Feminism is a word that causes great divisive emotions, primarily because the enraged patriarchy is feeling a loss of power which results in increased hate-filled propaganda and actions. But women have been in this tightly coiled, uncomfortable situation before, and they will persevere. Although, it might be a fairly heinous ride.
Nonetheless, we must acknowledge the truth that the word “feminism” has been slyly co-opted by the very forces that wish to ignore the inherent rights of women to choose their own path. It was not always the dirty word that is now used by skewed opinion television and other tools of paternalistic society. The term was never intended to suggest that women and men are exactly the same or that men must be tormented to pay for sins of the past. Feminism is about respecting women’s diverse experiences, identities, knowledge, and strengths. Where in that definition does it demonize men and suggest that men must be systemically victimized? Women bring a rich mosaic of opinions and skills to humanist progress, and feminism is simply a social movement to acknowledge that women should be accorded fundamental human rights.
As we ponder what feminism is, we also should admire the varied ways in which the social movement has unified its supporters. Throughout history, there has been an undeniable link between feminism and fashion. The Fashion industry has paid careful attention to the feminist movement and has been determined to evolve and remain relevant. In the last few years, the industry has framed itself as a diversity vanguardist with feminist appeal—this is shown by the current promotion of transgender and non-binary and ‘plus-size’ models. Pointed invocations of feminism appear regularly at couture houses like Chanel and Dior, trickling down to the affordable mass retailers. It is fascinating to watch the mainstream fashion cultures that typically focus on conspicuous luxury consumption maneuver around feminist trends. For many women, fashion is the ultimate act of belonging. For others, it is an act and language of resistance.
We can see the concept of “fashion” within all recorded civilizations. With the help of our archeologists and sociologists, we have also determined how fashion has affected social institutions in the past. But it is important to note that fashion was generic and standardized across societies until the renaissance. Women from ancient Greece and Rome dressed according to their social status but did not truly dress as individuals. It was not until after the near-total collapse of society after the black death that Europeans looked externally to trade and to slowly rebuild during the middle ages. With this renewed economy and exposure to eastern cultures, fashion became individualized. The new middle and upper classes started to use fashion to distinguish themselves and communicate to the world what they stood for and desired.
Feminism hyper-extended women’s individuality in fashion to another level since it encouraged women to have the courage to express their independence. Fashion, in turn, became a part of the feminist language.
Feminism is a significant force in turning fashion into a language
There is no denying that fashion is a language. When we dress, we tell the world so much about ourselves: we show the parts of our bodies that we like, cover the ones we don’t like and wear the colors that best suit us, both physically and emotionally. We also show how we want to be perceived, we communicate our aspirations, and we share our values by highlighting the issues we care about.
Fashion also speaks about the zeitgeist that surrounds us. It addresses the concerns, issues, and hopes that entire societies have and pursue in common. It sheds light and attention on complex and important topics, allowing a conversation to take place and creating a common ground for debate, analysis, and, hopefully, consensus. Fashion is indeed a powerful force that helps us relate to the world we live in and allows us to express how we feel about it.
As a social language, fashion has played a crucial role in communicating important messages that needed both a platform and a voice. Within the plethora of examples available, feminism is one of the purest to ponder. Throughout history, we have witnessed how fashion and feminism have fought against established sexism to pursue a more balanced and equal society. Using fashion as their canvas, women dared to declare their willingness to question authority through their appearance and distance themselves from the conformist paternalistic segments of the world they were living in. Suffragettes used a particular color scheme; flappers eliminated curves; power dressers introduced shoulder pads. From the bloomers, to the change in hemlines, to the burning of bras, fashion has always helped pave the way for women to achieve important, fair, and socially necessary goals. With fashion being a language and feminism a much-needed change, fashion has been crucial to getting the message across.
It has been thoroughly discussed and analyzed the alliance between fashion and feminism. To many, feminists chose fashion as a language to communicate their ideals and fuel change because both women and fashion are focused on ephemerality. This unfair and patriarchal view of the female gender and the fashion industry is one of the many examples that unequivocally proves the feminist statement. When we consider the relationship between fashion and feminism, we must also consider the relationship between fashion and patriarchalism. Throughout history, fashion has spoken about feminism as it has about anti-feminism. The restrictions of the corsets, the objectivization of the female body, and even the lack of pockets in womenswear garments are perfect examples of the latter.
The frequent discussion of the relationship between feminism and fashion has everything to do with the validity of the feminist message and nothing to do with appearances. Looking at it through that lens is to undermine both the feminist statement and the progress and advancements achieved by feminism and fashion in the pursuit of a more gender-equitable society.
Today we can assert that one of fashion’s most essential roles is communicating significant societal changes, especially women’s ideals. This is due to a combination of different factors: first and foremost, because of gender inequality, without which feminism would not have emerged as a movement and as a social need. Second, women have historically been more knowledgeable in using fashion as a tool for communication and unity, establishing early on the idea of sisterhood and community and being unafraid to start difficult conversations. And third, feminism has allowed fashion to evolve, improving it not only as a language but also by providing it with the right message and elevating the ideal it lives and breathes by. Therefore, when we highlight the role of fashion in the advancement of the feminist movement, we must also highlight the role of feminism in the evolution of fashion as a social language.
The path forward is to push even harder
But what is the path forward? As in every relationship, feminism and fashion have had their struggles. Many feminists are critical of fashion, the same way society is critical of them. When feminists are the ones that accuse fashion of being banal and shallow, they are putting fashion in a spot that is not only unfair but downright inaccurate. Fashion is not what people say it is and is not defined by what brands do. Fashion has its own rules, beliefs, and values, which are and live independently from the industry. Fashion is a breathing, living thing that can be harmed by attacks and bloom in fertile ground.
In order to fully appreciate how successful the alliance between feminism and fashion has been, we should take a moment to look back and see the path traveled and the goals achieved. This doesn’t mean that nothing is left to be done, of course. Equal pay, eradication of misogyny, and freedom of choice are just some of the issues feminists fought against during the 60s and 70s and are still fighting today. A lot has been accomplished, a lot was accomplished and then taken away, and there is so much yet to do.
This alliance is one to be respected by players and critics alike. Because like with so many other crucial issues we face as a society, this is not about pushing one single view of women or suggesting that men and women are the same. They are not, and that is the whole point. The feminist quest for equal rights entails the celebration of differences. It implies acknowledging how these differences will enhance society as a whole while recognizing that individual rights are fundamental to a practical and peaceful society.
Fashion, in its most intrinsic sense, is not just a way of an aesthetic form of self-expression. It is a statement. And so, perhaps the time has come for society in general and feminism in particular to understand that fashion is also part of the message. In its advancement and evolution, fashion has been not only feminism’s best tool but also its most fervent ally. Fashion itself has nothing to do with appearances. Fashion is about choice, freedom, and possibility.