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TO WHAT EXTENT DID FEMINISM IMPACT FASHION IN THE 20TH CENTURY Samantha Abraham (201023984) Word Count: 2599


Chapter One o






Chapter 2 Literature Review o

2.1- The Corset



2.2- The New Woman



2.3- Women Wearing the Trousers


Chapter 3 o





Throughout the 20th century, fashion went through many radical changes due to impacts from social political and technological factors. Within this critical appraisal the analysis of the impact of feminism on fashion during the 20th century will be discussed. In order to support this, three crucial reforms on fashion will be analysed including the corset, women during the war as well as the introduction of trousers into womenswear. Furthermore, many perspectives will be given in order to fully discover whether feminism was the main lead in changing fashions or were other impacts more important such as utilitarian purposes or even that feminism movements were not successful. To add to this, key figures of the time as well as appropriate garments will be analysed in order to see their personal impact on women in society.




In order to gain a broad insight into the impacts that feminism had on fashion throughout the 20th century, a number of resources will be referred to. The use of journal articles will be used as well as books that give deep analysis into different feminist movements during this time. By using a wide range, it will provide a range of perspectives, which allows there to be a thorough analysis. Lurie (1992) is a key author for this topic in which she studies the history of fashion, focusing on how women have been treated throughout the 20th century, including the ways in which they were liberated by clothing as well as suggesting that first-wave feminism had little impact on fashion. Laver (1959) believes that fashion follows three different principles in which women’s clothes mainly follow the Seduction Principle, perhaps giving a theory as to whether feminism was a main impact on fashion. By using academic literature, it not only explains feminism’s impact but it also critiques it and therefore will give an in-depth analysis needed for a critical appraisal.





Throughout the nineteenth century leading into the early 1900s, the way in women dressed was seen as way to ‘regulate women’s behaviour as


well as to signify women’s subordinate status (Fields, 1999, p.356), particularly with the use of the corset. Many of the clothing during this time were restrictive, holding in a woman’s figure, where Cunningham (2010) stated that these types of garments linked to ‘women’s limited roles and what they perceived was their inferior political position in society’. The corset was a very restrictive garment that created an S-bend silhouette which included throwing the ‘bust forward and the buttocks back’ (Fields, 1999, p.358). This silhouette was considered the ideal body shape, with it being popularised by the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson with his painting offering






dimensions hope of emulating her’ (Lurie, 1992, p.72). Within magazines, authors ‘counselled women’ (Stewart and Janovicek, 2001, p.181) who did not the right figure to wear the corset implying that they ‘give the silhouette the extreme slenderness and suppleness without which there can be no real elegance’ (Stewart and Janovicek, 2001, p.181).



The ideal figure portrayed by the S-bend silhouette during the early 1900s brought about ‘anti-corset





‘natural’ body’ (Fields, 1999, p358) due to the manipulation of the body which ‘deformed the internal organs and made it impossible to draw a deep breath’ (Lurie, 1992, p.218). Adolescents from an early age were brought up to wear the corset, meaning that their bodies grew into the tight confinement of the silhouette which therefore led to the damage of their bodies where ‘their back muscles had often atrophied to the point where they could not sit or stand for long unsupported’ (Lurie, 1992, pp.217-218). To add to this, the corset was seen as a medical requirement due to the fact that ladies’ frames were seen as extremely fragile, with their muscles not being able to ‘hold them up without 5

assistance (Lurie, 1992, p.217).


In the early 1900s, women slowly began

One can say that perhaps the demise

to ‘liberate themselves… of their own

of the very restrictive corset occurred

helplessness and their male relatives’

not only due to feminist dress reform,

wealth’ (Lurie, 1992, p. 223). ‘A few

but also due to ‘turn-of-the-century

radicals advised the abandonment of the


corset’ (Lurie, 1992, p.220) with Paul

(Fields, 1992, p.358) in which corsets

Poiret ‘waging war on the corset’ (Fields,

were made with stretchy fabrics and

1999, p.358) with the introduction of his

pliant stays which allowed more room

hobble skirts in 1910 (Lurie, 1992,

for movement however still keep the

p.223). Poiret stated that he ‘proclaimed

ideal figure (Stewart and Janovicek,

the fall of the corset’ (Poiret, 1931, pp.72-

2001, p.179). From this one can see

73 cited by Fields, 1992, p.358) since the

that the use of the corset was too

demise of the corset did not happen

integrated into women’s everyday lives,

straight away, with the idea of the


garment still being needed for support to

suggesting that Lurie’s (1992, p.222)

achieve the fashionable line (Fields,

statement of ‘first wave feminism… did

1992, p.358) and that women still wanted

not liberate most women’ in the early

the ‘ultimate shape decreed by fashion

1900s was very accurate.








