FEMINIST FASHION: HOW CLOTHES HELPED FUEL A MOVEMENT

This International Women’s Day YUGEN is taking a look at the evolution of feminist fashion, and the intricate link between clothing and the feminist movement. It’s no secret that clothes go hand in hand with self expression, and for decades people have used fashion as a way to communicate. The clothes we wear can be used to tell a story, communicate values and ideals, or express political solidarity, so it’s no surprise that fashion has gone hand in hand with political movements for decades, from gay liberation, to the punk movement.

Feminist Fashion

Image Molly Adams from USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Clothes can speak a thousand words and the fashion industry is home to many powerhouse designers using their garments to speak out against injustice. Vivienne Westwood has long championed climate change and anti-consumerism, and Maria Grazia Chiuri emblazoned her debut 2016 collection with feminist slogans, most notably Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. Of course, it’s not just designers themselves portraying political messages through clothing, so we’re taking International Women’s Day to reflect on how fashion has been side by side with the feminist movement, and how clothing helped fuel change.

Early Feminist Fashion

The 1850s saw the creation of one of the first feminist garments to make global waves: the ‘Bloomer Dress’. The Bloomer was popularised by a group of suffragettes, including its namesake Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who promoted the dress as a more comfortable alternative to the restrictive dresses worn by American women. “Let men be compelled to wear our dress for a while and we should soon hear them advocating a change” said Bloomer. However, despite the statement behind bloomers, the garment was only popular for a few years, in part because many women simply didn’t find them to be flattering or attractive.

Bloomer Emmeline Pankhurst

Images Left The Bloomer, Right Emmeline Pankhurst

Several decades later, it was the suffragettes, this time in Britain, who once again used their clothing to make a statement, and aid the Women’s Rights movement. Knowing the power of clothing, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union proclaimed that “suffragettes should not be dowdy”, encouraging supporters to shop at Selfridge’s. Pankhurst also developed the suffragette colours which ran through supporter’s clothing, allowing them to be easily identifiable with the cause. The colours were purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity, and green for hope.

The Impact of Coco Chanel

It wasn’t just the suffragettes using clothing to help push for gender equality. In the early 20th century pioneering designers, such as Coco Chanel, began to reflect the shift in attitudes towards women’s rights.

“One of the most radical developments for women was the gradual acceptance of trousers, which were no longer considered either eccentric or strictly utilitarian,” wrote historians Amy de la Haye and Valerie Mendes. “Chanel did much to accelerate this move and was often photographed during the day wearing loose, sailor-style trousers, known as ‘yachting pants.” Pants represented freedom and freedom of movement, a concept which was paralleled in the changing attitudes towards how women lived their lives in the 20th century.

 Coco Chanel

Image Coco Chanel

Chanel swapped superfluous designs for more androgynous silhouettes, with her business-minded signature skirt suit becoming a power symbol amongst women. Chanel’s straighter silhouette ran through the flapper culture of the 20s, which saw women rejecting the notions of stereotypical feminine dress. Restrictive corsets and long skirts were replaced with a creeping hemline which allowed women to dance more freely, whilst also showing their legs. Paired with a short bob haircut and often a cigarette, this new ‘flapper’ style flouted social and sexual norms. These women were ready to break away from years of rigid tradition, and celebrate a new era of boldness.

Women and the War

Years later, the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, sent notions of traditional gender roles up in the air. As the men went off to fight, women occupied their roles back home. Women managed the household finances, learned to fix cars, and worked in factories, as well as occupying office and clerical jobs in the armed forces, freeing men to fight. The woman adopted more practical, masculine silhouettes, with many serving in uniform, both at home and abroad.

However, when the war ended in 1945, society regressed back to traditional gender roles despite the rapid progression of feminism. The men returning home, paired with the downturn in demand for war materials, saw women hang up their new uniforms, and return to the traditional housewife role. Despite many women expressing their desire to keep these new roles, it seemed that society was not yet ready to embrace greater social equality.

Mary Quant and the Miniskirt

It wasn’t until the '60s that we once again saw women’s wardrobes revolutionised with a daring new garment: the miniskirt. Popularised by Mary Quant, the designer declared that this new short-hemmed skirt was “a way of rebelling”. Whilst many branded the miniskirt as vulgar, its popularisation coincided with the rise of the second-wave feminist movement. With the contraceptive pill becoming commercially available in 1961, women were entering a new age of sexual liberation and the miniskirt became a symbol of this.

 Mary Quant

Image Mary Quant designs at the Victoria & Albert Museum London

However in 1968, fashion campaigns began suggesting that women replace the mini with the midst skirt, but women became riled with the abrupt change and began to question why they should have their style continuously dictated and changed by fashion bigwigs.

The Santa Maria Times summarised this shift in attitude, writing in 1969 that: “decrees issued from the inner sanctums of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses aren’t clicking. Women aren’t paying attention to sweeping generalisations in fashion. They are approaching fashion subjectively. They’re wearing clothes that suit them, not designers…For once, women are captains of their own ships and designers are riding the crest of the trend.”

