Historically, the clothing of women mirrored their social standing and political position in the society. In this regard, it is possible to refer to the clothing of women in the 19th and 20th centuries, its evolution and the change of the position of women in the society and political life. In fact, women have passed a long way from the absolutely inferior position of mothers and wives, who took care of children and household, to active participants of social and political processes. No wonder, the rise of the feminist movement in the late 19th and especially in the course of the 20th century and its second half was marked by consistent changes in the clothing of women, which became more and more similar to that of men and which challenged traditional social and fashionable norms and standards.
In the past, women hold the inferior position in the social and political life. They had limited rights and liberties compared to men, whereas their participation in the political or social life was rather exceptional than normal. At this point, it is worth mentioning the fact that their clothing mirrored their inferior position. Women’s dress from 1840 onward was dominated by a restrictive corset and framework underskirt. The fullness of the skirt was at first achieved by adding more layers of petticoats, leading to the crinoline petticoat of 1850. Named after the materials from which it was originally made, this petticoat was made of the farthingale and the hoop, a heavy underskirt reinforced by circular hoops (Pendergast, 91). In such a way, women’s clothing of that time demonstrated the inferiority of women and their difference from men. They were females above all that meant being a good mother and wife in the mid-19th century.
On the other hand, the second half of the 19th century was characterized by the first efforts of women to change their social standing and to start participating in the political life of the society. This historical period was marked by first efforts of women to launch the feminist movement. At this point, it is possible to refer to first daring efforts to change traditional women’s clothing. In this regard, it is worth mentioning Elizabeth Smith Miller, who began experimenting with a new design of women’s clothing she described as Turkish trousers to the ankle, with a skirt reaching some four inches below the knee to replace the swaddling long skirts she wore daily (Hall, 195) the popular press and society began to take hold of this reform dress and rename it the “Bloomer Costume” or “Bloomers,” after the woman who first publicized the style. Reform dress was soon viewed as a “ridiculous and indecent dress” fit only for women “of an abandoned class, or of those of vulgar women whose inordinate love of notoriety is apt to display itself in ways that induce their exclusion from respectable society” (Hall, 198). In such a way, the first attempt of women to hint at their similarity and equality to men, at least in the field of fashion, confronted the strong repulsion from the part of the society.
Nevertheless, women carried on struggling for their rights and liberties and the 20th century marked the rise of feminism and active participation of women in social, economic and political life of the society. However, women’s clothes preserved some traditional elements and conservative trends for quite a long time. During the 1920s, clothing styles officially entered the modern era of fashion design. During this decade, women began to liberate themselves from constricting clothes for the first time and openly embrace more comfortable styles like pants and short skirts. While popular fashions remained relatively conservative prior to 1925, short skirts, low waistlines, and revolutionary styles of the flapper era characterized the latter half of the decade (Hall 192). In fact, these revolutionary styles marked the beginning of growing efforts of women to take a different, better position in the society. Women wanted to be more active and participate in social and political life.
In this regard, the 1960s and 1970s were truly revolutionary decades in social and political life as well as fashion. During the 1960s and 1970s, a huge variety of clothing became popular, including bell bottoms, increasingly short miniskirts and hot pants, and blue jeans (Pendergast, 149). In fact, the introduction of hot pants and blue jeans marked the intrusion of women in the field controlled and dominated by men. During this period, women had made a sort of breakthrough in the feminist movement. The 1960s and 1970s marked first successes of feminists in their struggle for equal rights, wide representation and participation of women in the political life. Hence, women started to wear hot pants and blue jeans demonstrating their equality to men, because pants were traditionally attributed to men and were a symbol of masculinity.
Thus, the change in the social and political life marked the rise of the feminist movement and advancement of women to the participation in political and social life, while their clothing mirrored these changes as women shifted from conservative clothes to pants and jeans.
Hall, Lee. Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.
Pendergast, Sara. Fashion, Costume and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. Detroit: UXL, 2004.