Fashion vs. Feminism

Posted by muhammad nasrudin

AuntieNan left a comment on my Godey's post that I started to answer, but realized it was going to be long enough (and could do with illustrations) that it'd be better served as a full post.
I had a costume history teacher who talked about the development of feminism and how a burst of power for women was usually followed by a period of excessively feminine line for women--the long Victorian period that came after Mary Wollstonecraft, the 1950s after the flappers and freedom during the big wars. She also said that in times of feminist freedom, fashion played down the more assertive lines of a woman's figure--that a woman could only take the reins if she looked as much like an androgynous creature as possible. I don't know if that's true, or accepted thinking, but she sure had some good examples to back her up!!

I remember coming across this in The Beauty Myth, and at the time it seemed to make a lot of sense to me, but I've since done a lot of studying (staring at fashion plates) (and Pinterest, can't forget that, I have over 5k pins right now) and learned more specifics, and fashion now seems too complicated to sum up in that way.  The trouble with trying to pinpoint reasons for changes in dress is that they're so rarely abrupt.  In my fashion mythbusters symposium/class, we watched several episodes of a cable tv show that was meant to show the history of the little black dress, makeup, high heels, etc. but failed, mainly as a result of its constant use of single events/films/people to drive history.

If you look at fashion plates in order from 1800 to 1840, it makes sense for dress to go the way it did - for the waist to drop and tighten, for the skirts to bell out - because all the changes are so gradual.  Fashion is always looking for something new (while also always looking back to the past), so the high waist had to boomerang back to a low waist, puffed sleeves had to flatten out to fitted ones, narrow skirts had to flare out and then get fuller.

(Journal des Dames et des Modes: 1803, NYPL 801884; 1807, NYPL 801737)

 (Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1815, NYPL 801885; 1818, NYPL 801894)

 (Petit Courrier des Dames, 1822, NYPL 802051; Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1828; NYPL 824326)

 (Petit Courrier des Dames, 1834; NYPL 802137; unknown periodical, 1837, CCDL FPC 199)

Going directly from the top row to the bottom one shows a huge jump, but it's little steps all along the way - and slow enough that it's difficult for me to believe that it was a reaction to any single thing.  At the same time, the 1790s/1800s are hard to characterize in terms of modern feminism.  There were literary, educated women through the eighteenth century who advocated for women's education, but they didn't have a huge impact on society.  Rousseau's theories on child-rearing, innocence, nature, etc. were more widely influential, and are considered today as modern and appropriate, yet they paved the way for the cult of motherhood of the nineteenth century that's seen as going hand-in-hand with the "dowdy", "repressed" fashions of the late 1830s and the 1840s.

Tailor-made and street gown, The Peterson Magazine, January 1891; NYPL 815737
Throughout the Victorian era, there were feminists continuing to champion women's rights and sometimes win battles (both the US and the UK had various Married Women's Rights Acts that gave women a chance for custody, ownership of money and property, etc. and divorce became more common and simpler), but it's hard to show that women's fashions grew more feminine in response.  In fact, the influence of menswear in women's dress increased, with suit and cravat effects and "tailormades".  But in the first place, when comparing Regency fashions to those of the early Victorians, how can one decide which is more restrictive or feminine?  1800s/1810s fashion wasn't androgynous - although the hourglass figure wasn't popular then, the bust was prominently raised and the body's shape was comparatively apparent through light gowns, making the "long stay" a necessity for women who weren't slender.

"Portrait of a Lady", James Ramsay, ca. 1810; Newstead Abbey NA 497
It's really hard to define "periods of feminist freedom". The 1920s are thought of as such because we value the moral liberation side of feminism the most when we talk about history (that's my impression, anyway) and women were definitely liberated in terms of behavior in comparison to earlier decades, and in America and the UK the right to vote had just been won - but in other aspects, there's not much difference from before.  There was still unequal pay, women were still only employed in a few specific and limited positions, marriage was still often a bar to work outside the home, all that sort of thing. At the same time, I question the popularly-thought-of androgyny of the 1920s.  While fashion plates do show short-haired, thin women (which go from ordinary-thin in the early '20s to caricature-thin in the middle of the decade, and then get broader in the shoulder towards the end), high-heeled shoes, skirts of varying lengths, embroidery and beading, floral patterns, lace, and pastel colors all contribute to a highly feminine look.  The faces on these fashion plate ladies are also very cute and girlish, with well-defined bow lips.

Evening dress design, Jules de Ban (for Lucile), 1924; VAM E.2940-1962

And then - sorry, my last point - there are the designers and fashion icons that affected fashions the most.  Their individual motivations were perhaps the most relevant to what styles were successful; in the case of the latter, looking splendid and beautiful was the goal.  For both, constant change to remain ahead of the following masses was hugely important, as well as personal taste.  Many male couturiers are known to have designed clothing that would suit their wives (such as Paul Poiret, who helped to create the slender 1910s and '20s line).

"Empress Eugenie", Franz Xaver Winterhalter, ca. 1860; location unknown
(Read more about a few female fashion leaders in my post on Queen Victoria and fashion, here.)

To conclude, I'd have to say that I do think there's social pushback when women advance and push the envelope, but I don't think it was/is imposed through clothing.  There are too many factors influencing fashion - popular fiction (see Dolly Varden), designers' tastes, nostalgia, art history, theatrical roles, archaeological discoveries - and far too many women in too many different situations and countries that would have to collude in reacting that way.  One of the constant debates in fashion history is what effect non-couturier men have in women's dress - many have stated that women wore corsets and various skirt supports to attract men, or other "because of men" reasons, but it's becoming more popular to see clothing as a tool used by women for other means.  The New Look was incredibly popular with women who wanted that luxurious, hyper-feminine style after the fabric rationing of the war.  Dior (and the other designers doing the same thing at that time) were only picking up where fashion had been heading before WWII - toward a more hourglass figure and fuller skirts.  Women's fashion is first and foremost something that women put on themselves, and while patriarchal pressure can affect what women feel is acceptable to wear, there is also a large element of choice.  Some women feel empowered when taking on masculine aspects in dress, and others feel empowered when emphasizing an hourglass figure, probably depending on what flatters the individual.  I know that corsetless and in a tubular ca. 1926 evening dress I would be horribly self-conscious and uncomfortable!