Social Injustice Social Issues

Fashion, feminism and patriarchy are more intertwined than we think

A miniskirt is not just a miniskirt, just like the feminist slogans on Dior t-shirts: here’s how women’s struggles have changed fashion

  • Fashion, feminism and patriarchy are more interconnected than one might believe: everything we wear in a given era tells us a lot about society and the tensions within it.
  • Garments such as corsets or trousers have a rich history from the point of view of feminist struggles and achievements.
  • Today feminist slogans have conquered catwalks and red carpets, but it is important to ask ourselves what are the elements that make a society truly fair and inclusive, also from a look point of view.

Everything that we wear today more or less without asking ourselves too many problems has a history, carries with it more or less positive meanings , claims struggles. In the evolution of female costume there are watershed garments and eras that have sometimes represented symbols of patriarchal coercion , sometimes instruments of the fight for feminism . The corset went from being an instrument of constriction to a useful garment for freely expressing one’s sexuality, trousers represented a means of emancipation for women and so did the miniskirt .

One thing that is important to underline, however, is that a fundamental piece of the patriarchal society in which we find ourselves concerns what we feel and think about women’s bodies and the way they dress. During the Middle Ages, but also during the Renaissance, there were laws regarding clothing throughout Europe , especially for women. Since then, women’s bodies have never stopped being a public thing, with all the control and demarcations of what is considered decent and appropriate and what is not. Not only that, beauty is still seen as a fundamental requirement for female people, who suffer enormous aesthetic pressure in this sense.

53 percent of American girls are “dissatisfied with their bodies” , a percentage that rises to 78 percent by the time they reach seventeen. Between 40 and 60 percent of primary school girls are worried about their weight or becoming “too fat.” 59 percent of American women are dissatisfied with their body shape and 66 percent have expressed a desire to lose weight.

These data, released by Now Foundation , demonstrate how social acceptance for women still depends largely on external appearance. If in the Middle Ages the waist circumference was one of the parameters on the basis of which the social status of a woman could be judged, today the situation is not that different and, although the progress made by feminist struggles has been enormous, many still remain the stereotypes to be broken down when it comes to female appearance.

The corset, between patriarchy and Vivienne Westwood

For decades, the corset has been a symbol of patriarchal oppression, serving to render women immobile, passive and prone to fainting, with part of their social value dependent on their waist circumference because, as fashion historian Valerie Steele argues in “The corset: a cultural history”, rigidity and control were valued in contrast to the working classes, who were freer in their customs and whose bodies were bent by work in the fields.

David Kunzle in “Fashion and fetishism” describes it as “quintessential Victorian social horror”. Whale bone, and later steel, splints surrounded the ribs and compressed the natural waist causing reduced vitality, rib deformities, damage to internal organs, congenital malformations and miscarriages.

feminism
The corset is one of the iconic elements of Vivienne Westwood’s aesthetic © Getty Images

It will not have escaped your notice that the corset has forcefully returned to the looks of stars and ordinary people: after Vivienne Westwood had given it new meaning in the Seventies, making it go from an undergarment to a cool garment, today the Gez Z, also thanks to cultural products such as the Netflix series “Bridgerton,” is loving it again.

Vivienne Westwood first and Jean-Paul Gaultier then – do you remember the corset with cone cups worn by Madonna during the Blonde ambition tour? – they saw the corset as a means by which to give women control over the expression of their own sensuality , making it go from a symbol of rigidity and respectability to an object useful for breaking down a taboo.

As Valerie Steel writes, thanks to that corset Madonna throws her sexuality in the world’s face. Today, as Blanco also wore it on the Sanremo stage , we are witnessing a further re-signification of this garment, which is progressively losing its gender connotation .

Pants: Amelia Bloomer, Coco Chanel and power dressing

Do you know Amelia Bloomer ? Usually the re-signification of trousers as a feminine garment is associated with Coco Chanel , but in reality what the designer has done is made them desirable for high society ladies .

