Women's Rights and Fashion - A History

“Clothes aren't going to change the world, the women who wear them will.'" So said the inimitable fashion designer and empowered businesswoman Anne Klein. Indeed, the history of women’s rights is replete with women using fashion to not only empower themselves but also to spread awareness about women’s rights. Since the beginning of the era of women’s liberation, empowered females have used fashion to change the world.

So, exactly how has fashion changed women’s rights?

In this article we take a look at the intertwining histories of women’s fashion and women’s rights to see if women can wear fashion that changes the world.

1820s to Early 20th Century: The Suffragettes

The American suffragettes who began the first major wave of women’s rights campaigns had a sartorial stratagem in mind. They would conform their look to what was considered traditionally feminine at the time: long billowy dresses, corsets, gloves and wide brimmed hat adorned with floral garlands. Their adoption of typical Edwardian fashion meant that men would be forced to pay attention to their ideas and not be able to criticise their fashion sense. These very prim and properly dressed women would picket and protest to get their message of female enfranchisement out to the masses. Indeed, the suffragettes’ use of fashion meant that they could agitate for women’s rights in a socially (and fashionably) acceptable way.

The ‘Roaring’ 1920s: Coco Chanel

Pioneer fashion designer and empowered female entrepreneur, Coco Chanel changed the face of women’s fashion in the early 20th century. She revolutionized the industry by designing her signature skirt suit. Chanel’s design featured the use of tweed and effectively lengthened the wearer’s silhouette, demanding attention and exhibiting both seriousness and significance. Chanel herself caused controversy by wearing trousers in public. A bold move, but one that would eventually pave the way forward for women to wear whatever they wanted, including attire usually considered masculine.

Throughout the Roaring Twenties, women adopted more boyish styles as they went about contravening social convention by attending parties without - shock horror - a chaperone! Fashion-wise, Chanel's straight silhouettes became popular whilst hemlines also rose. Another of the decade’s dramatic changes came when flappers did away with their corsets and cut their hair into cute bobs. These fashionistas broke away from conforming to outdated notions of exaggerated femininity, signalling the fight for women’s rights was entering a new age of modernity.

The 60s and 70s: Miniskirts and Powersuits

In the 1960s, women’s fashion and women’s rights advanced again as a second wave of feminism. Women now showed their resistance of convention by daring to show some skin. The 1960s is the decade that gave us the advent of the miniskirt. And it was Twiggy, one of the world’s first supermodels, who advanced this fashion item into popular culture by spearheading the bold new design both on the runway and in fashion magazines.

The second wave of women’s rights also revived more masculine fashion styles for females. The division between men’s and women’s fashion became somewhat fuzzy in the 1970s. Both sexes wore their hair long and adorned their bodies in bright colors. High-waisted pants, button-up shirts, and suit jackets were the rage. Anne Klein’s power suit, introduced in the late '60s, really took off in the 1970s as style icons like Grace Jones inspired women to dress for success.

Women’s fashion today

In the 21st Century, Women’s rights campaigns like the Me Too movement and the Women’s March have raised awareness about women’s issues within wider society. Consequently, feminist fashion is now very popular. Items like sweatshirts, t-shirts, hoodies and bags emblazoned with pro-feminist messages not only look good and feel comfortable, they also spread awareness about women’s rights issues. Certainly, donning such attire is a resistance act against ascribing to stereotypical notions of what women should wear. Wearing these garments lets everyone know where you stand when it comes to women’s rights.

As we’ve seen, the history of women’s rights activism and fashion are intertwined. From the outset, female activists used their style to challenge the status quo and raise awareness about their message. The appropriation of traditionally masculine fashions (like short hair, t-shirts, etc.) is a powerful way of resisting the problem of hyperfemininity created within the mass media. In today’s world, there is much to be done in order to make society more equitable. Wearing your feminist fashion with pride is one small step towards equality between the genders. In the words of Ghandi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”


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