I used to love contemplating how grand and luxurious it would've been to get dressed in the Victorian era, dreaming of petticoats, high necklines, cameo jewels, and ruffles everywhere. As an adult, however, I'm grateful for the many ways feminism has influenced fashion. Sure, it might be great to imagine playing dress-up. The only reason I watched The Vampire Diaries for as long as I did, besides the rare scene of Ian Somerhalder's half-naked bod, was to catch the glimpses of Catherine's extravagant dresses in the 1800s flashbacks. But when you consider that she and all women of the times (immortal or otherwise) would've been restricted to those dresses alone, the appeal begins to wear off some.
These days, I work in an office filled predominantly with women, and everyone's unique interpretation of style is something that amazes me daily. Some of us are high femme — collecting lipsticks and floral dresses at every opportunity. Others play with gender norms, opting for more androgynous cuts and silhouettes. Others still keep things completely casual, preferring a simple jeans and tee combo over anything else. We're lucky enough to have that luxury: To not be constricted to one look, or one person's interpretation of femininity and womanhood. It's hard not to thank feminism for that.
Fashion never stops evolving and changing, much like feminism never stops evolving or changing — adapting to the specific social justice issues of every generation. I cannot wait to see how the fight for equal rights continues to change the sartorial world, but in the meantime, here are 11 ways it already has, in Western cultures, since that very first wave:
1. The Introduction Of Trousers
There exist ancient Greek legends featuring female soldiers who rode on horseback alongside the men, dressed very much like their male counterparts. There exist photos of women forgoing skirts to fight in the American Civil War (masquerading as the guys, of course), or to live life in the expansive, rocky West. But by and large, femininity was long associated with frills, lace, gowns, and petticoats. Until someone decided that pants on ladies could be not just a fashion statement, but a political one.
In the era of First Wave feminism, Coco Chanel began taking feminine fashion to unchartered territories. Perhaps most notably, she introduced many women to pants. "I gave women a sense of freedom," she once said. "I gave them back their bodies: Bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion's finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding." Today, she remains one of the first people who comes to many minds when the term "fashion icon" is uttered, and her refusal to subscribe to so-called rules placed onto women — sartorial-based ones or otherwise — is undoubtedly a reason why. After all, if men could live comfortably in trousers, with no need for corsetry or general stuffiness, why didn't women deserve the same?
2. The Decline In Corsetry
Corsetry has been around for a while (like, the 16th century) — the corset itself evolving over time to reflect the "ideal" perception of feminine beauty at any given time. From flattening the bust to boosting it, or molding the body into an hourglass versus cylinder shape, there have been what feels like infinite incarnations of the garment. And prior to World War I, it was an almost essential part of getting dressed as a woman.
The director and chief curator of The Museum At The Fashion Institute Of Technology, Valerie Steele, spoke to Jezebel about the history of corsets, reporting that "men, in fact, regularly protested corsets, claiming they caused hysteria and the other health problems [...] Men might not have oppressed women by demanding they wear corsets, but women certainly wore them to impress men and assert their rank among other women."
Despite the health risks Victorian corsetry in particular could yield — everything from lung compression to squashed ribs, as The Daily Mail reported — many women continued sporting them, presumably for a combination of reasons that included fitting the current trope of aspirational beauty, appearing more "appealing" to men, or appearing more "appealing" to other women. That is, until the coming of the World Wars.
In The Corset: A Cultural History, Volume 5 , Steele wrote that, contrary to popular belief, it was not the need for steel during wartime that led to a decline in corsetry, but changing moral and gender-based dogma. "The carnage of the war years further loosened the grip of Victorian propriety, and as men went off to the front, many to never return, women assumed more responsibilities." Among those responsibilities was taking over the workforce. And as more and more women realized their capabilities outside of being mothers and wives, the need for aesthetic restriction dwindled.
Steele cited a 1924 passage by Jacques Boulanger, editor of L'Opinion, that read, "The femme moderne... is freer in her behavior than women before the war... She dances without a corset, she swims in a maillot... She is absolutely determined to be independent."
As for today, corsetry is no longer tied specifically to Victorian ideologies, and women the world over have reclaimed it as a symbol of their autonomy, sexual or otherwise.
3. The Evolution Of Business-wear
Although men have long been wearing suits, tuxes, and derivatives thereof, it was not particularly common for women to do so until post-World War I, after so many of them had received a taste for the workforce. BUST reported that, once again, Coco Chanel was the first designer to introduce pantsuits to womenswear in the 1920s, while French design house Rochas developed the wide-shouldered suit in 1934.
