The Interconnectedness of Fashion and Sexism

By Nola Killpack

As we reflect on Women’s History Month, I’m sure many of us are thinking about how far we’ve come and also how much farther we have to go when it comes to women’s rights. I’m always in awe of the inspiring women who have come before me and how the things they have accomplished are made even more incredible by the tight constraints society put on them, both figuratively and literally. This got me thinking, how has fashion affected and how does it still affect women’s history?

Extreme Modesty:

Ancient Greece was probably the world’s first extreme patriarchy. Is it not a coincidence that this era is when ‘modesty’ was first imposed? Previously, it was acceptable for women to wear garments that left their chests exposed. We still see the legacy of this today, as garments are banned from school dress codes because they are deemed ‘distracting’ to men.

During the Victorian era, women were expected to cover almost their entire bodies in public, down to the arches of their feet and the bottom of their chins, because an ankle bone is just so attractive. It was common for table legs to be covered up as well. Why? Because apparently women’s limbs resemble furniture.

We still find examples of this imposed modesty today, like in 2014, when ISIS stoned women to death for not wearing gloves with their niqabs and in 2016, when French towns banned the burkini and police forced women to undress and remove their headscarves on the beach.

Women in Men’s Clothing:

It was illegal in Ancient Rome for women to wear a toga, a man’s garment, because it was seen as a sign of prostitution and infidelity. Perhaps this explains why it was scandalous for a women to wear pants until just over a half century ago. In fact, in 1919 Luisa Capetillo from Puerto Rico was sent to jail for wearing a man’s suit, and in 2009, just ten years ago, 13 women were arrested for wearing pants in Sudan. They were fined and given ten lashes.

The Infamous Corset:

In 1500s France, you were checked by guards upon entry to court to make sure you were wearing a corset. This trend continued until the 1920s, and was replaced by a similar contraption called the girdle in the 1950s. Often women cinched themselves so tight that they fainted or their organs were permanently pushed out of alignment. Imagine trying to do anything, let alone make history, with your waist constricted to under 20 inches!

Crinolines and Wigs:

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women wore hoops and layers of petticoats, even in the summertime. In the mid 1700s, panniers came into fashion. These were basically baskets worn on the hips that were so wide most women had trouble fitting into doorways. By the 1770s hair had grown to such heights it required wire framing. Imagine walking around all day while balancing pounds of hair on your head, while wearing high heels that pinched.

Wartime:

During World War Two, the United States made no laws concerning men’s dress, but rationed fabric so that women’s’ skirts had to be exactly 17 inches above the floor. Sound familiar? Less fabric also led to the creation of the bikini, but this was coupled with a rule that women shouldn’t show their belly buttons.

Sexual Assault:

In 1998 a rapist got off free, because his victim was wearing skinny jeans. Even today the clothes women wear at the time of a sexual assault seem to be deemed an important factor in deciding a case.

Of course, while all these measures were instituted by men, women often took control of fashion and twisted around sexist measures. Not all women disliked hoop-skirts and corsets, even though they definitely made life much harder. It’s similar to today’s debate over makeup: some say it’s a product of the patriarchy, created to make women feel like they have to look good for men, others say it’s about confidence and feeling good about yourself. Perhaps it’s a bit of both- just like throughout history when women have taken something men have thrown out at them and transformed it into something empowering and beautiful, even if they’re never given credit for it.