How Women Have Used Fashion As A Feminist Tool Throughout History

When it comes to the history of women's fashion, taking the gloves off to fight can be taken in a very literal sense. Whether Gibson Girls caused a stir stepping outside without their gloves or Mods spark hysteria with their bare legs, fashion has been used to change and challenge the limitations of gender. Throughout decades women have used fashion as a feminist tool, turning their silk shirts and carefully hung dresses into means of provocation that could make more space for women at the table. There were times where the zip of a trouser or the flash of a thigh could cause quite the push back, causing society to panic every time women decided to define for themselves what it meant to be female.

Shrugging on a blazer or putting on a sparkly mini now might not seem like a big deal, but know that there's a long and difficult past attached to each of those wardrobe staples. While now they're toted at women from sidewalk display windows and sales racks, not too long ago the women before us fought tooth and nail for the right to wear them — and stood behind what they represented, criticism or not. Read ahead for the long history of women's liberation, explained through sleeves and circle skirts.

1800s: The Blip Of The Pantaloon

When saddled with corsets, stiff petticoats, and ground-dragging skirts, it'd be easy for women to glance at men in the 1800s and think of how much more comfortable they looked. Amelia Bloomer, a women's rights advocate and editor of first feminist newspaper The Lily, decided to do a whole lot more than glance —instead, she tried on the pants for herself. And sparked hysteria.

Many worried that the lack of hoop skirts would lead to the “usurpation of the rights of man,” and panic started over the instability of gender identity. Gleason's Pictorial reported in the mid 1800's that "the model bloomer leaves her poor young husband pouting and weeping at home," leaving their young children "entirely in charge of her husband." The drama. 

But while the pants became a symbol of the women's rights movement, suffragettes didn't necessarily welcome the connotations. While they shared activist's Elizabeth Cady Stanton's opinion that a woman's "tight waist and long trailing skirts deprive her of all freedom," and forced her to need a man's "aid at every turn," they believed that the ridicule and backlash took focus away from their actual mission: To gain rights, not to change fashion. "The bloomers became the story more than their feminist views," Rebecca Arnold, the Senior Lecturer in History of Dress at The Courtauld Institute, shares in an interview with Bustle. "They became a symbol both of women's attempt at change, and of negative reactions to this — to the idea any woman seeking equal rights was challenging men and masculinity." 

Wanting to keep the focus on their issues, most women retired their trousers until the turn of the new century. 

1900s: Suffragette Colors

While suffragettes would pour into the streets of New York and London for organized marches and protests, they also identified themselves as feminists outside of rallies. They did this with the help of three colors: Green, white, and purple. 

"Purple represents dignity, white denotes purity and green means hope — the fact that these colors are still recognizable as those of the Suffragettes shows how successful they were at using them as a political symbol to promote their cause and for women to show support by adopting the colors," Arnold points out. They'd pin these ribbons onto their hats and belts, tack rosettes and badges to their coats and lapels, and even buy kitchen slippers and toilet soap in support. 

'20s: The Bobbed Hair Epidemic

The sassy swing of hair that characterized flappers and silver screen stars was met with a great deal of pulpit and resistance before it made its way into the popular zeitgeist, but that didn't stop many from visiting the salon. Flapper Ellen Welles Page explained to Outlook Magazine in 1922, "Bobbed hair is a state of mind and not merely a new manner of dressing my head. It typifies growth, alertness, up-to-dateness, and is part of the expression of the élan vital! [spirit] It is not just a fad of the moment...I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom. Whatever helps their emancipation, however small it may seen, is well worth while."

While bobbed hair was becoming a look of the feminist, the rest of society wasn't ready for it. Marshall Fields — Chicago's largest department store — dismissed sales girls who refused to wear hairnets over their bobs until they grew out, and the employment manager of Aetna Life Insurance, a major employer of women, went on record saying, "We want workers in our offices and not circus riders."

"The fact is that bobbed hair really pissed people off," Victoria Pass, a professor at Salisbury University in Maryland whose work focuses on the history of 20th century fashion and its relationship to gender and race, shares in an email interview with Bustle. "While on the one hand cutting your hair short doesn’t suddenly signify your liberation, it was an incredibly powerful symbol of allegiance to a modern way of being a woman, one that terrified people who wanted to restore order after the traumatic upheaval of World War I."

'30s: Chanel Two-Piece Suits

After the first World War, women got a taste of what it felt like to be outside of the sitting room and in the workforce. From that moment on women started to slowly fight for space in the public sphere, where they could manage their own funds, have a say in politics and economy, and be in charge of their own bodies — whether that meant with a haircut or a beau. 

According to Vogue, Coco Chanel had these women in mind when she designed, which led her to create her own version of the two piece suit. "She designed sophisticated clothes that were elegant yet, comfortable. The symbol of this ideal is the two piece suit, which Coco created taking inspiration directly from the suits of her lovers," Vogue writer Sara Bimbi explained. 