(Mendes and De La Haye, 1999, p.13). Lurie (1992, p.223) thought that the hobble skirt was unsuccessful due to it being in a transitional period, however, it did provide a ‘useful guide in terms of political and social views of the women who wore them’ (Lurie, 1992, p.223).




The Edwardian figure had begun to diminish after the slight freedom from the corset, in which this was the era for the ‘new woman’ (Guenther, 2004). By 1914, natural lines were seen in women’s clothing as well the rise of skirt and






practical for everyday use (Lurie, 1992, p.73). The use of practical clothing became important during the war years where they had to take up the ‘roles normally reserved for men’ (Chesser, 2008, p. 186), where their old restrictive clothing inhibited them from pursuing this. Although the rise in the hemlines of skirts, clothing was still very conservative with them only reaching to 7

above the ankle.


Once the war was over, women were

Throughout the war and post war, there

expected to go back to their former

was a push for more practical and










expecting that ‘women workers would

‘appropriate to the seriousness of the

vacate their positions for returning soldiers’

time’ (Guenther, 2004) allowing women

(Guenther, 2004). Using the dismissal

to feel freer, with allowed greater

campaign, the government forced women

movement for their everyday life. ‘Hems

out of their war jobs, so that they could

continued to rise more rapidly and



waistlines to expand’ (Lurie, 1992,

employment’ (Guenther, 2004). Women

p.73), with women adapting a more

resisted to this, with them already having a

boyish figure with dresses becoming

taste of equality and earning more in their


war jobs, and although this made the

sleeveless’ (Lurie, 1992, p.73). This

campaign harder to enforce, it was still

shows the impact of trickle-up trends

successful (Guenther, 2004). On the other

since these were working women who

hand, this led to an increase of women

helped to popularise the use of less

entering the workforce and showed that

restrictive clothing in order to work

‘shifts in women’s aspirations’ (Guenther,





2004) help to corrupt ‘long-held gender constructs’ (Guenther, 2004).







This change in women’s fashion has been interpreted in many ways by historians with one perspective of this is that ‘the war may have not been the catalyst for new fashions, but it popularised them’ (Guenther, 2004) suggesting that for utilitarian purposes, women’s dress had finally changed to suit the needs of the workforce, complying with James Laver’s Utility Principle (Laver, 1959). Conversely, James Laver (1959) put forward his Seduction Principle, which states that women dress to ‘attract the opposite sex’ (Laver, 1959) and therefore women choosing the shorter dresses and bobbed hair style to make themselves more noticeable to men ‘Guenther, 2004). Lurie (1992 p.73) supports this perspective, however suggesting that ‘women’s fashions had to be sexually provocative in order to boost the birth rate’ (Lurie, 1992, p.73) due to the many people that died during the war, and therefore could have led to the sexual freedom during the 1920s (Lurie, 1992, p.73). In the book Adorned in Dreams, the author stated that some feminists have ‘defined men as the oppressors of women, and the construction of female sexuality as the core of female subordination’ (Wilson, 1985, p.231) which goes against this idea due to the fact that women were ‘asserting their new-won rights’ (Lurie, 1992, p.74) and therefore reclaiming their sexuality from men. From these perspectives, one can see that impact of feminism may have not been the only factor during this time to change the way in which women dress and that it was also the need to adapt in a time of a crisis as suggested by James Laver in his Utility and Seduction principles.



Women’s liberation and their emancipation had many turning points that changed the way women


lived during the 20th century. With the increased freedom and rights, the silhouettes of clothes began to change with it, with the first general acceptance






alternative garment for women. The idea of women wearing trousers came about in the late 1890s when the bicycle was introduced, in which wearing an ankle length skirt was not practical for this leisure activity. The divided skirt allowed women to take part in a popular new sport, however there was still much resistance to the garment where they were seen to be ‘unfeminine and even shocking’ (Lurie, 1992, p.225) however being extremely modest. Dressmakers at this time stated that ‘trousers shall be added to the list of masculine clothes already worn by women’ (New York Times, 1881, p.4) showing that it led the way for real trousers to be accepted with them being ‘merely a resting point on the road to trousers’ (New York Times, 1881, p.4). It was only during the 1920s that ‘real trousers’ entered women’s wardrobes, however full liberation was ‘limited to the private and informal side of life’ (Lurie, 1992, p.225), therefore suggesting that even when women gain more freedom, they will still be restricted in some ways. Women who wore trousers were seen in a negative light, being made into ‘social outcasts and subjects of ridicule’ (Rabinovitch-Fox, 2015, p.18) as well as a ‘threat to gender hierarchies’ (Rabinovitch-Fox, 2015, p.18) due to the masculine look being sexually unattractive to men and unnatural to what12society 10

had seen before (Lurie, 1992, p.225).

