newfound sense of freedom that had permeated society. It gained popularity among young women and became a common sight on European beaches during the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the bikini gained widespread acceptance in America.

The English girl band the Paper Dolls at Schiphol Airport in 1968

Hence, a significant transformation occurred as we transitioned into the 1960s and ’70s in terms of feminine attire. The groundbreaking invention of the mini skirt by Mary Quant came to epitomize the sexual revolution, which was catalyzed by the introduction of the contraceptive pill. This period marked the advent of a new fashion era, providing women with a diverse range of wardrobe choices that included both mini skirts and trousers. These clothing options defied the socially accepted norms for women’s attire and reflected the changing identities of women as they moved beyond traditional domestic roles.

During the 1970s, following the second wave of feminism, witnessed significant changes not only in the roles of women but also in various aspects of society. The concept of ‘power dressing’ gained popularity as women ascended to higher positions in the workforce. This trend involved women donning suits, often with matching skirts and jackets featuring padded shoulders, to achieve a more assertive, masculine appearance. It’s essential to note that the intention behind this style wasn’t to mimic men but to provide working women with a professional and empowered look. (3) Icons like Grace Jones, who embraced an androgynous style, played a significant role in promoting empowerment and challenging conventional notions of what was considered ‘acceptable’ in female fashion. Moreover, fashion editor Diana Vreeland aptly coined the term ‘Youthquake’ to summarize this period, characterized by a youth-oriented society. (2) The rise of rock and roll music, led by bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, played a pivotal role in shaping the culture of this era. It encouraged liberation, experimentation, and a rejection of conventional norms.

The Third Phase

While significant progress has been made in terms of gender equality since the 1850s, there’s no denying that there’s still much work to be done. It’s not surprising that fashion continues to be a vehicle for advocating women’s rights in the present day. In 2017, women worldwide adorned ‘hot pink pussy hats’ during the global Women’s Marches, a response to Donald Trump’s inauguration. The 2018 Golden Globes’ red carpet was notably dominated by stars dressed in black, showing support for the Time’s Up movement. Moreover, in the previous year, Natalie Portman graced the Oscars red carpet wearing a Dior dress overlaid with a cape featuring the names of snubbed female designers embroidered in gold thread.

In the fashion industry, women continue to break new ground and make their way into influential positions. Several major design houses have appointed their first-ever female directors in recent years, marking a significant shift. For instance, as mentioned earlier, Maria Grazia Chiuri made her debut for Dior in 2016, and in the subsequent year, Clare Waight Keller assumed leadership at Givenchy. These appointments signify a notable step forward as women continue to assert their presence and influence in the fashion realm.

The concept of third-wave feminist dressing represents a departure from earlier movements. It recognizes that women can simultaneously be feminists while embracing feminine styles of dress and beauty, or they can opt not to engage in feminine fashion altogether. This movement emphasizes individual choice, allowing women to determine for themselves which clothing and styles make them feel most comfortable and empowered.