Things progressed relatively quickly from there, with Hollywood beloveds like Katharine Hepburn further normalizing both pants and suits for women. As Time magazine said of the star, "The actress’ fondness for pants — before they were considered ladylike — was not only a fashion statement but, to many, a symbol of stubborn independence and a declaration of modernity."
Hepburn was undoubtedly a symbol for the intersection of feminism and fashion. As one blogger wrote of the actor, her films could be easily categorized as "those in which communities of women are central to the plot/story, those in which Hepburn portrays strong female characters from literature and history, and those films which directly address the 'woman issue.'" Her sartorial statements echoed her fierce independence and radical desire for equality. It's impossible not to believe that she greatly influenced women watching from home.
4. The Development Of Utilitarian Lingerie
Before the 1930s, many women spent their time in undergarments much like the culotte-esque shorts above, or the aforementioned corsets and girdles. However, a new kind of panty was introduced after the age of the flapper: the brief. As reported by the Museum Of Menstruation, "The American Sears, Roebuck, and Company didn't sell women's briefs — short, tight underpants — for everyday wear through its catalog until 1935, although similar briefs for menstruating women were available in 1922."
Before the '30s — and before the First World War — undergarments for women seemingly focused on modesty and conventional beauty. A lady must not show too much skin, after all. But a more practical, one-step, throw-it-on-and-go style signaled the evolution of women's roles. No longer designated to household tasks alone, gals needs styles that could help them move as quickly and effortlessly as they needed to.
5. The Freedom To Bare Those Legs
Although leg-baring became more or less the norm in swim-specific situations in the mid 20th century — the two-piece bikini as we know it today hitting shelves in 1946 — modest dressing was still largely associated with ladylike femininity until designer Mary Quant shook things up a bit. As StyleCaster reported, "Quant raised the hemline of her skirts in 1964 to several inches above the knee, and the iconic miniskirt was born."
Although critiqued for being "vulgar" and "improper," Quant was pretty solid in her progressive, feminist beliefs. "People call things vulgar when they are new to them," she told The Guardian in 1967. "This is a very balanced generation [...] The way girls model clothes [is] not 'come hither,' but it's provocative. She's standing there defiantly with her legs apart saying, 'I'm very sexy, I enjoy sex, I feel provocative, but you're going to have a job to get me. You've got to excite me and you've got to be jolly marvelous to attract me .' Now that there is the pill, women are the sex in charge. They, and they only, can decide to conceive."
She was among the first designers to so bluntly vocalize a woman's right to sexuality and aesthetic expression, and her work contributed to a freer sartorial kingdom.
6. An Introduction To Androgyny
Although iterations of androgyny have been around for women since Coco Chanel and Marlene Dietrich — the actor who kissed another woman on-screen, while wearing a suit no less, circa the 1930s — toying with the gender binary through fashion was further facilitated thanks to feminism throughout the remainder of the 20th century.
In the '60s, Yves Saint Laurent, for instance, can be credited from giving women a taste for masculine suits — dismissing the notion that women's business attire must be more "ladylike" than that of their male counterparts.
However, it was musician Grace Jones who arguably put the intersection of androgynous fashion and feminism on the map in the 1980s. Not only was she a vocal feminist, but she was a vocally feminist woman of color in a recently post-segregated America. Trading long locks and pretty dresses for rough suits, a short haircut, and all-around experimentation, she was a trailblazer — an emblem of the many ways there are to exist as a woman or feminine person.
In an excerpt from her memoir I’ll Never Write My Memoirs , as reported by Vogue, Jones shared, "I have a very strong male side, which I developed to protect my female side. If I want a diamond necklace I can go and buy myself a diamond necklace [...] I won’t cry. I am very male emotionally. Tough, with a very strong male side that I developed to protect my female side." Had Second Wave feminism not touched the Western World by the '80s, a human like Jones — someone who didn't quite feel like a woman or a man, and whose style reflected as much — might not have been granted the kind of visibility she had.
7. The Grunge Era
You might associate the grunge era with massive amounts of cocaine, Kate Moss smoking cigarettes, and choker necklaces, but there were tangible feminist undertones to the musical genre and its accompanying style throughout the '90s. Nirvana, for example, was something of a secret feminist icon. As The Daily Beast reported, "The first human faces you see in the video for 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' belong not to the band members, but to a group of heavily tattooed women dressed like anarchist cheerleaders, a swift but brutal rebuttal to all the images of acceptable femininity that your average suburban teenager lived with at the time. Forget the hair metal groupies or the bubbly beauty queen cheerleaders. For girls watching this video, it was a revelation: You could instead choose to be a badass."
