The Evolution of Feminist Style

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In light of the Me Too movement, the demand for equal pay, and the growing number of female politicians, a woman’s role in politics has become increasingly significant. And while grassroots activism and bold statements have always been essential to feminism, fashion also plays a part in shattering gender boundaries. To celebrate National Women’s Equality Day, CR reflects on the styles that helped advance the cause from the 19th century through today.

When suffragettes sparked the first major wave of feminism, they had a sartorial strategy in place: to conform to traditionally feminine, Edwardian fashions in order to force the world to pay attention to their cause (and not be distracted by their style). There was one notable exception, however. Amelia Bloomer pioneered her now-namesake suit: a loose tunic over baggy trousers. Color was also important to suffragettes, with three symbolic shades: purple for loyalty and dignity, green for hope, and white for purity—the last of which was the standard at formal events. This way, the women could show resistance within the time’s acceptable trends.

As a pioneering female designer, Coco Chanel revolutionized womenswear in the early 20th century. Her signature skirt suit, which used tweed and a fit that featured a straighter silhouette than in the past, demanded the world take its wearer more seriously. This business-minded minimalism also emerged in her favored jersey fabric and iconic little black dress. While out in Deauville society, Chanel wore trousers, a then-shocking choice that paved the way for women in the future.

During the Roaring Twenties, women socialized with unprecedented boldness, ushering in a new era of boyish styles. At the same time, Chanel’s straight silhouettes also went mainstream, while hemlines rose. The decade’s most dramatic change was when flappers rejected corsets and adopted bobbed hairstyles, breaking away from centuries of ideals of exaggerated femininity.

The flappers‘ influence led to further sartorial reinvention throughout the 1930s. Hollywood stars like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn eschewed skirt suits in favor of full-blown menswear, and Elsa Schiaparelli, another early female force in fashion, collaborated with Salvador Dalí to famously create the lobster dress, a boundary-pushing design at the time because of the sharp juxtaposition between the sea creature and the elegant white fabric.

World War II sent any type of excess out of style, and the West’s focus on the conflict gave women more agency as they took over the workforce. Rosie the Riveter’s faithful followers adopted a more utilitarian style, with a uniform that consisted of sturdy boots, hair scarves, and slacks. Jeans earned their place in womenswear, and denim joined cotton, gingham, calico, and rayon as the decade’s most fashionable—and, more importantly, most durable—fabrics. A minority of women entered the military, and while the official uniform scrapped practicality for pencil skirts, it marked their unprecedented position in fighting for their country.

The ’40s also sparked the rise of American fashion, which found its voice when European couture felt out of touch. Since men were largely busy with the war and its aftermath, several female designers set the tone. Claire McCardell invented American sportswear using popular utilitarian fabrics, and Bonnie Cashin’s practical designs included boots, which were not yet common footwear for women.

After so much rapid-fire progress for feminism, the post-war society regressed back to traditional gender roles as husbands returned to the workforce. Women were then encouraged to replace professional ambitions with shopping. Exaggerated femininity, pioneered by Dior’s New Look, experienced a revival, and crinolines became a staple under skirts. While this drastically changed silhouettes in public, women still embraced sportswear at home, with styles like capris, pedal pushers, and shorts gaining popularity.

In the late ’60s, womenswear evolved again as a second wave of feminism began alongside other social movements, which would prevail through the ’80s. Youth resisted the status quo by showing skin, and in a famous step in this direction, Mary Quant invented the now-ubiquitous miniskirt. Twiggy broke boundaries in modeling, both by wearing Quant’s creation and having a boyish figure that sent the extreme hourglass back out of style.

The second wave also revived masculine styles for women. The line between menswear and womenswear blurred in the ’70s, as everyone mixed flowing hair and bright colors with pieces like high-waist pants, button-down shirts, and blazers. Anne Klein invented the power suit in the late ’60s, and when it reached full force over a decade later, androgynous stars like Grace Jones became style icons as women aspired to new roles at work and in society.

Grunge popularized unisex staples like flannels and ripped jeans in the ’90s. The Riot Grrrl movement, which consisted of female punk groups like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile who were at the forefront of these trends, set the tone for feminism’s third wave. In addition to embracing gender-neutral fashions and sporting graphic messages as bold as their lyrics, the musicians reclaimed „girly“ details like heart motifs and the color pink, and gave them a new, tougher meaning.

Currently, feminism’s fourth wave is well underway—and fashion continues to play a a big role. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn in as a female justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, attention turns to what she would chose to wear with the traditional black robe. While men on the court paired theirs with a shirt and tie, Ginsburg chose to wear lacy collars and jabots, collecting them from all over the world and even using them to make political statements (she has both a „dissent“ and „major opinion collar“ that she wears when she makes statements). Meanwhile Hillary Clinton wore pantsuits all throughout her presidential campaign in 2016 (and well before then), while paying homage to suffragettes by wearing white to the Democratic National Convention. Her pantsuits have since come to symbolize power, equality, and feminism, although as a candidate, Clinton also received flack for her lack of „feminine“ dress and the rare occasions in which she chose to go out in public without a full face of makeup.

During the 2017 inauguration of Trump, women all over the world fought for equal rights by staging a Women’s March and wearing hot pink pussy hats in solidarity. Accordingly, during this awards show season, celebrities protested against sexual assault in the workplace by wearing all black and sporting Time’s Up pins.

Another win for women in fashion occurred when major design houses appointed their first female creative directors, like Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy in 2017 and Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior in 2016, who famously stamped the statement “We Should All Be Feminists” on a T-shirt for her debut collection during the Spring/Summer 2017 season. Since then, she’s continued to celebrate women through artistic runway collaborations, like her partnership with Judy Chicago for the Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2020 show.

Today’s political divide has shown progress isn’t linear, and while it’s hard to predict next decade’s trends, fashion has always been a reflection of the zeitgeist. One thing that’s certain is the close relationship between female leaders and the clothes they wear.

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