The majority of my posts focus on menswear, but occasionally it pays to make an exception. On 27 September I am hosting a Fashion Through The Ages catwalk show as part of Salisbury Fashion Week. The show will focus exclusively on female fashion, so this got me thinking about the major themes in women’s dress…
It is often remarked that men are deterred by fashion because they find the constant cycle of clothing trends discomforting. Men prefer style, which exists, somehow timeless and protected, behind a sartorial hermetic seal. Women, on the other hand, relish the seasonal cycling of clothes. The length and weight of American Vogue’s September issue – 902pp, 1.8kg – may bear this out. But as so often with matters of appearance, looks can be deceptive. For all the talk of transition and seasonal transformation in women’s clothing, changes in style are really variations of a norm. If women’s fashion is examined over the longue durée, developments in dress can be whittled down to four themes.
Between the fifth and nineteenth centuries, social conventions decreed that women should conceal their bodies beneath folds and layers of fabric suspended from deforming structures of bone, leather, metal and wood. At extremes, the female body became gigantic (à la wide-bottomed mantua of the eighteenth century) and minute (à la small-waisted dresses, emphasised by enlarged sleeves, of the nineteenth century). In contrast, contemporary female dress is more revealing, both figuratively and literally. Today, the majority of women have greater freedom to express their personality through the colour and cut of their clothing, irrespective of their wealth and religious belief. In the West, sculptural clothing designs that enhance a woman’s natural silhouette, along with the loss of layers and length to reveal flesh, make female clothing not only more revealing, but more provocative and demonstrative of a women’s power to attract, to assert her authority (over men and women) and to be an individual. Few designers understood this better than Alexander McQueen, whose visceral creations blend with the body and form a second skin that are sensuous and gloriously frank.
The power and provocation of female dress is increasingly heightened by the careful selection of accessories. In the past, clothing accoutrements and body adornments were worn by wealthy women to proclaim a social position that was at once privileged and circumscribed by their marital status. Today, women, like men, clamour to purchase designer bags, jewels and watches to display their independence and immutability in the face of social unease caused by economic instability. More ubiquitous, female accessories are also much bigger. The majority of women almost certainly own bags that are at least twice as big as those carried by their mothers; don bracelets that have longer and chunkier links and wear rings, made from a diverse array of materials, with bezels that are big in every dimension. As clothing styles have become increasingly homogenised, these enlarged adornments play a key role in signifying women’s collective and singular femininity.
Homogeneous clothing, a product of industrialised manufacturing skilfully marketed through popular media, blights both sexes and distinction in dress is now hard to achieve, despite the revealing nature of accessorised outfits. But it is not just that one man or one woman looks like any other member of their sex, it is that both sexes look increasingly alike, as women borrow from men and men borrow from women. The development of new leisure activities following the industrial revolution established a greater need for specialised sportswear regardless of sex. Androgyny in dress is also a consequence of increasing social equality, where men and women increasingly work and play alongside each other in identical roles. Or could our enduring interest in gender-bending performers, from David Bowie to Lady GaGa, suggest that androgyny appeals to the homo-erotic side in all of us; men who like the gamine look and girls who like beautiful boys…
Sartorial similitude and the desire to achieve distinction in dress would also account for the one constant in women’s fashion: discomfort. If a misogynistic paternalism once decreed that women wear restrictive clothing to reflect and enforce their social limitations, the ability to dress more freely also hides snares for contemporary women, who pronounce their femininity, and try to appear distinct, by wearing signifiers that once proclaimed their subordination. A majority of women wear debilitating footwear for the much of the working day and carry (large) bags suspended from their wrist or arm. Margaret Thatcher revealed how the female bag could be transformed into a symbol of feminine strength – the verb ‘to handbag’ exists because of her – but her posthumous sartorial fame shows how women still endure psychological and physical pain through clothing choices that enable them to attain roles perceived as successful and meaningful by society. As in the past, so women in the present continue to be judged on their clothing decisions, from their height of the heels to the length of their skirts. The history of women’s dress reveals that constant change, far from eroding continuity, can compound it.