Yes, androgyny was evolving. Women were working. They were going to school, and kicking ass in all facets of life. But the notion that there is one principal way to look and behave like a woman remained. Thus the evolution of Riot Grrrl feminism — a movement rooted in all things alternative and punk, with leaders like Beth Ditto and Kim Gordon. They were women who didn't look remotely suburbia-approved cookie-cutter. They were inked. Many were unapologetic in their queerness. They were pierced and autonomous in their sexualities. Although there were undeniable issues of race within Riot Grrrl feminism, defining their own femininity was integral to their beliefs, and a crucial concept crucial for the times.
8. Period-Friendly Underpants
To this day, there exists a ton of stigmatization placed onto the female form. It's precisely the reason that artist Petra Collins' Period Power T-shirt was received to such criticism in 2013. It's why female masturbation is under-discussed. It's why my mom never let us say the word "vagina" when my siblings and I were children. But there is nothing disgusting or inappropriate about menstruation. There is nothing to be ashamed about. As these ideas have slowly entered the public consciousness, fashion has allowed for a new kind of underwear: the period panty.
Contemporary period panties go far beyond a comfortable alternative to the thong. They are leak-proof and totally absorbent, sometimes eradicating the need for a pad or tampon altogether. These underwear normalize not only menstruation, but experiences specific to being a woman that have traditionally been coated in a whole lot of taboo.
9. The Evolution Of Plus Size Fashion
Personally, I attribute the beginnings of the plus size fashion revolution — that is, the development of legitimately cute fat fashion for women sizes 14 through 30 and beyond — to plus size bloggers, and perhaps particularly to Gabi Gregg.
When Gregg dared to designed a stylish and original two-piece suit for fat girls in 2012, her collection began selling out within minutes. We had never had such a swimsuit available to us: Something on-trend, unique, and bold. It was at this point that brands were alerted to a simple fact: If you make it, people will come. Since then, there's been an increase in not online indie plus size fashion, but mainstream plus size fashion. Although there is far more to be done for fat fashion — most plus size individuals still can't walk into a mall and be guaranteed to find anything in their size — shifts have been happening.
Size discrimination is undoubtedly a feminist issue, especially when you consider that so much of it is likely linked to defying the expectation placed on women to shrink, to hide, to not take up space. However, vocal feminist fatties have been changing the narrative. One can only hope it's only a matter of time before a size 28 and a size 8 have equal options, and equal tolerance.
10. Feminist-Specific Apparel
I first noticed a spike in feminist-themed clothing in 2014, and there's been an influx of it ever since. In a world in which identifying as a feminist (in its simplest definition, someone who believes in equality between the sexes) can still cause uproar and controversy, expressing your politics on your sleeve is not only unapologetic, but essential to the continued visibility of feminist issues.
From celebrities to bloggers to everyday individuals, women the world over have been discussing the many ways in which equality has yet to be achieved, and refusing to back down. Although some have argued whether or not a term rooted in activism should be commercialized in such a way, feminism-emblazoned tees very rarely seem about fashion alone. Rather, they're a way to further spark conversation: Something we irrevocably need more of if we're ever to tear down the remnants of a patriarchy.
11. Representation For More Kinds Of Women
Few people would claim that the fashion industry is a diverse one. In 2015, The Fashion Spot reported that models of color only made up 10.7 percent of Fashion Month runways. It's still incredibly rare to see fat women in editorial spreads or glossy covers. And the same is true for differently-abled individuals or women older than 50. However, as feminist issues gain more traction in contemporary discussions, more diversity — even if it feels minimal, at times — has followed.
We have now seen a model above a size 22 cover People magazine. We have seen disabled model and activist Jillian Mercado star in a campaign for Beyoncé. We have seen Winnie Harlow, a model with vitiligo, walk Fashion Week. We have seen brands slowly begin to acknowledge that fat, fashionable women are not a myth. We have seen gender neutral branding infiltrate children's clothing stores, while a gender capitalist model takes over New York. And mature models have been collaborating with brands more than ever before. Yes, fashion is still incredibly white and cis and thin and straight. But intersectional feminism and pleas for diversity are helping change that.
It's true that fashion — and perhaps social constructs at large — should have been far more diversified and evolved by now. However, humans are evidently slow to progress. And that's why upholders of feminist values needs to keep fighting the good fight. Feminism's touch on all things sartorial is irrefutable. But does that mean it's over? Does that mean the movement has done all that was left to do? Not at all.
If history is anything to go by, more public and mainstream conversations surrounding inequality are key. First and Second Wave feminism changed fashion. And contemporary feminism hopefully will too.