History of Fashion through a Feminist Lenses

Skimming back chapters on women’s role in society through history, projects bars made of institutional beliefs. Behind those bars stood the woman whose confidence had been undermined and her potential narrowed to fit the singular role of a ‘house-wife.’  “Theirs was a problem with no name”, states Betty Friedan in her 1963 bestseller, ‘The Feminine Mystique’. The movement, as we know it today, has been molded by centuries of women’s struggles armed by unity. Fashion has been one of her primal weapons in doing the same. 

The Bloomer dress marked the coupling of fashion with the feminist movement. American women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer promoted the bloomer dress as a comfortable alternative to the traditionally restrictive attire for women in the 1850s. The garment however, failed to hold its own in the wardrobe due to a popular opinion among women of the dress being unflattering. 

The Bloomer Dress | 1850s | Wikimedia Commons

The Suffragettes ignited the first major mass movement that put feminism on the map. The traditionally feminine, Edwardian-style clothing worn by women was a fashionable statement of soft power and a vehicle for communication of identity. However, more emphasis was laid on  the use of color in their clothing. White predominantly coloured the movement, followed by purple and green, each holding symbolism. While the colors purple and green signified loyalty and hope respectively, white symbolized purity. 

1909 Dress | Wikimedia Commons
Aprons, from a 1909 catalogue | Wikimedia Commons

The decade’s most groundbreaking shift for feminism in the west was marked by young women breaking out of the shackles of society’s standard of acceptable behaviour. Known as flappers, they untied their corsets and wore mini skirts (skirts up to knee-length was considered short in 1920s) and bobbed hair. This fashion statement signaled a rebel against centuries-old principles of hyperbolic femininity.

A flapper on board a ship (1929) | Wikimedia Commons

Prior to the First World-War, women were not a part of the ‘public.’The war marked the engagement of women in fields of work unconfined by the walls of their homes, as the men served in the military for their countries. Women stepped into the public sphere and gained control over their funds and finance as well as their own bodies. Coco Chanel revolutionized womenswear with the introduction of the two-piece suits inspired by the women pioneers of freedom during World War 1. Chanel is often mistaken as the first to tailor suits for women. While this is not true, she is a part of the community of designers who have showcased women’s aristocracy through her wardrobe. Her work reflected upon a woman’s fearless portrayal of her understanding of womanhood. The straight silhouette of her signature skirt-suit had a command of seriousness that it demanded from the world.

Another radical development in women’s fashion was the introduction of trousers as casual wear. At the time, pants represented comfort and freedom.

Chanel and Winston Churchill in 1921 | Wikimedia Commons

World War II further established women’s place in the workforce and control over their style. Women learnt to fix cars, worked in factories and occupied clerical jobs. Denims were included in her range of fabrics as jeans and became popular among women. Hair scarves and hardy boots added a utilitarian touch to her wardrobe. Women were also seen fighting wars for their countries.

Sunrays illuminated her skin as the late 60s marked an era of showing skin. Women challenged societal scales of ‘how much skin is too much skin’. In hand with this movement, Designer Mary Quant founded the, now omnipresent, mini skirt. While it angered some, the mini skirt was symbolic of the evolution in their identity, sailing further away from the one that society accepted conformity of. It symbolised a push towards sexual liberation. 

Mary Quant dress chosen as the Dress of the Year | Wikimedia Commons

The pantsuit of the 80s ignited the most heated debate of the times. The trend ran thin lines between a considered feminist and an anti-feminist. This decade saw women thrust their ways into corporate offices. However, they struggled between their identity and the need for authority in offices, which could only be won at the cost of hiding their femininity. While sleek and smart pantsuits earned women respect in the professional world, it also raised questions against their identity as feminists. The argument persisted on whether feminists must emulate masculine fashion or celebrate femininity. 

The 90s witnessed popularization of gender neutral fashion. Ripped jeans and flannels blurred lines between women’s wear and men’s wear. Bold patterns, dazzling metallics and colorful prints made for a grunge aesthetic. Female bands addressed issues such as patriarchy, domestic abuse and female empowerment. Lyrics from these songs featured on women’s fashion, a tool for unification. Feminine motifs such as the color pink held a tougher meaning more than ever.

While feminism has come a long way from the 1850s, we are nowhere near the end of this tunnel just yet. The fashion industry itself  seems to be steered in a direction towards gender equality on the surface level with design houses hiring more and more females for the top seats: Maria Grazia Chiuri’s debut in Dior, 2016 a prime example. On the flip side of the coin, Vogue Australia reported that women constitute 80 percent of garment makers globally. Most of these women were reported to be bread-winners for their families. Yet, their pay remains nominal. The social media boom has given a voice to the world and for the world. While fast fashion brands seem to recognise that this is synonymous to consumers having more information and choices, beyond media engagement with social issues, there are hardly any changes made to the business model. 

Social media and consumer culture allows us to push barriers and pressure brands to shift to ethical means of production. It is integral for us to be conscious consumers to bring about a change in the internal capitalist system of fast-fashion brands. 


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Hello! I am Sudrisha. I am a daughter, a friend, a student or a mere passer-by on the street. My mind is a cauldron of ideas, imaginations, dreams and values imbibed in me through everything I have been in the past twenty years. Fictional and non-fictional characters from the glossy pages of Vogue to Austen’s exquisite Pride and Prejudice are my travel guides through life. There is nothing more thrilling to me than a warm cup of cocoa (with extra marshmallows) paired with a book that makes me explore beyond the four walls of a room.

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Email- ishagoswami2@gmail.com


Editors: Namita


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