7 Groundbreaking Female Fashion Designers Who Changed The Game For Good

November 1965: Chelsea fashion designer and make-up manufacturer Mary Quant. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Source: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Miuccia Prada famously said, "Fashion is about the way we compose ourselves every day." With the help of fabrics and silhouettes, we can write our own identities and join the narrative of our generation. There have been some groundbreaking female designers who changed fashion — and subsequently helped shift societal standards. With the help of dresses and pantsuits, they have helped women express and reinvent themselves throughout history. As social climates have shifted and society has gone through wars and recessions, sexual revolutions, and rebellions against our parents' generations, fashion has laid down some groundwork to make it happen. 

With the help of a collar, we can sometimes channel an identity. With the ability to choose between Cocktail Crowd Dresses or Boss Lady Pants, we can mold a new narrative day by day. While some might not take too much stock in the grunge-y dresses hanging in their closets or think much of the message their denim jacket might contain, each of the pieces in our wardrobes arguably helps put together a memoir for where past women have been, what they have fought to change, or what they have struggled to experience. Through the help of certain designers, positive changes have arguably been possible. Below are seven BAMF female designers who changed the game

1. Claire McCardell: American Fashion's Origin Story

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If you have chambray shirts, cotton sundresses, and well-loved ballet flats in your closet, you should probably tip your hat to Claire McCardell. As the mother of American style and ready-to-wear fashion, she stepped in as the U.S. was wrestling to find its own fashion identity. 

According to Smithsonian Magazine, designing , McCardell's collections, which were designed through the Great Depression and World War II, reflected not only the needs of the time but the changing social position of women. Moving from the home to the downtown offices and male-dominated college classrooms, she offered women clothes that mirrored their new attitudes. 

Smithsonian Magazine observed, "Her clothes with roomy, dolman-sleeved jackets, skirted business suits, cotton bathing wear and denim, midriff-flashing playsuits, defined a new style of practical, energetic femininity."

However, not every Betty and Sally went on to a nine to five. After the end of the war many women returned to their old roles as housewives, and as a result they took up the routine wardrobes of French fashion, which was, according to Smithsonian, "exemplified by the popularity of Christian Dior’s New Look — a slim-waisted style that June Cleaver might wear while vacuuming in high heels."

But that wasn't for everyone, and that's where McCardell stepped in — she gave women the option to reject French fashion. Smithsonian reported, "Without sacrificing style, the "Look" rejected the expensive formality and high-maintenance of French garments."

More impressive still, her pieces sold for a thrifty price that wouldn't hurt the budget of a woman just coming out of rough social climates, like the end of the war or the bounce-back of a recession.

Take, for example, one of her most famous pieces: The popover dress. According to The New York Times, "the dress sold in the thousands for $6.95 at a time when Norells, Mainbochers and Hattie Carnegies ran in the hundreds of dollars."

And in this way she became on of America’s first recognized designers.

2. Mary Quant: Radicalizing Hem Lines 

Mary Quant started a revolution in her unassuming boutique on King's Road, spinning London straight into the swinging '60s. She introduced the Youthquake generation to the miniskirt and hotpants, according to The Daily Mail.

While women were embracing second-wave feminism and experiencing something of a sexual revolution with the introduction of the pill, they were looking for a tangible symbol for their growing liberation. And they found it in the playful mini. 

But not everyone was on board with the idea. In her memoir, Quant shared, "When I opened my first shop, City gents were still carrying tightly furled umbrellas and wearing bowler hats. It was into this world that I launched my new ideas about fashion." And these gents represented the old generation that was not ready for the post-war-era. She continued, "Strolling past the shop window, one of these respectable gents came to an abrupt halt. Appalled by what he saw, he lifted his umbrella and beat it furiously against the glass. The window would shake and there’d be accompanying shouts of ‘immoral!’ and ‘disgusting!’"

