An intertwined relationship

An intertwined relationship

Did you know that the first time women were allowed to wear pants was 1850? And it didn’t even last that long, it became pretty much a mockery, until Coco Chanel made it a thing. Or… did you know that the pants or the white t-shirt that we love so much today were pretty much men’s wardrobe staples, that women adopted to channel the masculine power? Or… that when Christian Dior introduced our beloved Bar jacket, it was pretty much a way to bring back the hour glass traditional shape and the stay-at-home role of women? Or… that when Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit during her acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 she was honoring the suffragist movement, the suffragettes, of the early 1900s, whose predominant white color was chosen as a visual statement and symbol for their mission to obtain women’s right to vote?

I could probably go on for a long while, but you get the gist. Fashion and women empowerment. An intertwined relationship, a tango longer than a century. When scanning history, the (slow but steady) progression is clearly visible, each time taking a new shape, expanding and adapting its scope. It is inspiring to see how each era contributed to the journey, the many moments, designers, and public personalities that shaped where we are today. Some more known than others, but all of them necessary.

Over the rest of this article, I want to take you through that journey, immerse you in the most important moments, and add my lens of why each  deserves a special mention. By all means this won’t be a comprehensive account, but look at it as both a dose of inspiration as well as an invitation to find out more.

1850 Bloomers

“Bloomer dress of the 1850s”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start in the 1850s, the first time a clothing piece was used for a political message: Amelia J. Bloomer, the first ever female editor of a NYC newspaper The Lily, started wearing pants to rebel against the heavy dresses of the time. Don’t think about pants as you know them, these were a large balloon-like shape that tightened at the ankle. Funnily enough, they came into use based on medical advice that considered traditional women dresses harmful for pregnant women. Not so funnily enough, as they started to become popular, they became associated to rebellion and women who wore them began being harassed. Result: women dropped them, it was too much.

1900 Suffragettes

“Suffragette Emily Davison's funeral procession 1913”. Photograph: Getty

A few decades later in the early 1900s, the so-called suffragettes learned from this experience and, in their quest to gain voting rights for women, decided to leverage white as a distinctive identifier of their movement rather than moving away from any traditional way of dressing. The result? Stunning and effective. In a world where documentation was in black and white, the visual impact as the news spread was spectacular and so visible it couldn’t be ignored. Not only that, white fabric was fairly cheap at the time, which made for a widely accessible cause.

The suffragettes kicked off a special sequence of events that changed women’s position in society forever. I feel that the events taking place during the 50 years that followed the suffragettes movement were very much impacted by the vision of some key designers. After the 60s it was instead the style itself that stood out more than the designers: in particular, a masculine style that women were craving and adopting to rebel.

Let’s dive into the first part of the 1900s, where we see some incredible names and iconic pieces that continue to influence fashion today.

 1910 Poiret

“Poiret model - Gimbels" Bain News Service, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the least known name is Paul Poiret. He changed fashion forever by planting the seed of modern fashion. He started designing clothes that enhanced the female figure through the draping technique, still used in modern fashion, and without any usage of corsets and petticoats. Now, that was quite shocking for the time! 

And while his designs were definitely ahead of its time, something was put in motion and there was no going back. With World War I, change accelerated as women were required to go to work and needed more practical outfits. This moment contributed to relaxing expectations of what women should wear. The increased need for practicality (and women's more active lifestyle) brought some iconic and modern items, like the bra with shoulder straps and the timeless Burberry trench coat for men and women.

1920 Chanel

“Gabrielle Chanel” © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP Paris 2016

As great Poiret’s genius was, execution wasn’t his strength. His items were not always the most practical and their quality was lacking. Luckily Coco Chanel was there to take over.
It’s very hard for me to summarize the brilliance of this woman and the magnitude of her impact in just a few lines. If there is anyone that epitomises women empowerment and defiance, that would be Gabrielle Chanel. Every single thing she did was in pursuit of women emancipation. A few highlights from her prolific contributions to women status: the shoulder strap added to the bag to allow for range of motion, and the pouch for lipstick inside the bag; the little black dress to redefine understated elegance; the jacket and the suit, leveraging the, at the time, unglamorous tweed, and inspired by her beloved Duke’s suits; the pants, turned into a staple of women wardrobe; the N.5, meant to re-create the scent of a woman.

1930 Schiaparelli

“Model Bettina Jones wearing a Schiaparelli Pinafore evening dress” George Hoyningen-Huene/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

The 20s and 30s were an incredible time for fashion and women. More and more countries were “modernising” their view of women and voting rights were granted, therefore accomplishing the mission of the suffragettes movement, known as the first wave of feminism. This time also saw two major, though less known, figures that left their mark in the journey of women empowerment: Madeleine Vionnet and Elsa Schiaparelli. Vionnet was obsessed with the female figure, she would study statues and create clothes that flattered the body and “moved like water”. Schiaparelli, besides being Chanel’s favorite rival, had a lot to offer to women and fashion, perhaps her most important piece being the wrap dress (made famous later by Diane von Furstenberg). She is known for her work with surrealist artists like Dalì, inspiring her to take the conventional and make it spectacular.

And to be honest, it stopped here for a while. This very promising and rich period was brought to an end by World War II. Things became more sober, women were called back to work. Again, the war accelerated a few patterns. But differently than World War I, once it was over, women did not want to leave the jobs they were called to fill and rather wanted to hold on to the newly found freedom and financial independence. Of course, this was not easily embraced by society, which is reflected in the media aggressively promoting “family lifestyles" and the traditional role of the woman in it.