But while Chanel is often times credited with making the first suits for women, it's important to note that the style was already available for years. What she did instead was make a version of it that suited her own understanding of womanhood. "Chanel always dressed like the strong independent male she had dreamed of being. But Chanel was no middle-class feminist in a man tailored suit. When Chanel 'took the English masculine and made it feminine,' she did so in the spirit of a female dandy," Valerie Steele fashion historian and director of the Museum at the FIT, explained in her essay, Chanel In Context.

While she certainly wasn't the first, she was still part of the cadre of designers who showed women's changing status through their wardrobes.

'50s: Claire McCardell's Woman On The Move

While the '50s might feel like a feminist black hole where only suburban June Cleavers bake pies and call on neighbors for tea, there was one designer that was subtly setting the stage for the second wave. Claire McCardell is often seen as the mother of American fashion, but while she ushered in the idea of sporty chic, she also gave women a wardrobe that offered them a sense of freedom. 

Where Parisians like Dior were cranking out silhouettes with padded shoulders and stiff petticoats, McCardell created pieces that rescued women from those Victorian-like staples. "She used more casual fabrics and didn’t use the exaggerated wasp waist that Dior did, embracing elastic and belts to nip in waists rather than corsetry," Pass explains.

Whether it was for the newly busy housewife that juggled responsibilities both inside and outside the home, the woman that worked in the city, or the girl that went off to college, her clothes were for those that lived in action.

"Wrap dresses could be quickly thrown on for a suburban dinner party, and fasteners like buttons or hooks and eyes on the side were easy for a woman to work with (as opposed to a zipper in back). Even looking at her ads you can see a different kind of woman depicted where the women in them might be seen as a working woman or a woman in a domestic space," Pass shares. While it wasn't exactly an Armani powersuit, the styles already hinted at a more independent, outside-of-the-home woman.

'60s: Mini Mania

The miniskirt didn't just challenge what was socially acceptable for women to dress in, but —along with birth control prescriptions, a new "single girl" cosmopolitan attitude, and the rise of divorce rates — it symbolized a sexual reclaiming. 

Designer Mary Quant was the pioneer that gave women the mini, but according to her, she wasn't the one that started the rebellion. “It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini," Quant was quoted as saying in the Telegraph. "We would make them the length the customer wanted. I wore them very short and the customers would say, ‘Shorter, shorter.’”

While it scandalized their suburban parents, it gave women a way to move past their traditional roles of wife and mother and instead shape a new identity for themselves. "I always stress to my students that clothing trends aren't 'reflective' of change, but rather constitutive of change," Deirdre Clemente, historian of 20th century American fashion, shares in an email interview with Bustle. "So women didn't say 'Hey I'm sexually liberated, I need to go get a mini-skirt.' Rather in wearing the mini-skirt they live out the identity that they are. Clothing is not reactive but pro active." Clothes say it first, and the movement follows.

    '70s: The Double Life Of Wrap Dresses

    In 1974 socialite Diane von Furstenberg came out with a wrap dress inspired from the designs of McCardell and Schiaparelli, which appealed to both the office working girls and Park Avenue cocktail crowd. It was seen as a symbol of sexual freedom and women's liberation — and for good reason, too. The wrap could be worn to the office and tied primly at the waist, or in a fling's bedroom, where it could be slipped off in a hurry thanks to its lack of any buttons or zips. 

    When asked how she came to the idea of a dress that was held together with a sash, Furstenberg coyly answered, "Well, if you’re trying to slip out without waking a sleeping man, zips are a nightmare."

    It helped to underline a new powerful idea of womanhood — one where females were finally enjoying the role of predators inside the boardroom and bedroom alike. 

    '80s: Power suits And Board Rooms

    The '80s power suit was an item that straddled a tricky line, where it was seen as both feminist and anti. Vice quoted Shira Tarrant, professor and author of Fashion Talks: Undressing The Power Of Style, "Wearing a pantsuit was the expectation at the time if you were to be taken seriously as a business woman, but women were still criticized for trying to emulate men, because it was a derivative of menswear."

    It was a time where women were starting to elbow their way into executive offices and business meetings, but had to do so underneath the disguise of pinstripes and broad shoulders. If they wanted authority, they had to take the focus off of their gender. "They were feminist in purpose," Jo Paoletti, professor and author of Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution, tells Bustle in an email interview. "They helped women enter male-dominated professional spaces — but anti-feminist because they were based on a masculine model of 'power dressing.'" 

    But while the wide lapels and smart pantsuits helped disguise their figure and gain respect, it still forced their owners to copy men. "Should a feminist adapt masculine dress? Or celebrate femininity? Should she even have to stick with these traditional binaries of what is male and what is female? The fact we are still talking in these terms shows how ingrained they are," Arnold points out.  

    While women have spent decades if not centuries batting away the narrow definition of what is expected of them, the clothes they wore helped make their intentions know. What causes society to panic isn't different hemlines, but rather women defining for themselves what it means to be a woman. So the power of dress was an important tool that influenced their standing in society, helping them towards less oppressive gender norms with every snap, zip, and fasten.

    Images: Elliman's (1); Every Cloud Productions (1); Warner Bros (1); Claire McCardell (1); Newsweek (1); Twentieth Century Fox (1)

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