Feminist Fashion in the '70s '80s and '90s

The rise in androgynous fashion in the '70s and '80s, popularised by style icons like Grace Jones, helped free women from traditional hyper-feminine styling. This ran through into the '90s with the grunge movement helping to popularise unisex wardrobe staples, like ripped jeans and flannel shirts.

The '90s also saw the rise of feminism’s third wave, spurred on by the underground feminist punk movement Riot grrrl. These female punk bands addressed issues such as domestic abuse, sexuality, patriarchy, and female empowerment, with their clothing reflecting their political stance. The musicians embraced gender neutral garments and bold graphic messages, reclaiming feminine motifs, such as the colour pink, giving them a new tougher, feminist meaning.

21st Century Feminist Style

Whilst we have come a long way since the 1850s in terms of gender equality, there is still a lot of work to be done so it’s unsurprising that fashion is still being used today to advocate for women’s rights.

2017 saw women across the world don ‘hot pink pussy hats’ during the global Women’s Marches which took place in response to Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the 2018 Golden Globes’ red carpet was dominated by stars wearing black in support of the Time’s Up movement. Last year also saw Natalie Portman gracing the Oscars red carpet wearing a Dior dress overlaid with a cape featuring the names of snubbed female designers embroidered in gold thread.

 Feminist Fashion

Image Narih Lee, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

However, in terms of the fashion industry itself, we have seen many major design houses appoint their first ever female directors in recent years. As previously mentioned Maria Grazia Chiuri made her debut for Dior in 2016, and the following year Clare Waight Keller took the reigns at Givenchy. However whilst on the surface level, fashion seems to slowly but surely be moving in a direction which favours gender equality, behind-the-scenes its a very different story.

The industry is still largely run on cheap labour, with Vogue Australia reporting that “about 80 per cent of garment workers globally are women, most aged between 18 and 35.” The reality is that most of these women have children, and families and most are barely paid.

Whilst this is something the industry needs to reflect and change internally, as consumers there are things we can do to help. Social media and consumer culture has shifted to put pressure on brands to produce their clothing ethically, and the movement to avoid fast fashion, fuelled by Gen-Z is certainly a step in the right direction. As consumers it’s crucial that we research the brands that we are buying from, to ensure that the clothes and materials are being produced and sourced ethically.

This International Women’s Day we’ve compiled a short list celebrating our favourite female-owned brands who pride themselves on producing ethical products. You can shop all the brands mentioned on YUGEN.

A.Cloud

 A.Cloud

Image A.Cloud

A.Cloud produce bespoke bags, finding the perfect balance between classic vintage and future modern style. Through their timeless designs, A.Cloud aim to create contemporary handbags at affordable prices with luxury materials and craftsmanship. The bags are produced for the independent woman who “true to her uniqueness, unbounded by conventions, embraces her own distinctive style.”

The brand prides itself on ethics and sustainability, heeding to the needs of workers whilst endeavouring to preserve traditional craftsmanship. A.Cloud believe that the way forward for brands is to do business consciously by preserving tradition, conserving the environment, and improving labour’s working conditions.

All bags are produced in A.Cloud’s own small eco-friendly factory and the brand has immersed itself in the research and development of modern manufacturing technologies which have led to the implementation of more sustainable production methods.

GIORGIANDREAZZA

 GIORGIANDREAZZA

Image GIORGIANDREAZZA

In 2019, Italian born Giorgia Andreazza founded her eponymous label, just one year after completing her major in Fashion Design at NABA (New Academy of Fine Arts) in Milan. Giorgia draws inspiration from the people she meets, her transforming experiences, and the world’s current affairs to create her beautifully deconstructed garments.

Her collections touch on socioeconomic, cultural, and environmental issues through her lens as a young emerging designer. Giorgia battles the current fashion climate and culture of overproduction and pollution in a number of ways, from the use of corporate waste from Venetian companies, to the serial accumulation of second hand clothes that she takes apart to create new.

Each garment replete with super-imposed textures and honed cuts is handmade, made-to-order, and completely one of a kind.

You can find out more about Giorgio and read her story on YUGEN.

KIKIITO

KIKIITO KIKIITO

Image KIKIITO

KIKIITO is the brainchild of designer and artisan, Kiki Ito. Kiki creates contemporary minimalist bags inspired by her own personal journey, with her objective being to give those who wear her designs a feeling of strength and confidence to be themselves.

Her transcendental new collection ‘Connect’ channels the emotional battle she faced with anxiety and depression during the pandemic. “The mind is such a powerful thing it can control you in the worst ways but it can also take you to the best places. I wanted to express all the honest emotions I had from my fear, to the strength I found through this collection” says Kiki.

Ethics and sustainability are at the heart of Kiki’s business with the majority of small parts, bases and internal workings being made from leftover leather to minimise waste. Staying true to the traditional artisanship that is at the core of KIKIITO, the bags are designed with longevity in mind and for people who truly appreciate the product, with only a limited number being produced to reduce waste.

You can find out more about Kiki and read her story on YUGEN.

Text: Sam Pennington

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