Today’s American women are following centuries old traditions of rebelling against society’s outlook on women around. Earlier in America’s history, it was unheard of for a woman to be in both the public and domestic sphere. Women were forced to spend most of their life in the domestic sphere, and wear ridiculous clothes everyday. For a long time, women have been degraded and pushed around, causing women to initial movements to change the way society treats women. In America, “the land of the free”, women have to fight for their equal rights. Reformers, such as Fanny Wright, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer and many more have done so through their actions, and speeches. Nevertheless, in recent times fashion has become an available source of expression. It is a powerful tool to be able to be seen and not heard–but still get the message across. Since its humble beginnings, fashion has oftentimes just existed, but in the past century, it has existed as a form of expression, art, and liberation Now, women are still being influenced and challenged by the media and their peer, but slowly, more and more women are standing up for themselves.
Before the early to mid 1800’s, women were forced to squeeze into corsets made of whalebone, steel or buckram. It gave them the figure eight profile which resulted on a number of health problems, including their organs and body to become deformed. Over the corsets, women wore heavy layers of petticoats despite the weather. (Small Business Administration 3) Dresses emphasized the bust and hips, attempting to make women look very voluptuous. With the spread of commercialism, hundreds of new beauty products were introduced. These ever-popular restricting fashions were later outdated.
This fashion was not comfortable in any sort of the imagination, and a social reformer, Wright started to make a difference. She originated a modified version of dresses in the Victorian Age. This new dress was described as “long-sleeved, high-necked, and loose-fitting tunic over a pair of baggy trousers” (Banner 23). Anthony, Stanton, Bloomer, and along others started to wear this new comfortable fashion. Bloomer promoted this new fashion which become known as “Bloomers” in The Lily; a newspaper for women promoting “women’s suffrage, temperance, and higher education” (Small Business Administration 2). After attempting to change the style of clothes in the 1840’s, they put this new fashion aside. Not only were they mocked by the public, but women were not following their example.
Lucretia Mott, Stanton and many more reformers started a Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls that dealt with women receiving further rights. Anthony collaborated with Stanton to write From Address to the New York State Legislature, 1860. In this speech, Stanton delivered many of her powerful ethics to the State Legislature. She felt that women should have the right to have a divorce, and generally more rights for women. Through her well-educated, formal speech she gained respect from the State Legislature, but at that time, respect was all she received. Writing for social protest, she wanted women to make their own decisions from what type of dress to wear, to what type of job and/or education they want.
Although women continued to wear some form of the corset until the 1920’s (Banner 25), the public’s stance on women’s clothes started to revolutionize in the 1890’s. “Simplicity in dress had come to be associated , not with the poor or with radicals like Stanton of Anthony, but with more exciting and acceptable models: the actress, the working woman, the college woman, the sportswoman” (Banner 24). Young women expressed many taboos through their appearances. They had qualities that were unheard of in previous generationsthey were sexually liberated, independent, and gaining rights. The declaration of this self-fulfillment was shown through the unforgettable fashion of the flappers. Women started wearing bright makeup, shorter skirts, and boyish haircuts. The new silhouette was very slim and youthful, a trend that has lasted until today, with a few exceptions. Androgyny was for the first time popular, and women used all sorts of pills and diets to attain the boyish figure. Fashion was both decadent and innovative. Makeup was elaborate to complement the masculine style, and it also began to be used as an art form. The face was now being painted into something completely unexpected, like a costume.