Quant changed the fashion game because she helped shake up conservative ideals. She helped create a hedonistic, liberating narrative, but she didn't take full credit for the creation. Instead, she said that she just gave girls what they were looking for: a rebellious streak. Laurent Cotta, a fashion historian, told NY Daily News, "It was in the air — a mini-skirt was a way of rebelling. It stood for sensuality and sex. Wearing one was a sure-fire way of upsetting your parents."

Where in the past, young women were expected to look like their mothers, the second-wave feminists and Single Girls weren't going to have it. BBC recalled, "For Quant, it was the girls on the street who invented the miniskirt. Her customers would demand that she go ever shorter with her creations."

And helping to write the narrative of the liberating '60s, go shorter she did. 

3. Vivienne Westwood: The Mother Of Punk

There was a changing climate in the '70s — as the glitter-bombed glam-rock period of the '60s started to ebb away, rock groups in London began to reinvent style and music in a way that would move them far, far away from the peacock revolution of The Beatles and David Bowie. And in the center of it all was Vivienne Westwood. 

According to Marie Claire, Westwood and her partner Malcolm McLaren ran a store most famously known as SEX, where they designed "distorted customisation such as rips, zips, studs, badges and armbands were now being used as a political statement on the street. These clothes had something to say — they carried slogans, not logos."

While she's been dubbed as the creator of punk, the origin of punk has a more storied past than popping up on the racks of a King's Road shop

Jeffrey Banks, author of Tartan: Romancing the Plaid, taught, "In the late 1970s punk music was a way for youth in the British Isles to voice their discontent with the ruling class." According to The Telegraph, the debt crisis of 1976 left 2 million people unemployed in Britain, so much of the working class was broke and boiling towards a flashpoint. And they'd let go some of that steam in the form of raging lyrics and tearing into the Queen's tartan with safety pins and scissor points.

But Westwood took that anarchist spirit and gave it a voice in high fashion. Or more accurately, gave it a bullhorn. 

Harpers Bazaar noted, "She brazenly mixed Scottish tartans with spiked dog-collar chokers, adorned humble clothes with safety pins, and turned bondage gear into high fashion."

While some might think her cheeky, out there, or too intense, Westwood understands what she offers her followers, telling the Independent, "I offer choice in an age of conformity.

And with that you can't argue.

4. Diane Von Furstenberg: The Self Made Woman 

Two words come to mind when I think of Diane Von Furstenberg: business titan.

Not only is she America's richest self made woman with revenues, according to Forbes, estimated at $500 million, but she's also equal parts Business Tycoon and Comeback Kid. 

The Independent reported, "Not only did she build up her business from scratch, but after it crumbled around her in the 1980s when the market became saturated, she staged one of fashion's most impressive comebacks by reintroducing the wrap dress as a core line in the late 1990s."

But there are more praise hands to be thrown in Von Furstenberg's direction 

You see, she never actually had to work a day in her life because she was royalty. And not just Fifth Avenue royalty — but diamonds-in-my-tiara royalty. According to the Independent, in 1965 while on a university holiday in the Swiss Alps, Von Furstenberg met Prince Egon von Fürstenberg and soon after married. But she wasn't content living the lavish lifestyle of island holidays and champagne bottle parties, and instead started her own career. 

She told the Independent, "I think that is the most important thing for me – and part of that was earning my own money." And earn mama did. 

Her wrap dress quickly became unstoppable: "In 1975 she was making 15,000 dresses a week, and was worn by everyone from suburban housewives to Betty Ford and Gloria Steinem," the Independent reported.

And why was it selling so quickly? Because it made women feel what they wanted to feel in the midst of the sexual revolution: Sexy and unhindered. According to W Magazine, "...her iconic, affordable wrap dress—the very symbol of women’s liberation and sexual freedom. Her wrap could be worn to the office, tied tight and high, loosened after work to show off one’s poitrine at a discotheque, and—should the need arise—be removed with one quick tug shortly thereafter. It was the dress that did everything, for the woman who aspired to do everything." A lot like its revolutionary creator. 

5. Donna Karan: Reinvents The Business Woman

In the '80s women started racing men up the career ladder, and they needed a wardrobe to reflect their strong, high-powered attitudes. But the thing was, the only workwear available to them reflected too closely to that of the men's.

