Women in fashion: evolving roles throughout time

The disparity which historically has burdened the female population has manifested itself in many ways: from women being relegated to the kitchen and kept away from the job market, to their value being strongly tied to their appearance. How come jobs such as chef and fashion designer were (and still are) held for the majority by men? The fashion system strongly relies on women, and that is unfortunately partly because women have long been diminished and objectified. Clothes have been used to impose societal roles on them, and they were pushed to define their identity through clothing. While this last point actually makes much sense, as clothes are, whether we like it or not, a powerful means of personal communication, it is curious to see how men have traditionally disregarded this form of communication but still dictated what women wore years.

A McKinsey study shows that women only represent less than 50% of creative directors. Moreover, only 14% of executives in the fashion industry are women. These figures are paradoxical when considering that females’ fashion consumption exceeds males’. This makes us wonder why women’s contribution to fashion have been so much fewer than men’s when arguably women are in the right position to know what the female population may want and need in terms of fashion and self-expression.

When clothing switched from being a seamstresses’ business to an industrial one in the 19th century, men directly took control of it. Indeed, Charles Worth was the first recognized couturier. Paul Poiret was acknowledged as the first modern designer after building a commercial imaginary around the female role at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were nevertheless followed in the 1920s by some incredible women designers who, after battling for their rights for decades, became iconic feminist liberation figures. As a matter of fact, they were the first who truly vested the concept of fashion with a higher meaning and used it as a way to communicate. Even if the path to equality was still a long way to go, designers such as Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Chanel managed to emancipate women from the sexist and rigid vision of the 19th century. They were also the first to revendicate the job of seamstresses and elevate it. The direct outcome was the implementation of looser line dresses, meant to easily adapt to the body rather than constrict it and be worn in everyday life.

Growing up as an outsider, Coco Chanel was torn between her desire for affirmation and a deep detachment from the bourgeois society. She then found her path to emancipation by creating a new style in fashion. Her vision had a practical character, which translated into looser clothing, with many elements taken from sports and the male aesthetic universe. Her collection was a success right away, as it represented what women wanted without even knowing it. Her style continued to evolve until the conception of the iconic Chanel tailleur, which was the perfect combination of practicability and elegance. Interestingly, these women were able to sense and express feminism without denying their own unique personalities, which is what feminism should always be about. As Chanel went for the abandonment of frills and constraints, Schiaparelli instead reintroduced structured clothing, glamour and extravagance. She reclaimed women’s rights to have a sexy feminine side, to have fun and to enjoy excess as a way to affirm themselves as human beings and not as pleasing subjects for men. All these women marked the foundation of women emancipation in the fashion industry, a fight that evolved throughout the years and is still going on today.

On a more recent note, many other designers have contributed to this emancipation. During the Made in Italy boom, two personalities distinguished themselves and became to be considered rivals: Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace. On the one hand, Armani proposed new androgyny for women, based on the use of elements from business attire. On the other hand, Versace pushed an idea of women free from social constraints, exaggerated erotism, nonchalant and not in search of approval from the traditional taste. While both have been credited for these new perspectives, some observed that they presented two opposite images of women, both equally unreal; in regard to this last point, it is important to mention that the ideals they proposed were exacerbated by a society that came to associate their styles to the ‘easy woman’ and the frigid businesswoman. Meanwhile, whether these two designers reinforced feminism or distorted it is debatable; an example of someone who provoked one of the most notable discussions about the line between empowerment and objectification is Tom Ford. During his years at Gucci, he managed to relaunch the dying brand by marketing desire, flaunted luxury and erotism in a successful attempt to combine beauty and open sexuality. He made ample use of nudity, which was criticized as hyper-sexualization and objectification, to which the designer replied, “I’m an equal opportunity objectifier”. Indeed, he explained that sexual nudity was not necessarily wrong from his point of view and could be used for empowerment as long as it is not imposed on one gender or used for exploitation but rather equally offered to both sexes as a weapon for sensuality. At times, it is difficult to understand the extent to which some visions are sexist themselves and that to which they are made so by society’s judgments.

The objective is not to take away male fashion designers’ ability to communicate social instances and women characteristics into new fashion proposals, but rather to understand why women haven’t been equally recognized. As fashion historian Cutler said, “There is a strong myth that male designers don’t consider the needs of women practically. First-wave feminism perpetuated that idea. In trying to fight the over-sexualization of women and their sidelined place in society, first-wave feminism threw fashion under the bus. The notion that women make softer clothes is not always true. I would not consider Vivienne Westwood’s clothing to be ‘soft’ in the least, even though she is a woman.” This, thus, doesn’t mean that female designers are necessarily better or different at their job than males, but still doesn’t justify the number of rare exceptions of women at the helm of top fashion houses.

One of the appointments which made the most noise was that of Maria Grazia Chiuri, in 2016, as the first female creative director since Dior’s foundation. Chiuri found herself dealing with a huge brand heritage that revolved around a strong idea of femininity. She approached it by freshening up the house codes and almost simplifying them in order to convey a feminist message to a big audience, maintaining the feminine feel typical of Dior garments nevertheless. In her debut collection, she paired the iconic Dior bar jacket with t-shirts with feminist slogans. The designer declared: “Femininity isn’t something that finished in the 1950s; it can be more contemporary. My reference is a modern woman, and my role has to be to understand women of the future.” She also disclosed that her project of including various female artists’ point of views in her collections was motivated by the realization that she had herself become “a stereotype, and these artists helped [her] look inside [her]self.” However, it is yet to be determined whether feminism presented as intrinsic to the new brand direction will be yet another example of trendy merchandise or if it will have a real impact. Finally, it is also interesting to note how Chiuri’s message, whether authentic or commercial, was questioned for its femininity and even for feminism altogether. Simultaneously, other designers who claimed to promote empowerment in the past didn’t face so much scrutiny.

Nowadays, thanks to many decades of feminist fights, more and more women are recognized as powerful leaders and work at the top of the most prestigious fashion houses. Miuccia Prada took the reins of the small family leather business to later turn it into one of the most iconic Italian fashion houses, forging her own intellectual fashion language. Funny enough, when Mario Prada founded the House in 1913, he believed that women shouldn’t be involved in business, and yet it is a woman that managed to propel Prada to the top of the luxury market. Furthermore, Phoebe Philo, Celine’s former creative director, is considered worldwide as “Fashion’s Right-Hand Woman.” She succeeded in resuscitating two dying Houses, Chloe and Celine, and is known for being a visionary in dressing the modern woman.

Progress towards women’s empowerment is undeniable; nevertheless, there is still a long way to go for women to have the same opportunities as men, ranging from representation to recognition to full wage equality.

Sources: (The National News, The Guradian, WWD, L’official USA, CrFashion Book , Batilla, A. (2019). Instant Moda. Gribaudo. )

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