August 22, 2021
The evolution of feminist fashion
Happy Monday, Feministas. This week, we’re taking a stroll down memory lane and taking a closer look at one of our favorite cultural intersections: feminism and fashion <3
Throughout history, the fight for equality, sexual liberation, and women’s inclusion in spaces beyond the home have drastically influenced fashion and clothing trends, from the invention of bloomers to the act of resistance that was “burning the bra.” In some cases, it was an expression of newly earned freedoms; in others, a way to build solidarity and garner attention--a tool for change.
But even when our sartorial choices don’t have anything to do with making a statement, the way we dress can affect the way we feel about ourselves and the way we’re seen by others. It can be armor, a way to show off or hide, an extension of identity. And there’s power in that. So let’s explore the fashion journey that took us from 19th century lace and frills to something a little more chill: the feminist graphic tee.
Bloomers & sashes for suffrage
This story starts in the 1850s, with a feminist woman named Amelia Bloomer and famous suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who agreed it was time for women to wear the pants as well. At that time, corsets were still in fashion and women’s fashion choices were pretty much confined to color and cut, because the norm was a long, padded, usually conservative dress with a wide, heavy skirt--tight and constricting on the top and tons of fabric to haul around below.
So even given their limited longevity as a trend, the introduction of bloomers was a pretty radical step forward in feminist fashion--prioritizing women’s comfort and utility, especially for women on the front lines of fighting for the right to vote.
In the early 1900s, when the suffrage movement finally started gaining real momentum, famous organizers in the UK like Emmeline Pankhurst decided it was time to make some headlines and stand out in the crowd. She encouraged activists to wear white when they showed up to march or protest so they would be hard to miss in the midst of men’s suits in public places (an accessible choice too, as plain white dresses were usually the cheapest available).
Eventually, they adopted the colors green, purple, and white as a symbol for the movement--representing loyalty, dignity, purity and hope--and often wore sashes with those colors so their cause could be more easily identified. In 1920, women earned the right to vote in the United States, and in 1928, the UK followed suit--thanks in part to political power of feminist fashion.
Flappers & feminists: short hair, don’t care
The 1920s brought on a full-on fashion revolution for women, who were finally sloughing off some of that Victorian era stiffness and confinement--clothing-wise and culturally. The trend towards comfort continued in almost every aspect of the way women dressed, from the loosening of those formerly very tight waists and shortening of hemlines--giving us what we now know as the flapper dress, which were cut just below the knee--to “the bob” or “cropped” haircut, which, in those days, was a pretty scandalous rejection of traditional beauty standards and gender norms.
During this time, we also saw the rise of designers like Coco Chanel, who popularized menswear-inspired, more androgynous clothing from trousers to sweaters, and did it with a kind of ease and flair that speaks to the free and rebellious spirit of women (and people, in general) in the post-war prohibition era.
Sexual liberation & the mini-skirt
Women’s fashion from the ‘30s through the ‘50s was similarly marked by historical context, with less in the way of innovation due to the Great Depression and World War II. In many ways, the more practical fashion trends of the 1920s reigned supreme during those years, as women joined the workforce and took to trousers and more durable workwear.
Broadly speaking, the 1950s could be characterized as a return to peace and normalcy in the U.S.; when we think of that time, we imagine women returning home to start families and run the house, but many women also continued working, laying the groundwork for what is simply commonplace today--enduring and fighting back against sexist discrimination so that we don’t have to.
The next revolution in feminist fashion hit during the ‘60s, when bikinis hit the beaches and mini-skirts hit the streets. After what seemed like a decade of calm, things were changing quickly for women. Birth control was becoming popular and more accessible, women were working and financially independent, and the divorce rate was rising.
Being single was more widely accepted and with this newfound freedom, women were taking up more space and reclaiming their bodies and sexuality on a mass scale. Mini-skirts became a symbol of that sexual liberation and unapologetic feminism that would continue to evolve throughout the next decade.
Burning the bra... and the male gaze
If the 1960s were about owning sexuality and embracing promiscuity as an act of rebellion, the 1970s were about rejecting the male gaze as a basis for the way women dress to express that sexuality.
Here’s where the radical bra-burning hippies you’ve all seen represented in pop culture come in, who stopped styling their hair, shaving their legs and armpits, and dressing to please men. It’s what many people think of when they think of a feminist, which can be challenging to identify with or get behind for many women because its origins in protest can come off as militant and unsavory. But it’s important to remember the historical context for this expression of feminism: as one step in a long history of feminist fashion and just one of many myriad versions of what womanhood can look like.
The lasting impression this trend had on the way feminism is portrayed is in part a patriarchal creation--a way to keep more feminine women disinterested in the movement as a whole by calling it dirty, manhating, etc. (can’t fool us though!). But it’s also just a product of how how profound a statement it was to challenge traditional beauty standards in such a drastic way, demonstrating through action that women did not need to be made up and adorned to have value, that women should be free to just be themselves in their bodies, whether that meant dressing to the nines or going au natural with body hair and forgoing the damn bra :)
Power suits, pussy hats & empowering tees
As we inch ever closer to the 21st century, and continue to gain ground in the arenas we've already talked about, the focus of feminism seems to shift to the infiltration of patriarchal power structures by women, in government, pop culture, and most broadly, the workforce. Cue the power suit: a kind of cheat code to blend in and earn the respect of men in male-dominated spaces. Sure, this kind of "power dressing" often drew criticism from feminists themselves, who rejected the very idea that menswear ought to equal power in the minds of women, but others argued that the popularity of the power suit served to broaden the spectrum of what we think of as feminine, pushing the boundaries of gender norms in a positive way.
The 1990s and 2000s carried on down the paths set in the past, prioritizing comfort and a sort of fashion equality between men and women, with gender neutral trends like jeans, tank tops, and flannels, as well as a continued exploration of the boundaries of embracing sexuality, as we cycled through lower cut shirts, crop tops, backless dresses, lingerie as daywear, and more.
Over the years, as politics have permeated pop culture and gained more mainstream traction among young people, the fashion has followed suit. More and more celebrities are recognizing that fashion is an important avenue for a person with power to use their platform for good, make a statement, and express their beliefs on everything from Black Lives Matter to environmentalism and, of course, feminism.
The most recognizable modern symbol of this is probably the pink pussy hat, which thousands of women wore to protest the inauguration of our 45th president, a blatant misogynist and very real threat to women's rights. You may also remember when, following the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, actors at the 2018 Golden Globes wore all black and Time's Up pins on the red carpet, in support of the cause.
In the day to day though, celebs and people like us prefer the laidback comfort of a graphic tee to make our voices heard. It's what the women who came before us worked for after all, our right to express ourselves the way we see fit, to dress for ourselves, and to pave the way for whatever feminist fashion comes next.
Thanks for reading, Feministas. See you next week for more of The "F" Word, our weekly newsletter and blog on all things feminist, from activism to fashion and beyond. Want it delivered? Scroll down, sign up, and we’ll send it straight to your inbox.