By Bridget Schneider
Women’s fashion has long been a treasured medium of self-expression. What we choose to wear says more about us than simply having an affinity for a particular color or pattern—it’s a representation of what we wish to present to the world. Some argue that the fashion industry plays a role in the perpetuation of gender norms, and this is certainly true in a sense, but history—from the 1800s to present day—shows that fashion and style have been used to counteract the restrictive nature of society’s expectations.
When we think of women’s fashion in history, often an image of hoop skirts, petticoats and garden hats come to mind. This was the norm in the 19th century, when women’s fashion meant tight corsets and draping dresses, lest it be deemed unladylike. Activist Amelia Bloomer began something of a fashion revolution when, in an effort to give herself more mobility and comfort, she opted to wear pantaloons instead of a skirt. Though perhaps unimpressive to us now, this move was a radical one. Though it didn’t truly take hold until decades later, Bloomer set the stage for a major change in women’s fashion.
The turn of the 20th century marks the thick of the first wave of feminism, spearheaded by the Suffragettes on a quest for equal voting rights. With political progression on the mind, fashion may not seem like it had a place in their mission. But style, particularly the use of color, served as an important mode for enacting change. The Suffragettes adopted a code of three colors, each of which represented an important part of their cause: purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope. Women across the country were able to show support by dressing accordingly. Today, these colors are still associated with the early 20th century movement.
From here, it seems each decade brought with it women on a mission to break out of their societal constraints. In the 1920s, the bob haircut swept the nation as women literally cut free of what they felt long hair represented: shackles and chains. Around this time, Coco Chanel made history by popularizing the pantsuit, a fashion item revolutionary for its time, and one that remains commonplace and beloved to this day. The ‘60s brought about the rise of the mini skirt, representing an embrace of sexuality and promiscuity for which women were shunned only a short time ago. The late ‘70s and ‘80s, marked the era of the power suit, where we began to see a blurring of men and women’s fashion, with both genders shopping from the same brands and wearing the same items for the first time. Women’s fashion has only continued to evolve, but it has never failed to serve as a mode of feminist expression, particularly in the last couple of years.
In our post-2016-election state, we as a nation are charged with an electric energy, inspired to fight for progression and social change. Women across the country—in what some say is the fourth wave of feminism—are speaking out against oppression, sharing experiences and fighting for justice and equality. Fashion has a special place in the movement, with women sporting feminist slogans on their clothing or whatever else they might choose to wear. In an act that truly captures the power of fashion in feminism, the women in attendance at the 2018 Golden Globes wore all black in support of the Time’s Up movement, which demands equal pay and opportunities to women in the workplace. The effects of this were inspiring and significant, if only for the solidarity it represented and the power it instilled in women to fight for one another.
When Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined the Supreme Court and opted for a lace collar over her robe instead of the traditional one worn by men, she did so for the sake of style, sure, but more so as a symbol of her unapologetic right to dress herself. The same goes for Hillary Clinton, who didn’t wear a single dress or skirt during her entire presidential campaign, opting for a pantsuit even when critics expressed disapproval over her rejection of femininity.
Fashion goes far beyond aesthetic pleasure—it gives women an accessible medium for representation and expression, and it can even be a crucial part of a movement.