Kirsty Jackson looks at feminism, how far women have come and the clothes they wore along the way.
We live in a society where there are no limits to what women can wear. It is a society most of us have grown up in and have become accustomed to. For many of us, it is hard to imagine being told what to wear by society, by men, and having to dress to please others and not ourselves. It has been a long road to get where we are today, and it is important to think back and give thanks to those who helped pave the way for women, their rights, and their freedom. There are so many notable women to pay homage to, none less than Emily Davison. The first martyr of the suffrage movement, like hundreds of other women across Britain, fought for our equality and right to vote. They suffered through horrendous acts such as force feeding for the suffragettes who were arrested, the brutal beatings they took from the police and the exile they faced from the male-led society at the time. The purple, white and green of the Suffragette sashes have become synonymous with the fight for equality: symbolising loyalty and dignity, purity, and hope.
It is strange to think that just ten years and one World War later, the Roaring 20s were in full swing. For the first time, (most) women had the vote, and there was a new-found sense of freedom. Here entered the Flapper Girls – rebelling against what was then acceptable behaviour with their short skirts and fast dance moves. This was an era famous for its style and fashion, being completely opposite to any other era before. There was Chanel, the visionary who designed clothes that were comfortable for woman, and relieved women from the restrictions of the corset. She designed the first ever Little Black Dress in 1926 – a colour that was previously only worn during mourning now becoming a fashionable shade for the new era of women.
For centuries, women were prohibited from wearing trousers. These were thought of as too masculine and deemed inappropriate for woman. It wasn’t until World War II, when women had to take over the men’s jobs while they were away fighting, that women began to wear trousers to work. This then led onto women wearing trousers in public, socially and for fashion. Many icons such as Katherine Hepburn, who was dubbed the “first lady of menswear”, paved the way for women when it came to wearing slacks. These soon became a staple in many women’s wardrobes. World War II saw traditional gender barriers broken just a little. When the men came back from war, they saw that woman had been hard at work, doing what were traditionally seen as masculine jobs, and doing them just as well as the men. At this point in time, every woman over the age of 21 had the vote, and it was looking up for these women in society.
The 1950s were the golden age for movies and Hollywood, and the icons that ruled the big screen were becoming fashion icons, pushing boundaries and providing inspiration for women across the world. Women like Marilyn Monroe with her figure-hugging dresses and Audrey Hepburn with her Little Black Dress were champions for women wearing what they want, being sexy and showing skin. They didn’t follow any rules or care about how people saw them, they wore what they wanted, and they were known for it.
It was from the early 60s and throughout the following decades that the music you listened to determined what you wore. These different styles were also known as subcultures, and for the first-time people were able to show their identity through music and be a part of something big. This had a huge impact on what women wore. From ripped denim and fishnets to bomber jackets and Doc Martens, women were dressing more expressively and daringly. They had their style icons from the bands and singers they listened to, and likeminded people to take inspiration from. They didn’t have to wear what everyone else did, they could be individual and express themselves in new ways. The first generation of fashion influencers were the Power House women within the music industry, such as Madonna, whose career was built on “pushing the limits of woman and sexuality through her songs and videos”, as well as Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry and Cyndi Lauper. These women acted as a gateway to freedom of fashion and expression for their generation, and indeed for generations to follow.
Right now, there are no limits to what is possible in women’s fashion: we have no restrictions or boundaries. You often see women sporting three-piece suits to formal events, tailored and fitted to perfection – supermodel Cara Delevingne wore a top hat and tails to the Royal Wedding in 2018. Feminism hasn’t been just one movement, it has been a series of movements that have carried on for decades, from the “Second-wave feminism” of the 80s to the activism we see today. It is a fight we have to keep fighting for our daughters and granddaughters. Although we have come on leaps and bounds from the days of the suffragette movement, we still have many obstacles to overcome.
Women’s relationship with society and fashion has been a long and complicated one. There have been so many obstacles to cross, and so many fearless women willing to risk everything to do so. Today we see fashion designers and celebrities using their platform to speak about feminism and the struggles we still face, from Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” to the #MeToo campaign, where we see celebrities walking the red carpet in black, standing together and supporting one and other. I feel it is as important as ever to be a feminist, especially in the world we live in today. If the past has taught us anything, it’s that strong powerful women can and will achieve great things. Fashion has seen a powerful change and impact on the world, all the while mirroring the evolution of women’s rights and growing freedoms.