The first women’s trousers, which were called “bloomers”, were in fact an invention of the feminist journalist Amelia Bloomer. It was she who founded the first women’s newspaper directed entirely by a woman, “The Lily”, published for the first time in 1849 and through which Amelia suggested that women use less restrictive clothing , such as knickerbockers. Subsequently the journalist was involved in a movement to reform women’s clothing, and on this occasion she wore the first women’s trousers, called “bloomers” in her honor, that is, very wide trousers, narrow at the ankle and with a short skirt at the top which they immediately encountered hostility from the press and public opinion and not because they lacked modesty, there was too much fabric, but because of the inconsistency of making women wear a male garment .

feminism
An engraving of four examples of women wearing loose, tapered trousers with a skirt over them, as suggested by Amelia Bloomer
© Getty Images

The fact of being able to wear comfortable clothing suitable for doing certain activities, such as sport , was an important achievement but underlies a fundamental bias : those garments were used by women to “do men’s things” . When women began to have working careers comparable to those of men, therefore not relegated to care roles or professions traditionally considered feminine, it became necessary for them, in order to be taken seriously, to adopt clothes considered typical of the male wardrobe such as oversized shirts and jackets.

march 9, 2023, by 

Ilaria Chiavacci

A miniskirt is not just a miniskirt, just like the feminist slogans on Dior t-shirts: here’s how women’s struggles have changed fashion

  • Fashion, feminism and patriarchy are more interconnected than one might believe: everything we wear in a given era tells us a lot about society and the tensions within it.
  • Garments such as corsets or trousers have a rich history from the point of view of feminist struggles and achievements.
  • Today feminist slogans have conquered catwalks and red carpets, but it is important to ask ourselves what are the elements that make a society truly fair and inclusive, also from a look point of view.

Everything that we wear today more or less without asking ourselves too many problems has a history, carries with it more or less positive meanings , claims struggles. In the evolution of female costume there are watershed garments and eras that have sometimes represented symbols of patriarchal coercion , sometimes instruments of the fight for feminism . The corset went from being an instrument of constriction to a useful garment for freely expressing one’s sexuality, trousers represented a means of emancipation for women and so did the miniskirt .

One thing that is important to underline, however, is that a fundamental piece of the patriarchal society in which we find ourselves concerns what we feel and think about women’s bodies and the way they dress. During the Middle Ages, but also during the Renaissance, there were laws regarding clothing throughout Europe , especially for women. Since then, women’s bodies have never stopped being a public thing, with all the control and demarcations of what is considered decent and appropriate and what is not. Not only that, beauty is still seen as a fundamental requirement for female people, who suffer enormous aesthetic pressure in this sense.Read also

Sustainability also means embracing all body types

53 percent of American girls are “dissatisfied with their bodies” , a percentage that rises to 78 percent by the time they reach seventeen. Between 40 and 60 percent of primary school girls are worried about their weight or becoming “too fat.” 59 percent of American women are dissatisfied with their body shape and 66 percent have expressed a desire to lose weight.

These data, released by Now Foundation , demonstrate how social acceptance for women still depends largely on external appearance. If in the Middle Ages the waist circumference was one of the parameters on the basis of which the social status of a woman could be judged, today the situation is not that different and, although the progress made by feminist struggles has been enormous, many still remain the stereotypes to be broken down when it comes to female appearance.

The corset, between patriarchy and Vivienne Westwood

For decades, the corset has been a symbol of patriarchal oppression, serving to render women immobile, passive and prone to fainting, with part of their social value dependent on their waist circumference because, as fashion historian Valerie Steele argues in “The corset: a cultural history”, rigidity and control were valued in contrast to the working classes, who were freer in their customs and whose bodies were bent by work in the fields.

David Kunzle in “Fashion and fetishism” describes it as “quintessential Victorian social horror”. Whale bone, and later steel, splints surrounded the ribs and compressed the natural waist causing reduced vitality, rib deformities, damage to internal organs, congenital malformations and miscarriages.

feminism
The corset is one of the iconic elements of Vivienne Westwood’s aesthetic © Getty Images

It will not have escaped your notice that the corset has forcefully returned to the looks of stars and ordinary people: after Vivienne Westwood had given it new meaning in the Seventies, making it go from an undergarment to a cool garment, today the Gez Z, also thanks to cultural products such as the Netflix series “Bridgerton,” is loving it again.

Vivienne Westwood first and Jean-Paul Gaultier then – do you remember the corset with cone cups worn by Madonna during the Blonde ambition tour? – they saw the corset as a means by which to give women control over the expression of their own sensuality , making it go from a symbol of rigidity and respectability to an object useful for breaking down a taboo.