6 Pioneering Female Designers Who Shaped Fashion History

  1. Coco Chanel – Originally named Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, was a prominent French fashion designer whose influence spanned nearly six decades. Born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France, she went on to become a central figure in Parisian haute couture. Chanel’s remarkable career brought about a transformative shift in women’s fashion, encouraging them to depart from the complexities and discomfort of 19th-century attire, including petticoats and corsets. Her legacy is deeply rooted in a series of iconic innovations that have endured through time. Among these innovations are the renowned Chanel suit, celebrated for its elegance and versatility, and the quilted purse, which has become a symbol of luxury and style. Chanel also made a significant impact with her introduction of costume jewelry, challenging traditional notions of accessorizing. Perhaps most notably, she popularized the concept of the “little black dress,” a wardrobe staple that epitomizes timeless sophistication.
  2. Bonnie Cashin – She was a notable American fashion designer. She is widely recognized as a trailblazer in the realm of American sportswear, credited with pioneering innovative and straightforward clothing designs tailored to the needs of the contemporary, self-reliant woman. Her influence in this domain spanned from the post-war era and persisted until her retirement from the fashion industry in 1985. Cashin was known for her innovative approach to fashion. She introduced elements such as functional pockets, practical zippers, and layered ensembles that allowed women to adapt their clothing to various occasions and activities. Her designs were characterized by simplicity, clean lines, and a sense of ease. Bonnie Cashin’s work not only reflected the evolving fashion landscape but also contributed significantly to shaping it, setting new standards for modern, functional, and stylish attire.
  3. Vera Wang – An American fashion luminary celebrated for her mastery of crafting elegant and refined wedding attire and haute couture collections. However, her influence extends far beyond bridal fashion, as she has ventured into diverse creative domains, diversifying her brand’s offerings to encompass menswear, jewelry, fragrances, eyewear, and home products. Wang’s bridal gowns, characterized by their exquisite craftsmanship and attention to detail, have graced countless weddings and become synonymous with grace and timeless beauty. Beyond bridal wear, her haute couture collections showcase her ability to blend classical elegance with modern sensibilities. Wang’s name continues to be synonymous with elegance and refinement, and her brand remains an iconic presence in the world of fashion and lifestyle, reflecting her enduring creativity and commitment to excellence.
  4. Anne Klein – Originally named Hannah Golofski, is an iconic figure in American sportswear fashion. She founded her company, Anne Klein & Co., in 1968, with a vision to create chic, comfortable, and enduring fashion that transcended seasonal trends. Her motto was clear: “No fads.” Klein’s journey in the fashion industry began at a young age when she started working on Seventh Avenue as a freelance sketcher at just 15. She took a bold step by leaving school to pursue her fashion career and achieved success by establishing her first company, Junior Sophisticates, alongside her husband, Ben Klein, in 1948. Anne Klein’s innovative spirit extended to her involvement in the Battle of Versailles extravaganza, where she was the sole woman representing the American fashion industry. In 1968, she introduced the concept of group design by establishing Anne Klein Studios, a hub that mentored and propelled the careers of numerous designers in Seventh Avenue.
  5. Liz Claiborne – Despite some initial doubts about her age, she had a clear vision when she started her own brand at 47. Recognizable by her distinctive red glasses and short hair, Claiborne’s idea stemmed from her own life as a working woman and mother. She knew the importance of simplicity and affordability in dressing for work. With her partners, she founded Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1976. While they handled sales and operations, she focused on design. By prioritizing her own sense of design, color, and quality over fleeting trends, Claiborne attracted like-minded consumers who wanted stylish and comfortable workwear without breaking the bank. Her commitment to engaging with customers was a key driver of her brand’s success, and Saks Fifth Avenue was one of her early supporters.
  6. Donna Karan – Born as Donna Ivy Faske and raised in Queens, New York, has always had a relatable and easy connection with consumers throughout her career as a designer. In 1984, she embarked on her own path, aiming to create a collection of contemporary clothing for modern people. Her signature piece was a jersey bodysuit, forming the foundation for her “seven easy pieces” designed to be mix-and-match. Donna Karan International came to life in collaboration with her late husband, Stephen Weiss, and Takiyho Inc. Karan’s vision was to cater to the multifaceted needs of women. Her brand, DKI, even went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1996. Over the years, Karan expanded into contemporary sportswear with the DKNY label in 1989, followed by jeans, underwear, kids’ clothing, and various other product lines. She also introduced the Urban Zen lifestyle label, showcasing her diverse creative talents.

Conclusion

The evolution of women’s freedom in fashion and society as a whole did not occur by chance or through the mere benevolence of others. It was the result of the relentless efforts of countless women who actively engaged with the feminist movement, striving for liberation and equality. These trailblazing women embarked on a journey that challenged deeply ingrained societal norms and expectations, daring to push the boundaries that had long constrained them. They recognized that the concept of freedom extended beyond the confines of mere clothing choices. Instead, it encompassed a broader quest for autonomy, recognition, and equal standing.