After the many years of resistance, by the 1960s women wearing trousers had now become respectable as well as elegant (Lurie, 1992, p.226). Leading up to this, Coco Chanel became the first designer to incorporate trousers into women’s suits, taking inspiration from menswear. Chanel laid the foundation for her pantsuit from the many women who were going against the gender norms and ‘breaking out of the limited roles men wanted to keep them in’ (Euse, 2016). According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (c2017) the suit was only worn by fearless women in which one example of this is Marelene Dietrich who embraced the menswear garment as her signature look (Euse, 2016). Another woman who went against the norms and wore trousers was Audrey Hepburn,






(Moseley, 2002, p.45). Hepburn was featured in magazines a lot due to her wearing trousers, with one article stating that she has inspired more women to wear the pants however adding in that it only applied to the fashion sense and not the liberation metaphor being them (Moseley, 2002, p.45). This suggests that although the pant suits did liberate women in terms of them not being restricted in their clothing, in society they were still a ‘second class citizen’ (Euse, 2016), conforming to men.



By the 1970s, trousers were gaining popularity, with many young women wearing them in order to represent ‘their fight for equality’ as well as to inhibit the restrictive clothing targeted to them (Euse, 2016). During this period, women’s rights advocates were using them as a political tool, considering health, freedom of movement and morality and therefore not trying to create a new fashionable trend as to them, this was seen as oppressive and frivolous (Rabinovitch-Fox, 2015), p.18). Due to this, one can see the impact that feminism had on the emancipation of women, thus helping to destroy the ‘symbolic badge of male authority’ (Lurie, 1992, p.225).

Rosemary Harden (1999) stated that ‘women wearing trousers was the most important fashion phenomenon of the 20th century’ which could be due to the fact that it opened so many doors for women including their rights as well as introducing innovative fashion trends. Chanel was looking for her break through and decided to take inspiration from what was working, which was menswear (Graham, 1998). From this, one can suggest that ‘feminism had become fashionable’ (Scott, 2005, p.127), where although feminists began wearing of the trousers in order to emancipate women, those from higher up on the social hierarchy were the ones who blossomed the trend, inspiring others to adhere 14

to it, following the trickle-down theory.





In conclusion, fashion trends reflect the status of social and political ideals where the way in which people dress also reflects this. The feminist movement has made an immense impact on the fashion industry during the 20th century and still does to the current day. Women’s advocates have fought for the liberation and emancipation for women, in which throughout the century they faced much resistance from society. From the dress reform to the wearing of the pants, feminists saw ‘dress as a main obstacle in the struggle for women’s rights and progress’ (Mas, 2017, p.36) and therefore fought against this with some battles not always being that successful. The demise of the corset took a long time to happen with many factors having to be involved in order for it to occur. Lurie (1992, p.222) came to the conclusion that first wave feminism did not liberate women, suggesting the failure, however improvement from what it once was. The corset was too integrated in the lives of women in the early 1900s and ‘the meanings of corsetry impressed upon women’s bodies thus shifted with industrialisation’ (Fields, 1999, p.357). The war had a large impact on fashion, with women adapting to men’s roles and therefore the need in less restrictive clothing was important. Three principles from Laver (1959) helped to analyse whether feminism was the key impact in order to change the fashions in which a major aspect was the utilitarian purpose. However, women asserted their new rights in order to wear more daring clothes that no longer restricted them. It is said that the introduction of trousers was the most important phenomenon of the 20th century (Harden, 1999), where women decided to take up the androgynous look to create gender equality and to stop being seen as inferior to men. However, as stated, due to feminism becoming a fashion trend, it may have been seen as women being able to wear men’s clothes but not being able to have the same stance in society. Overall, throughout the century there were a collection of many campaigns that were both successful and unsuccessful in order to emancipate women in fashion in which this movement was a ‘group reasserting its challenged social status’ (Scott, 2005, p.51).




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To what extent did feminism impact 20th century fashion  

A critical analysis essay on a social or political movement during the 20th Century.

To what extent did feminism impact 20th century fashion  

A critical analysis essay on a social or political movement during the 20th Century.