As Valerie Steel writes, thanks to that corset Madonna throws her sexuality in the world’s face. Today, as Blanco also wore it on the Sanremo stage , we are witnessing a further re-signification of this garment, which is progressively losing its gender connotation .Read also

Vivienne Westwood has died: stylist, environmental activist and punk

Pants: Amelia Bloomer, Coco Chanel and power dressing

Do you know Amelia Bloomer ? Usually the re-signification of trousers as a feminine garment is associated with Coco Chanel , but in reality what the designer has done is made them desirable for high society ladies .

The first women’s trousers, which were called “bloomers”, were in fact an invention of the feminist journalist Amelia Bloomer. It was she who founded the first women’s newspaper directed entirely by a woman, “The Lily”, published for the first time in 1849 and through which Amelia suggested that women use less restrictive clothing , such as knickerbockers. Subsequently the journalist was involved in a movement to reform women’s clothing, and on this occasion she wore the first women’s trousers, called “bloomers” in her honor, that is, very wide trousers, narrow at the ankle and with a short skirt at the top which they immediately encountered hostility from the press and public opinion and not because they lacked modesty, there was too much fabric, but because of the inconsistency of making women wear a male garment .

feminism
An engraving of four examples of women wearing loose, tapered trousers with a skirt over them, as suggested by Amelia Bloomer
© Getty Images

The fact of being able to wear comfortable clothing suitable for doing certain activities, such as sport , was an important achievement but underlies a fundamental bias : those garments were used by women to “do men’s things” . When women began to have working careers comparable to those of men, therefore not relegated to care roles or professions traditionally considered feminine, it became necessary for them, in order to be taken seriously, to adopt clothes considered typical of the male wardrobe such as oversized shirts and jackets.Read also

What we liked, in terms of sustainable fashion, at Milan fashion week

The miniskirt and the sexual revolution

Other significant changes in women’s clothing then occurred in the Sixties and Seventies: one above all the irreverent design of the miniskirt by Mary Quant , which soon became a symbol of the sexual revolution triggered by the advent of the contraceptive pill. Such short skirts at the time represented women’s clothing considered socially acceptable and reflected women’s new identity, which was expanding beyond domestic roles.

feminism
Mary Quant is the designer who invented the miniskirt during the Swinging London years © Getty Images

“The personal is political” is one of the best-known feminist slogans and dates back to the feminist consciousness-raising groups of those years. Well, wearing a miniskirt at the time was much more than a specific choice of look, it implied a social , cultural and political stance . As young women became more aware of how society treated them differently than their male peers, they banded together to fight for their right to wear a shorter skirt, but also to freely dispose of their bodies and own sexuality.

And now?

The look of what is defined as the fourth wave of feminism differs from previous movements: those who define themselves as feminists today do not embrace just one way of dressing, but rather, the very concept of feminist struggle involves the freedom to dress exactly according to one’s own taste and your own style.

Which is good and right if we lived in an ideal world. It’s a shame that in 2015, not in the 1950s, a city in Alabama proposed banning the miniskirt, while a senator from the state of Kansas banned its use by the female part of his staff in the same year. Episodes like these combined with the aesthetic pressure we talked about at the beginning of this article demonstrate how women’s dress codes are still far from free today.

feminism
Cara Delevigne at the 2021 Mer Gala with a look by Dior bearing the words “Peg the Patriarchy” © Getty Images

The road is still long, but feminist messages today are literally protagonists of catwalks and red carpets. From the feminist demonstration staged by Karl Lagerfeld for the Chanel spring summer 2015 fashion show, to the “We should all be feminist” t-shirt that Maria Grazia Chiuri proposed for the Christian Dior spring summer 2017 to Cara Delevigne ‘s look at the Met Gala on 2021 in which he wore a bulletproof vest bearing the words “Peg the patriarchy”, a slogan coined by the black queer sexual educator and popularizer Luna Matatas and translatable as “Put it in that post to the patriarchy”.

Maria Grazia Chiuri is also the mind and hand behind Chiara Ferragni ‘s Sanremo looks , all too didactic in their desire to express feminist messages. But, slogans aside, which by necessity make reality much simpler due to their ability to be incisive and reach many people, what is important is to work to create varied imaginaries , to ease aesthetic pressure and to encourage personal expression.

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