Liberation Through Fashion

The fun of Women’s History Month continues! Last week, we talked about some ways that you can celebrate WHM, but this week, as promised, we’re diving deeper into the history in Women’s History Month. While there is still a long way to go in finding equality between men and women, it’s extremely motivating to reflect on the past. I find it particularly intriguing to analyze the oppression and liberation of women through fashion. What we wear, whether we realize it or not, is so influenced by our culture and by the zeitgeist of our time. With this being said, the strides made to free women’s fashion throughout history correlate to the increases in the social liberation that women have gained. Buckle up, it’s time for a pretty badass history lesson.

Victorian Era
The first piece of history that I want to focus on is the Victorian Era. Victorian fashion is known for its opulence, and marker of social status, but also for its oppression of women. They were expected to wear ornate gowns that were extremely cumbersome and restrictive, and some fashion norms of this era were even harmful for women. Corsets, for example, posed health risks including damaged and rearranged internal organs, compromised fertility, weakness and general depletion of health (yikes). To top it off, someone had to tie the corsets that women wore, preventing women from even being able to get dressed by themselves. This restrictive fashion parallels the restricted rights that women had within society during the Victorian Era.

By the 1850’s, the Victorian Dress Reform Movement began. The Victorian Dress Reform Movement called for rational dressing, temperance, women’s education, and suffrage. This Movement began during the Progressive Era, which encompassed the first wave of feminism in the US and Britain. Of the many garments that the dress reform movement was comprised of, the bloomer suit was one of the most famous. The "bloomer"(which was basically an undergarment) was a physical and metaphorical representation of feminist reform, as it wasn’t physically restrictive and harmful to women’s health like corsets were. Metaphorical freedom was granted in the sense that the bloomer suit allowed for more diverse dress options, giving women the power of choice in their wardrobes.

Before WWI, Edwardian Fashion (1890-1914) was prevalent, and emphasized the s curve, which was an extremely unnatural silhouette. Again, there was an expectation of beauty that left women in compromising positions. In addition, in 1910, the hobble skirt was introduced, a trend that was extremely restrictive to women as well because the skirts were cinched at the ankle, making it excruciatingly difficult to walk as you could imagine…hence the name “hobble skirt”. But because of WWI, hobble skirts and s-curves became...pants and paychecks!


During WWI, many women worked in factories to replace the men who went off to war. Because of safety issues, women wearing trousers became popularized. Women working in the factories also earned a paycheck, and with it, economic independence. They discovered a new purpose and self-esteem not tied to the kitchen and nursery. These sartorial and social effects of the war gave rise to the Roaring Twenties (cue the Great Gatsby soundtrack).

 It’s impossible to talk about the fashion of the twenties without mentioning Coco Chanel. Chanel was responsible for the trend of menswear for women. She popularized women’s suits and pants, which was a huge step for women’s fashion, but also for women’s rights. As their clothes began to become equal to the clothes of men, so did their rights. Women began to feel free to express themselves, an attitude which reflected in the clothing of the decade. Women’s silhouettes went from the traditional hourglass to tube-shaped lines that gave women a boyish figure. Dresses had low waistlines as to not accentuate the hips and women even wore “flatteners”, garments that gave women a flat-chested look. Hemlines had risen 8 inches by the end of the war in order to conserve fabric for war efforts, making it more acceptable for women to sport exposed skin. The style of the twenties allowed women the accessibility to go out and have spontaneous fun, a right they had never had before.

The second world war also had a huge impact on fashion, as well as society. As in WWI, hem lines became shorter. Trousers, skirts, and dresses became closer fitting in order to conserve fabric, marking the first time in history the true shape of women’s rears were made a focus of attention (now fast forward to the Kim K Era). Due to these restrictions, the fashion of the World War II era had to accommodate the war. Just as in World War I, these accommodations also caused social change for women.

 The rationing of the Second World War was only adding fuel to the increased sexual freedoms women experienced after the First World War. For example, a trend that was brought by World War II was the bikini.  Although the bikini started as a way to conserve fabric during the war, the trend left a permanent mark on swimwear. We can see a general trend of women showing more and more skin as a result of wartime rationing, which could be the source of the gradual loosening of women’s sexual ideals in society. This change in fashion again, highlights how fashion and societal movements are intertwined, and was yet another step in achieving social equality for all.


As Women’s History Month approaches a close, I hope you’ve been able to reflect on, and celebrate the journey of women’s rights, and the legacy of the many powerful women who have come before us. Let’s keep this spirit alive all year round!

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