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La Femme: The Waves of Feminism and Fashion

By Molly Monson

I grew up wearing a stuffy school uniform – think plaid skirt and stiff white polo. By junior high, a public school switch granted me the self-expression I craved; but, this closet liberation came with footnotes.

Straps as wide as dollar bills, no shorts above the thumbs, be ashamed of your shoulders. At least pants were permissible, and the student handbook didn’t mandate the daily corsets of the past. But how did we move away from these archaic forms of dress, to dress codes?

Empowerment and freedom of dress have taken over a century of work from women and feminists.

Wave I

First wave feminism occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, aligning with widespread industrialization – the era of suffragettes, rallying for the 19th amendment and women in the workplace.

According to an article from Pacific University’s Magazine, Amelia Bloomer was a trailblazing advocate for women. Likewise, she created the first feminist newspaper The Lily, intended solely for women on the subject of women’s rights issues.

The young entrepreneur popularized ‘bloomers’ around 1850, a style of loose fitting trousers reminiscent of modern-day parachute pants, often worn with a long tunic top.

On the subject of her bloomers, she’s documented writing in The Lily, “Let men be compelled to wear our dress for a while, and soon we should hear them advocating for change.”

Eventually the garment transitioned to tailored suits and sashes emblazoned with feminist messages like “Votes for Women.”

These suits were worn into the 1920’s alongside flapper fashion. This new style emphasized femininity through setting off curvy, biologically-defined ‘womanly’ features for ornate decoration. Flapper dresses were characterized by dropped waistlines and creeping hemlines that showed off legs.

Women’s sportswear increased in popularity during this time, specifically tennis outfits. Designers Jane Regny and Jean Patou began to show sweater sets, tennis skirts, and clothing with more athletic and functional features.

But alas, we're still waiting for clothing manufacturers to lend this functionality to modern womenswear. Jeans that can fit more than a stick of gum in the front pocket sound incredible!

As World War II picked up and men traveled overseas, women were forced to enter the workforce in stronger numbers than ever– and many adopted male-workwear styles. Though advancements were made, pants were designated for work and home exclusively, or else you might run the risk of shaming your family.

After the war ended, women returned home to the dresses and skirts, but hemlines continued to rise.

In the 1950’s, Dior introduced the “New Look”, which included skirts that hit just below the knee, leaving several inches of calf exposed, according to CR Fashion Book. Hooray for the ancestors of Doc Martens.

Wave II

It wasn’t until the second wave of feminism in the ‘60s that truly diverse changes occurred. Dress became a form of expression for men and women in more drastic ways than ever before.

This era is often defined by punks and hippies, protesting and the destruction of gender norms. Housewives and radical feminists went so far as to burn bras in protest of the oppressive societal expectations of women.

The Equal Rights Act (ERA) was at the forefront of second wave feminism, created on the basis that social and political equality should be constitutionally guaranteed.

The ‘70s brought intersectionality – the idea that concepts like gender, race, and class are interconnected and overlapping – expanding from solely women’s rights into anti-war protests, lesbian and gay rights, and the civil rights movement.

This decade blurred lines between gender, as women adopted plaids, suits and button downs for workwear, and wore pants whenever they pleased. All clothing featured similar silhouettes: tight shirts/pants, bell bottoms, bold jackets, feathered hair – style staples reflected in modern fashion that we all know and love.

Descendants of The Lily, such as The BITCH Manifesto, feminist icon Gloria Steinem’s (the O.G. of grandpa glasses and curtain bangs) teen magazine Ms. Magazine, and Sisterhood is Powerful provided forums for feminists to advocate for their place in political, social and workplace environments. It allowed women to discuss and demand that their voices be heard, to normalize and draw attention to topics of gender equality and sexuality.

Waves III and VI

Third-wave feminism brought the true beginning of mainstream androgynous fashion. ‘90s grunge brought us now-classic staples like ripped jeans and flannels, graphic tees and more menswear. Feminists began to reintegrate previous staples like lipstick, low-cut V necks, the color pink and heels. This affirmed the idea that a woman can be girly and feminine, but still be intelligent and deserving of equality.

Feminists reclaimed derogatory words as a form of empowerment and in rejection to the male gaze and misogyny, and expanded their platform to topics like race, sexuailty, class, etc.

Today, we are experiencing the beginning of fourth-wave feminism, expanding even further beyond women’s rights and into intersectionality, accepting anyone that identifies as a woman or uses she/her pronouns.

And we owe it all to the feminists that came before us, who recognized feminine power as a force to be reckoned with. Without The Lily, Ms. Magazine, or The BITCH Manifesto, we may not have the freedom to dress as we please, no matter our identity.

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