This issue, Katie Abson discusses the history of dresses and their significance to our wardrobes today.
Is there a better sensation than feeling the gentle breeze against your legs, or the swish of satin around your ankles while you walk down a cobbled street lit with sunset?
Dresses are a wonderful way to express power in femininity, but it hasn’t always been so easy. Dresses have a somewhat complicated history, especially around women’s choice in wearing them. The beauty of living in this modernised age is just that – the choice is ours. But, not so long ago, women were dictated by laws formulated by men, including the clothes they wear. Dresses were not seen as a mode of expression, but a form of restriction and conformity.
Throughout history, dresses served amultitude of purposes. They ranged from the functionality of the Ancient Greek toga, the light material essential for the hot weather, to the heavier and more ornate fabric in early medieval times, the intricacy of the design devised to indicate wealth.
Dresses weren’t always seen as women’s clothing, either. Men and women made use of the practicality of a loose dress in Ancient Greece for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until around 200BC that history began to restrict women’s clothing. In Ancient Rome, married women were made to wear a floor-length gown called a ‘stola’, a distinguishable trait between the ‘owned’ and ‘available’ woman. A law soon passed that forbade women from wearing a toga, which men wore, and so the line between men and women was formally drawn.
Fast-forward a few thousand years, and the line had barely shifted. In 1890, the UK published pictures and diagrams depicting the length of what a suitable skirt should be depending on the age of the woman. It was declared proper that women must be covered from chin to ankle, optional only between dresses and skirts.
In 1942, the USA also introduced ‘Regulation L85’, declaring all skirts must be made to fall 17 inches above the floor. The notion of a woman wearing trousers was deemed ‘unfeminine’ and‘ inappropriate’ and was strictly a masculine piece of clothing.
Although, this was not always the case. Just as men once wore togas, classics scholars have discovered accounts of Ancient Amazonians riding into battle wearing trousers, most likely for their practicality and protection when fighting. And yet, society pressed women into adjusting the way they dress and act as dictated by the opposite sex, and we were thus forced into becoming mere morsels of our former ancestors. In the early 20th century, the very notion of a woman slipping into a pair of trousers was cause for psychological unrest, and earlier in the 18th and 19th centuries, cause for police arrest.
The women’s rights movement shifted the foundations of polite society as women took a stand in the fight against patriarchal oppression. Many brave women sported trousers and bloomers in protest. Young designer Coco Chanel created pathways for women in the fashion industry as she incorporated tailored jackets and trousers for women into her collections. A radical change came about in World War II when women adopted trousers in the workplaces left vacant by men who fought in the war. After the war, though controversy was still present, the idea of a woman in trousers became less and less shocking. And, as we know, the restis history.
So, how do we find empowerment in the clothing that once restricted us? It’s quite simple; we revel in the choice we have. Today, a dress signifies much more than an average piece of clothing. It can inspire confidence in a woman’s identity, the way she carries herself, and her overall self-image. Different styles and shapes are endless when it comes to a dress; maxi dresses for a sunset beach walk, bodycon dresses for an evening at the bar, skater dresses for everyday activities. The list goes on.
Dresses also have a huge significance for the LGBTQ+ community. Wearing a dress could be the difference between a source of unhappiness or discovering one’s identity for young transgender people. Whether that be finding huge relief when donning a dress, or discovering one isn’t so comfortable wearing a piece classified as ‘feminine’. There is no question that there is unlimited power behind this piece of clothing.
Of course, there is still so much discourse surrounding the subject too, especially when it comes to dress codes for women in the workplace. Although we have come a very long way since the turn of the century, restrictions are still being placed on us regarding what we wear in a professional environment. Many employers continue to enforce sexist dress codes, and not complying with the rules can lead to disciplinary action or, in worst cases, dismissal. The good news is: we can fight back. Women have the option to seek help from the Equality Advisory and Support Service in the UK if they feel the dress code is directly discriminating against them.
The changes women have fought for throughout history have paved the path for our generation to establish even more change, including creating a space where we have the right to choose what we wear. Choice is one of the most powerful tools we possess, something that is still lacking for so many women and races across the world. When we look at our wardrobes and make the choice to select a dress, we must remember that it is no longer an item that is deemed as ‘feminine’ in a negative light, but a piece that reminds us of the fight women have endured to allow us to make that choice today. It is simply a divine piece of clothing, whether you prefer to wear one or not. Because that is simply the point; the choice is ours, and ours alone.
If you enjoyed this article, you can follow more of Katie’s work on Twitter via @katieawriter.