In response to the flagrant 1920’s, the thirties and forties were very sobering. The Depression hit and business was lost, in both the rural and urban areas. Women who had been taught to be independent and find work for themselves were confused, and the gender roles went back to what they once were. The boyish look of the twenties had vanished and women tried again to look feminine, searching for a new realistic, but untouchable ideal. World War II was taking its toll on much of the world, and it set in a harsh reality. Women were called to duty for many jobs, working with men in factories and not so much time at home. In addition, women writers started to express their feelings about the war. Authors like Marianne Moore and Edna St. Vincent Millay used their witty humor to get attention. A famous poem, The Paper Nautilus, was written by Moore. In this poem she expressed how she did not want young men to go off to war through imagery and symbolism. Times were hard for most; causing fashion to be very insignificant, but was a huge stepping stone in the equality of women. Style in the 1950’s once again resorted to extreme femininity, but in a new sense. The modern woman was searching for an unachievable perfection that was untouchable. Christian Dior’s “New Look” from Paris brought beautiful gowns that encouraged the attitude of women “made to please, to be seen, forever elegant, spoiled and impractical” (Thomas 12).
In the sixties and seventies, fashion finally regained its power as a tool of self-expression and liberation. There were many different movements in the sixties that fashion was very important to. The slim silhouette of the twenties was once again hugely popular, as miniskirts were essential. The hippie movement for peace and free love was captured with the quintessential tie-dye, jeans, and long hair. A pre-grunge look, a brightly colored pop-culture look, a space-age look, and a sexy, youthful look were all popular during this time period. People could express themselves freely by choosing any one of the many options of style available to them. With this outlook, civil rights protests in the United States, took a new beginning and “women’s rebellion against the middle-class housewife’s role contributed to this second wave of women’s movements” (World Book 1). With less pay, fewer promotions, and discrimination in the workplace, women still worked hard for what they believed in: equal rights. The civil rights act of 1964 was the fresh start that women needed.
The eighties brought a powerful new figure, that of an extremely modern businesswoman. Women’s dress was inspired again by menswear, with shoulder-pads and straight-leg pants. The supermodel was introduced, with a select few women making history with their salaries. Women were becoming more powerful in corporations, and that was evident in their powerful new choice of clothing; but still not powerful enough. A famous feminine organization was created in 1985, called the Guerrilla Girls that states they are:
A bunch of anonymous females who take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and appear in public wearing gorilla masks. In 18 years we have produced over 100 posters, stickers, books, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and the culture at large. We use humor to convey information, provoke discussion, and show that feminists can be funny. We wear gorilla masks to focus on the issues rather than our personalities. (Guerrilla Girls: Frequently Asked Questions 1)
These daring women do not take no for an answer and will always push the envelope in order to have their voice heard.
The nineties was time for backlash to all the glitz of prior decades, with people leaning towards minimalism. To become a model one needs to reach dangerous proportions, like 5′ 7″ and 100 pounds. This helped cause more eating disorders in young women. Supermodels continued to reign, and fashion was being mass-marketed more powerfully than ever. Then, the first plus-sized, African-American women was modeling for Cover Girl. This huge step was extremely daring. It told young women that they do not need to be tall, blonde, and skin. Instead, girls need to look to their own super-mom – a woman still fighting for her complete rights in the domestic and public sphere. Towards the end of the nineties, new campaigns raised a lot of controversy, such as child pornography and sexual violence. As these are not necessarily liberating, they showed a new kind of freedom in advertising. Homosexuality was also often featured in fashion of the nineties, which did provide liberation. By the end of the century, homosexuality was accepted and commonplace.
The future of women’s fashion is uncertainin that shock value is harder to come by with each passing year. There is a concept in fashion that nothing is new, everything has been done before. This theory is coming closer to obvious reality, as fashion shows of recent years have visual throwbacks as late as the Victorian era. Although the direction is not yet decided, it is almost definite that women will use fashion as an important tool for expression and freedom in the future.
Banner, Lois W. Women in Modern America a Brief History. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
Guerrilla Girls. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Guerrilla Girls. 2005. 2 May 2005 .
Small Business Administration. ” Women’s History Month Amelia Jenks Bloomer.” Online Women’s Business Center. 16 Apr. 2002. 3 May 2005 .
Thomas, Pauline Weston. “1950’s Glamour Fashion History 1950’s.” Fashion Era. 2005. 2 May 2005 .
World Book, Inc. “The Rise of the Modern Women’s Movement.” The Modern Women’s Movement. 2004 ed. 1. 2 May 2005 .