Creating a Space for Fashion in Women’s History Month

 

By Kaelyn Cobos

I feel like those who may come across this article may be wondering, “What role does fashion play in the scope of Women’s History Month?” The fashion world itself is ever-changing in terms of aesthetics, trends, and leaders, but one factor has continued to remain at the center: women. Women have served as fashion designers, models, photographers, marketers, and consumers, among many other roles. Therefore, the relationship between women and fashion is one that is both thought-provoking and relevant. Indeed, if one looks at women’s history, one can see how it greatly influenced the evolution of fashion.

In her article “Building a Feminist Theory of Fashion,” gender studies scholar Ilya Parkins goes as far as to say that fashion in and of itself is a “zeitgeist,” a phenomenon that encompasses the spirit of an era. As a zeitgeist, we can use fashion to see the cultural differences, racial structures, and ideologies of women at a given point in time, through the way they expressed themselves in both their appearance and taste.

In addition, fashion is one of the only industries that embraces “femininity.” Makeup, clothing, beauty, and shopping tend to be viewed as feminized products, characteristics, and acts. In wider society, these qualities are often degraded or criticized. Or alternatively, they’re used to depict women as vain or materialistic when they are merely upholding the gendered beauty standards of their day (in short, what is the alternative?). But fashion embraces these qualities. In doing so, the fashion industry can become a way to both empower women and subvert patriarchy through women’s manipulation of their bodies and beauty standards.

Coco Chanel (1920).

In the early 20th century, as Eleanor Dunne points out in Wonderland Magazine, Coco Chanel revolutionized how women dressed through popularizing trousers as a fashion item. Chanel’s early female clothing lines also incorporated interesting fabrics that were previously used primarily in menswear, such as tweed, wool, and jersey. While a simple change in fabric or a switch to pants may seem menial right now, back then it was a way to liberate women from the usual wear of corsets and waist cinchers.

While it is important to acknowledge the interwoven history of women’s liberation and fashion, it is as important to attend to recent feminist criticisms of fashion. In 2017, for example, as journalist Sarah Taleb reported in the Huffington Post, French atelier Yves Saint Laurent received tremendous backlash after a particular advertising campaign posted throughout Paris.

In one poster, we see thin models wearing fishnet tights and seated with their legs spread. In another, we see a model in similar attire bent over a stool. L’Autorité de régulation professionnelle de la publicité (ARPP)—a French regulatory agency that specializes in public advertising—received a total of 120 complaints on their website only days after the campaign went public. A Parisian-based women’s rights group, Osez Le Feminisme (Dare to be Feminist) was extremely vocal about the removal of the advertisements from public view, stating that the images objectified women and promoted unhealthy body images to the youth. The backlash was so severe that it gave birth to a trending hashtag: #YSLRetireTaPubDegradante (Yves Saint Laurent: Get rid of your degrading advertisements).

Fashion has both mirrored and made women’s history. It has been liberating, but it has also seen dark times. While many like to view fashion simply as a form of art and expression, I have always thought about it differently. I see it as a business: it is an industry after all. But while contemporary fashion exists specifically to sell something, we can still use fashion to express ourselves. Fashion will always be important in women’s history, but it is as important to see where the industry has hurt the feminist movement. By doing so, we can better exercise our agency. We can speak out by using the platform where a woman’s voice is heard the loudest. 

Kaelyn J. Cobos is a senior studying marketing, French, and service leadership at Saint Louis University. She hopes to work in analytics someday and finds solace in 1980s pop culture, haute couture, and watching 20-minute film analyses on YouTube. 

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