What is the history behind pants? Or mini skirts, crop tops, or menswear-inspired pieces? In the 21st century, these items have become so commonplace that we rarely think of the women and designers who first pioneered them. From the wrap dresses of the 1970s to the structured power suits of the 1980s, fashion is one of the most powerful vehicles for feminine self-definition. Throughout the ages, designers, feminists, and trendsetters have used fashion to portray a different image of the modern woman that challenges gender norms. So the next time you throw on an outfit for your night out, don’t forget the women who made your outfit possible.
The aftermath of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror birthed the Incroyables, young Parisians who flaunted unconventional fashion, ignoring executable offenses like wearing royalist emblems or colors. The women, known as Les Merveilleuses, wore red chokers reminiscent of execution by guillotine along with diaphanous, gauzy dresses. This early form of fashion rebellion by youth culture inspired many more in the future to use fashion as a way of self-definition when other forms of self-expression are constrained.
Lolita and Ganguro Fashion
In Japan, Lolita and Ganguro fashions are forms of social resistance against constricting traditionalist expectations of Japanese women. Ganguro fashion, featuring a heavy tan and noticeable makeup, challenges the traditional Japanese ideal of beauty: light skin along with neutral clothes and makeup. Lolita fashion is the exact opposite, focusing on elements of traditional Japanese beauty, like demureness, while including historical European styles that rebel against Japanese nationalism and homogeneity. This rebellion against the constricting expectations of how Japanese women should look and act has opened the door for more forms of self-expression while broadening society’s view of the female ideal.
Bloomers, popular in the 1850s, are the great-grandfather to the leggings we so dearly love today. Amelia Bloomer was a prominent women’s rights activist and the first woman to own and operate a news publication, called The Lily. Bloomer used The Lily to popularize a new standard for women’s fashion that focused on comfort over restrictive and unhealthy corsets with layers of stiff skirts, centered on the “wants and necessities” of the women wearing the clothes. Women enthusiastically adopted the trend, only to be faced with harassment and ridicule by the press and public. Thanks to the persistence of the women who defied societal pressure, pants gradually became an acceptable style for women.
Even now, designers are constantly finding new ways to advocate for opening societal expectations of women. Dior’s first female artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri released a “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt, and a portion of the proceeds went to Rihanna’s charity, the Clara Lionel Foundation. Meanwhile, Prabal Gurung included feminist quotes and references in his spring/summer ‘17 show. The Golden Globes all-black fashion made a subtle but powerful statement about how people were standing in solidarity for feminist empowerment.