Wednesday, 13 September 2017

a timeline of female empowerment in fashion (part 1 1774-1930)

Brandon Maxwell described his Spring 2018 collection as being, "For my Nanu, and all the women who have opened doors for others, which, without their strength and conviction, we would never have walked through."

Likewise, Prabal Gurung drew inspiration from strong women in his Fall 2017 show notes, where he dedicated the collection to women, "who inspire us to present our unabashed and unapologetic definition of femininity with a bite." For the collection, Gurung researched 1940s wartime women, "who understood that one minority's downfall is equivalent to the demise of all humanity."

Many designers are inspired by powerful women. However, it is rare that a collection is genuinely empowering. Wearing clothes that you feel confident in is empowering, but only ever seeing those clothes modelled by one body type is not. Prabal Gurung did have more diverse casting, but all too often designers fail to practice what they preach.

There have been stand-out moments in history where women have been empowered through fashion. It can be said that we are experiencing one of those moments now, with brands increasingly pushing for diversity, the body positive movement and the rise of gender neutral clothing. 

Clothes have been either a symbol of empowerment or oppression for women for centuries. Of course, centuries ago, only aristocratic women could afford to express themselves through clothes. Women like Duchess Georgiana Cavendish, the 18th century's 'Empress of Fashion.' The Duchess was the style icon of an era, and every wealthy woman wanted to dress like her. However, she did not simply spend her time dressing up. Georgiana Cavendish was one of the first women to be significantly engaged in politics. She played a role in the establishment of the Whig party whilst simultaneously popularising 90cm high hairstyles and 1.2 metre ostrich feathers. So extra. Her campaigning for the Whig party also subtly translated into her wardrobe. The Duchess wore a fox fur muff in support of Whig party leader Charles James Fox. Politics finding its way into fashion is not a new phenomenon.

In general, female political engagement was very limited, but fashion was something that certain women did have control over and could make a statement with. The Suffragettes introduced a colour scheme that was sold to supporters of the cause by Selfridges and Liberty. However, the Suffragettes dressed surprisingly traditionally so as not to alienate women from their cause. The angry feminist caricature put women off daring to wear trousers or more masculine styles.

The next major moment of female empowerment in fashion was led by wartime women in the First World War. Having to take on men’s jobs when the men went to war meant dressing more practically. It was too dangerous to wear long, heavy dresses when operating machinery, so women wore trousers instead. Before now, fashion had been a tool used to oppress women, with tight corsets making women prone to fainting and heavy garments preventing them from moving about freely. 

Coco Chanel had already been dressing like a man prior to the First World War, making her a source of fascination among her contemporaries. Chanel and Schiaparelli pioneered women’s liberation from sartorial oppression, with the sportier style that they popularised throughout the 1920s and ‘30s. It was at this time as well that Jazz Age women were beginning to enjoy freedoms, such as drinking, smoking and staying out late, that had previously only been afforded to men. The rising hemlines and comfortable jersey dresses reflected this mood of liberation. 

Throughout history fashion has, for better or worse, been associated with each feminist movement. "We should all be feminists" slogan t-shirts seem tame compared to first wave feminism's impact on the way women dress.

Part 2, 1960-2017, coming soon

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