1950 Dior

“Christian Dior, New Look, Paris, 1947” Willy Maywald

It was in this context that Christian Dior started his atelier and became very quickly successful through his “New Look” which, in reality, wasn’t all that new. The Bar jacket combined with a wide long skirt were meant to promote the hourglass shape and corseted type of look that had been abandoned in favour of progression. In addition to that, this came in total defiance of the regulation at the time which limited the usage of fabric for clothing, given the overall state of the economy. In the 21st century we’re still struggling with getting rid of the ideal of a woman’s body needing an hourglass silhouette, let’s just say Dior did not help. And it didn’t help that, by doing so, it was bringing women’s progress back by a few decades. 

Let’s be honest - today we LOVE the Bar jacket, and the whole Dior romantic lens to the world. It’s what makes Dior, Dior. And it was a blasting success when it launched. But if I were a woman in the 50s who struggled for recognition, independence and equality, I would probably not have liked what he was doing. The house of Dior has evolved in an incredible way since then and has been represented by some of the best designers, peaking with Maria Grazia Chiuri, a prime voice of women empowerment in fashion today. I would summarize my conclusion on the impact of Dior in the 50s and today in this statement: “True liberation is being able to choose”. Today I can wear a corset-like Bar jacket and a wide long skirt without giving a particular idea of what I do (be that a business woman or a housewife). The impression I would have given in the 50s would have been quite different and very specific.

1960 Miniskirt

“Twiggy, 1966” Popperfoto/Getty Images

With the 60s, things start to get messy and more intense. A lot is happening, these are exciting years all round: music, culture, business. And of course feminism and fashion pick up their relationship again.

The 60s are a bit of a paradox. The youth in London was growing this rebellious attitude that would take them away from the New Look and towards short skirts. Very short skirts: miniskirts in fact, largely attributed to Mary Quant who famously and eloquently said “A miniskirt was a way of rebelling. It wasn’t me or Courrèges who invented the miniskirt anyway—it was the girls in the street who did it”. If there would be one symbol of this decade, this would be it. And if there would be a second one, it would be the contraceptive pill. Given this, it is not surprising that the second feminist wave centred around reproductive rights and parity: especially around the right to equal pay and equal education. The paradox lies in how the very aspects meant to support and focus on women freedom and empowerment were also used to hyper-sexualise and objectify women.

1970 wrap dress

“Diane von Furstenberg in the wrap dress in 1970” Roger Prigent

Rejecting to be objectified, women in the 70s wanted to reclaim their power. To do that, they had to “dress like a man”. The key of the 70s was oversized: male blazers, wide legged pants, shirts. Together with typically male items, like jeans and loafers, those were the main staples that helped them do that. This is also the time when the wrap dress became famous thanks to Diane von Furstenberg. This dress was quite the miracle when you think about it. It managed to appeal to both the stay-at-home mom who was running around with kids and doing errands, as well as, to the single woman who sought a sense of freedom, practicality and femininity. Truly jaw-dropping.

1980 power suit

“Yves Saint Laurent "Le Smoking", 1975” © Helmut Newton

The 80s sort of “wrapped up” the second wave of feminism. Not that the work was finished, but big wins were achieved. Women were entering the corporate world and starting to break gender roles by taking roles traditionally not meant for them. With padded shoulders, strong lines and matching pants or skirts, the power suit became the icon of this time. The suit continued the “dress like a man” vibe, if anything taking it to a whole new level. Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and Thierry Mugler being the icons behind this icon.

1990 slip dress

"Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell at The Elite Model agency party for the 'Look of The Year' contest in London" © Rex Features

Female punk bands (Riot Grrrl movement) took to the stage in the 90s to make political feminist statements through their clothing and bodies. The third wave of feminism symbolically starts here. It focused on sexual harassment, domestic abuse and discrimination; and it also considered intersectionality to address the additional oppression women suffered depending on other layers like race and class. This decade saw opposite trends than the power dressing of the 70-80s: girlish looks and colors were used to rebel to the fashion direction of the time and to break stigmas around body types considered to be (un)acceptable. Thanks to Courtney Love, but also embraced by many others, the slip dress entered the punk scene and became an iconic piece "to challenge contemporary morality, (as it) represents the difference between what should be public and what should be hidden and the breaking of those barriers” (Edwina Ehrman, curator of the exhibition “Undressed: A Brief History Of Underwear”).

I know I’m repeating myself, but this is probably my favorite quote for you: “True liberation is being able to choose”. 

This wraps up nicely our walk down memory lane. As we get closer to our days, things get even more intense and fast paced. 

Is the third wave over and are we on a fourth or even fifth one? Fact is, we’re still fighting. Fashion is still an incredibly powerful tool for this fight. Exemplifying this, Maria Grazia Chiuri made women empowerment her mission in the fashion world and centred her first show after taking over Dior women’s creative direction around it.

I don’t think we’re fully over the themes that the third wave of feminism was addressing, but there is enough consensus of a fourth wave that likely embraces those themes and adds the focus on rape culture and body shaming.

Women House wants to honor the moments, designers, and people that made an impact on women and their place in society. Consider this article as a broad stroke of a history that contains much more nuance, depth and contributors. 

The way we want to honor this rich history is through highlighting the legacy, creating awareness, and passing that on to the modern women that have been so profoundly and positively impacted and enabled by it. But more importantly, we want to build on this incredible foundation, fuel modern women’s confidence, and inspire them to ignite the next wave of change.

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🌷 You are the best. Can’t wait to see more 😘


Inspiring!! Well done 🫶🏻


Love it! Proud of you!


Super rich! 🤩


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