That is, until Donna Karan came along. According to Bloomberg, in 1984 she created the first capsule wardrobe called "Seven Easy Pieces," a mix-and-match set of clothes that let women look both feminine and professional while heading off to the office.

Karan told Bloomberg, "In the ’80s, fashion was either the boxy man’s suit or all about ladies who lunched. Forget about ladies who worked!" She continued, "When I was working at Anne Klein in the ’70s, women were wearing jackets and bow ties and shirts — more or less dressing like men. Where was the sensuality of women?"

For the first time there was a business wardrobe for women that didn't try to make them look like Madison Men, but didn't try to undermine them with overtly feminine or delicate silhouettes. As NY Magazine offered, "Karan's aesthetic occupied the significant space between pinstripes and poufs."

It was a powerful wardrobe all in its own right — one that reflected the woman wearing it rather than channeling the men she was battling for elbow room in the board room. 

6. Stella McCartney: Eco High Fashion

Stella McCartney is a BAMF when it comes to high fashion because she trail blazed when it came to sustainability and animal rights.

According to Harpers Bazaar, as a lifelong vegetarian and animal rights supporter, McCartney has been using fake fur and vegan leather in her collections since the beginning of her fashion house in 2001. 

But growing up on an organic farm and being the daughter of a free-love throwing Paul McCartney, this attention to eco-awareness was second-nature.

It's not a gimmick but rather a part of her business DNA. In an interview with Business of Fashion, Claire Bergkamp, head of sustainability at Stella McCartney, said, "Humanity is consuming the resources of five planets, but we only have one. All we're trying to do is to stay within the one"

And they take the hit in terms of costs. McCartney shared candidly with Business of Fashion, “It can cost up to 70 percent more. We absorb that in our margin. We don’t price the products up."

While she works diligently to keep moving forward in eco-fashion, it can be argued that her most valuable contributions to sustainability in fashion is the domino effect she's had on collections outside of her own. Business of Fashion pointed out some of the key fashion players she works with, "including Kering, Adidas, Gap, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble and H&M, where McCartney has held steadfast to her values."

For example, take her collaboration with H&M. “We insisted on things. We insisted on guidelines. We insisted that it was organic and sustainable,” she told Business of Fashion. “The desirability was a nice eye opener for them, to be able to see that it sold out in 4 seconds, regardless of whether it was an organic t-shirt or not.” 

In this way, McCartney is marching the fashion world forward.

7. Miuccia Prada: Pioneer Of Ugly Chic

When one thinks of haute couture muses, one doesn't necessarily think that "Ugly" and "Trashy" show up for the job. But Miuccia Prada, after finishing her PhD in political science, decided that's exactly who she'll use when she took over her grandfather's fashion house in 1978.

In an interview with Telegraph, she explained why she was so intrigued with the aesthetic. "When I started, fashion was the worst place to be if you were a leftist feminist. It was horrid. I had a prejudice, yes, I always had a problem with it. I suppose I felt guilty not to be doing something more important, more political. So in a way I am trying to use the company for these other activities."

With clashing patterns, tube-socks-and-heels combos, pop art faces on fur coats, Prada showed her conflicted feminist side. 

But with her designs, she's not so much creating trends for women to follow, but rather bringing something out of women that's inherently there.

Prada told Telegraph, "I am trying to work out which images of the female I want to analyze. I’m not really interested in clothes or style.” So this ugly chic style? It's just an honest reflection of what the female is — not perfectly polished, not a bourgeois idea of beautiful, but rather beautiful in her imperfections. 

Prada sees something the rest of the world looks over: Ugly is exciting. Why? Because, according to Prada, it's human. 

"It touches the bad and the dirty side of people...But, yes, it was not used in fashion and I was very much criticised for inventing the trashy and the ugly."

But through her criticism, she brought the masses a tool of control and aplomb. 

Whether they're creating social change with their brands or giving people an outlet to explore their personalities and identities, these female designers are BAMFs because their collections and visions help add a voice to the times they're in and help move society forward. 

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