Fashion and Feminism
The late 1700s through early 1800s saw a major shift from huge Victorian dresses with extensive undergarments to thinner Greek-inspired forms. This change occurred as a direct result of America’s independence from British rule. The idea behind this shift was to appear less British and more democratic, hence why inspiration was drawn from the democratic Greeks. This led to greater freedom of movement for women, both physically and socially.
In 1851, Amelia Bloomer introduced “bloomers,” the first form of women’s pants in America. Bloomers were essentially loose pants worn under a dress-like garment. The popularity of bloomers was short lived- neither suffragettes nor other women adopted the style permanently. On the contrary, suffragettes and women’s rights activists preferred to wear traditional and mainstream women’s clothes in order to be perceived as a respectable woman and to avoid distracting from their cause. Women’s gowns during this time period retained their feminine form but were much simpler as public dress and private dress became less distinct.
At the beginning of the 20th century, America’s participation in the first World War led to many men leaving to join the armed forces. The absence of these men and the emphasis on community efforts on the Homefront helped to soften the rigid barriers between social classes. Furthermore, women’s role in the public sphere grew and changed. The separation between a woman’s public and private sphere grew thinner. The changes in fashion throughout this time are reflective of a shift in culture from having strict social rules to a simpler way of life.
In the 1920s, the first World War has just ended. Americans, and in particular, American women, had new standards of both fashion and freedom. Many things were happening for women in the 1920s. Prohibition was in place for the entire decade and speakeasys were the place to be- for men and women. For the first time, women were participating in this previously male-dominated pastime- drinking at a bar in public. Furthermore, the 19th amendment was ratified in August of 1920- women had the vote and could now set their sights on more freedoms, such as sexual liberation. It was the combination of these two major societal changes that made the boyish silhouette and style so famous in the 20s. The lean and androgynous style of the 20s was defined by calf-length hems, dropped waistlines, and loose fitting dresses. In addition, sportswear became popular public attire for women, something that had long been an acceptable form of fashion for men. For the first time in American fashion history, women embraced the masculine form just as they embraced traditional masculine activities, such as public drinking and fooling around.
Also in the 1920s, black Americans had more opportunities for education and employment in some areas and black women used this freedom to buy clothes that were previously reserved for white women. The economic fabrics used in women’s dresses during this time period also made fashion more accessible to women of lower economic classes. For perhaps the first time in American history, mainstream fashion was attainable for all women, not just wealthy white women.
The 30s began with the stock market crash and the country spent the next decade in an economic depression characterized by high rates of unemployment and hardship. In the 1930s, culturealideology shifted away from the push for women’s rights as it became more important for a woman to fulfill her domestic role as a mother and wife. As a result, women abandoned the carefree, playful, and androgynous style of the 1920s in favor of more mature and sophisticated silhouettes. 30s style promoted a more sleek and feminine form with long gowns and Greek-inspired details. In addition, movies were very popular in the 1930s, and American women had movie stars to look to as fashion icons. Several popular actresses at this time wore pants and, for the first time, slacks became an acceptable style for women.
With the 1940s came World War 2, and with the war came conscription. As fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons left to fight in the war, the role of the American woman changed drastically. Women joined female branches of the military, worked military production jobs, and filled other jobs that had been left by men. Also because of the war, the flow of fashion from Europe to America came to a screeching halt and America was on it’s own. So our fashion industry experienced an unprecedented boom and for the very 1st time, America became the fashion center of the world. Women’s fashion included defined shoulders, shorter skirts, tailoring, and suits with tight pencil skirts. These outfits were paired with boxy, masculine, and military-like jackets. For leisurewear, American women embraced slacks and overalls. There were 2 main reasons for this shift in fashion: fabric rationing and an increased masculine-role for women in society.
Thriftiness and masculinity were abundant in women’s fashion throughout the 1940s. However, as the war ended and soldiers returned home, women were encouraged to embrace femininity and motherhood as they left the workforce and primarily assumed the roles of mothers and wives. As a result, women’s fashion during this time period included feminine silhouettes with dresses and skirts more suited for domestic duties than for the workforce.
The 1960s were a decade of immense social change. This decade brought the widespread accessibility of the birth control pill, inspiring the women’s liberation movement. This movement sought greater equality for women and men in America, shedding light on issues such as reproductive rights, violence against women, workplace equality, and more. This explosion of ideological changes resulted in an explosion of new fashion trends. Pants for women were in style, although they were still controversial. Underwear underwent a drastic change for women, bras were barely padded and women wore very short slips underneath dresses. Some feminists chose to stop wearing bras altogether as they believed that being forced to wear bras was an oppressive structure and that women should be able to make that choice for themselves. In addition, the introduction of the miniskirt in 1965 revolutionized women’s fashion. This garment was a true reflection of the sexual and social liberation that women achieved through the feminist movement in the 1960s.
Perhaps one of the most important cultural events that occurred during this time period was the Civil Rights Movement. As black Americans fought for the enforcement of their constitutioaln rights and racial equality, African American women and men expressed themselves by reclaiming traditional African designs and patterns. Black female activists often wore their hair naturally, embracing afros and curls. This rejection of Eurocentric beauty ideals mirrored their rejection of white supremacy ideals in America.
As the feminist movement and civil rights movement continued into the 1970s, activists grew more aware of the importance of appearance and fashion to the promotion of their agendas.
The 1970s saw the rise in popularity of jeans as fashion. Jeans were worn by both men and women, a visual representation of the greater sexual and social equality between genders. For women, tight fitting jeans that hugged hips and emphasized curves were garments of liberation. They were not only sexually provocative, but they were perhaps the first mainstream clothing item to be entirely unisex. Jeans, in the 1970s, were truly a symbol of the success of the women’s liberation movement.
The 1980s was all about powerdressing. Iconic women’s fashion of this decade features boxy silhouettes and bold shoulders. In fact, style in the 1980s is very reminiscent of the popular style of the 1940s, with the addition of pants, brighter colors, bolder patterns, and more fabric. This is not a coincidence. Both decades saw a massive influx of women joining the workforce and, subsequently, embracing masculine silhouettes in their clothing.
Since the 1990s, there has been an explosion of individuality and expression in clothing. Women’s fashion can no longer be defined by a single aesthetic. Each and every woman expresses herself differently through fashion. This uniqueness and individualism amongst women is a result of all of the social progress that women have made in America. One of the most notable current fashion trends is the graphic t-shirt. With the graphic tee, women (and men) express their beliefs every day through fashion in a way that is clear and straightforward.