In the last 150 years women have demanded (and gotten) the right to vote, chosen when and if to have kids, entered the workforce, taken leadership roles, and are no longer dependent on fathers or husbands for money or property. The rapid change in fashion styles is a direct reflection of the shift in societal roles. A look into how fashion history and how the representation of the female body has changed is a fun way to look at how far we’ve come, baby.
Anatole France was spot on when he said, to look into the future “I would take simply a fashion magazine in order to see how women will dress themselves… Their fantasies would tell me more about future humanity than all the philosophers, the novelists, the preachers, or the scientists.”
We begin with the corset. Corsets date to antiquity, but their rise into normalcy can be traced back to the 1550s with Catherine de’ Medicini, wife of France’s King Henry II, who famously banned the ‘thick waists’ of women in court. Her iron-fist rules ultimately led to the increase of steel caging corsets to please the eye.
From then on, up until the 19th Century, corsets were circular and reached down to the hips for the illusions of a very curvaceous body. Throughout the next 350 years, corsets did change shape and length over time, reaching as high as above the bosom to as low as just the waists, caging the ribs–depending on the current’s fashion’s view of the desired shape of a women’s body. Women’s role in society was not active or functional but rather very ‘sitting pretty’ and the corsets reflect this trend. Corsets were often made of whale bones and steel caging for the ultimate squeeze effect. Difficulty to launder, women wore thin underdresses made of material like cotton underneath their corset to avoid rusting the steel. Although they weren’t running marathons in these, apparently the sweat factor was still quite high.
At the turn of the 20th century, doctors began to question the health of the corset–after all the tighter you had it the better, and you could only breathe out of the top of your lungs causing mucus to build up in the bottom portion of lungs. So the S-bend (that’s one part breasts, one part butt for an S appearance) was introduced as a ‘healthier, fully breathable’ corset. The S-bend corset was popular from 1900 – 1910, but didn’t last more than a decade and was said to be the least comfortable of all silhouettes.
The new century brought with it simplicity in dress, as less restrictions were placed on women and fashion history takes turns to reflect the increased freedom. During WWI, as women began to enter the workforce and took more active roles in society, and the corset begins to go out of style due to lack of functionality, women were no longer just sitting pretty. In 1917, post World War I, Coco Chanel’s famous two-piece knitted suit explodes in popularity. And, shortly after, in 1920, the 19th Amendment is passed granting women the right to vote. With this we enter the roaring 20s and the era of the flapper, symbolizing freedom and a carefree attitude.
Vogue‘s May 1926 issue pictured Marion Morehouse wearing Coco Chanel’s black sequined drop-waist dress. The little black dress becomes a symbol of modernism in its rejection of confinement, and individualism in its rejection to blending in with colorful masses, yet still feminine in its dignity.
In the light of World War II, energy again is taken away from fashion design and put into war efforts. Women are re-entering the workforce and clothing is extremely practical, made using less fabric and less labor for construction. The shortage of fabrics like nylon allows women to do without pantyhose.
Following World War II, the history of women’s fashion takes another turn, specifically in 1947 with Christine Dior’s first collection, ‘The New Look,’ energy shifts back to fashion. Although clinching the waist again, The New Look raises hemlines—shocking most, but restoring the fantasy of fashion post-war. With men back from war, women return back to the home and the construct of the ‘housewife’ takes form.
The free love era of the 60s brings with it a complete shattering of popular dress codes. Women wear whatever they please–colors galore, bell bottoms, short dresses and mini skirts. Feminism is directly reflected in dress, and mass markets struggle to keep up with current trends being created as women express themselves more freely.
From the 70s on, style is a choice. Women choose to wear pants, dresses, or skirts as they please. In the 1980s, the ‘power dressing’ such as the padded shoulder suit are popular as women are entering the workforce again, their styles represent their rise in the corporate ladder.
image: Thang Le Photography
Today, women are free to wear whatever we please, and our choices usually combine style with comfort. We can choose to stay home or enter the workplace, wear a corset, spanx, or no confinement at all. With our increase of rights and voice in society, we’ve gained freedom of self-expression. Our society supports who we are as individuals—and so do our wardrobes.
Want more on fashion history?
Now & Then: The History of Shapewear
Now & Then: The History of the Bikini
Now & Then: The History of the Cocktail Dress
Now & Then: The History of the White Wedding Dress
Now & Then: The History of Denim
Now & Then: The History of Platform Shoes