“It’s our way of expressing ourselves. You have so many ways of expressing yourselves, we must make do with our hats and our dresses.”
In the 2008 film The Duchess, Kiera Knightley as Georgiana Cavendish delivers this line to her on-screen husband in response to his gripes about women’s clothing being “so damn complicated.” It’s a brief moment in the film, and it’s quickly dismissed, but this line reveals so much about the Duchess of Devonshire and the role fashion plays in the lives of so many women. Long before the 18th century when the Duchess lived, and continuing into the modern-day, young girls are taught that our value as women and as people lies largely in our appearance. Little boys are praised for being smart, or fast, or strong, or funny. Meanwhile, little girls are praised for being pretty, beautiful, and cute.
As Georgiana says, historically men have been given so many ways of expressing themselves, and women simply must make do with what’s been allotted to us. In a world where male voices are magnified, a world where up until recently female voices have been actively silenced in nearly every way imaginable, it makes sense that we would cling to the one thing we are constantly told is valuable.
For centuries women’s interest in fashion and other decorative arts have been avenues not only of self-expression but also ways to vocalize political opinions where otherwise they would have been silenced. In pursuing beauty and art women were given opportunities to gather together and talk about things that only men were allowed to talk about. During the suffragette movement, quilting and sewing circles became spaces where women were free to talk about their desire to vote. And from the Victorian advent of the department store to online shopping, fashion has been a way for women to express themselves when other forms of expression are squashed. A woman's personal style is often not only something she can be desired for, but also something she can control and change at will. For much of history, it was the only thing women were allowed to control.
But fashion wasn’t always just for the girlies. In fact, if you look back on the history of feminine staples in western society you’ll find that many of them were created for men. Towards the end of the 17th-century Persian fashion became popular in Europe and it was commonplace for men to wear heels, when paired with brightly colored tights and short, loose britches they emphasized the strength of men's legs. And from the 1600s to the 1800s wearing powder and rouge was deemed masculine. Even the color pink wasn’t considered feminine until the 20th century. So then when did the feminization of fashion begin, and why?
Around the age of Enlightenment, another social movement happened which psychoanalyst John Flügel dubbed “The Great Masculine Renunciation”. During this time period, as western cultures moved away from the strict hierarchy of monarchies and toward democracy, other ideas about the aristocracy and the common man began to float around. Suddenly it was considered more respectable and appealing for a man to work for his money. Intellectual pursuits and inner virtue were more important than expensive things and outward decoration. And as with any social movement, this influenced the styles of the time. Though unlike most other shifts in fashion, I think this has had the most long-lasting consequences.
When the men of this new enlightened age began differentiating themselves from the snobby rich nobility they despised so much, they decided that “fashion” was officially effeminate. This may at first seem like an odd conclusion for them to draw, but when you consider how “respectable” women were viewed at the time it starts to make sense. After all, the fathers of the enlightenment weren’t arguing for women’s rights. With women regulated to only the roles of wife and mother, they were more like objects than people. Objects worthy of ornamentation because what man doesn’t like to have nice “things”? Of course, nowadays most people can see the blatant sexism and flaws in this way of thinking. But this disregard of women as intellectual beings and the declaration that outward appearance was something only women should care about has prevailed in menswear to this day.
For centuries, men's fashion has retained the same simple silhouette and remained notably duller than womenswear. From the 1800s until now there are clear and distinct changes in the way women have dressed themselves, and within each of those periods, there are also clear and distinct subcategories of style. But for men, the shape and overall approach to fashion has remained largely the same. Certainly, specific cuts and fabrics have come in and out of style, but the masculine look in mainstream fashion for the last few centuries seems committed to being streamlined and muted. And, in my opinion, the commitment to being anti-fashion, has only grown stronger. The philosophy of menswear seems to be that one should look effortless as if no thought at all has gone into clothes at all. From the three-piece suit to a t-shirt and jeans, men's fashion is more of a uniform that takes minimal effort to adjust. Whereas women are given an endless array of options to pick from. Our fashion is then not a uniform but a costume, an avenue to explore one's expression and identity and decide which woman you’d like to be that day.
Though men, of course, participate in fashion. The fashion industry is a male-dominated field, but it’s no secret that for a while now young women have been the tastemakers and the trendsetters. And just as the renunciation of the current styles was a political statement for men in the 1700s, many of the trends young women have gravitated towards throughout history have had political and cultural movements tied to them. And I’m not just talking about graphic tees that say things like “#girlboss” or “the future is female”.
The flappers of the 1920s proclaimed their desire for equality and more personal freedom with short hair and high hemlines. In the late 1930s and early 40s womenswear further explored more masculine styles, reflective of how women began to take on a stronger role in the workforce during the Second World War. This time period also popularized red lipstick, which women began wearing to spurn Hitler who famously despised it. And in the 1960s and 70s different modes of fashion became symbolic for numerous social and political movements as a way to express themes of love, freedom, and liberation.
Although, the wide range of expression that womenswear has today wasn’t always so large. Certainly, if a woman was wealthy enough to afford the latest styles in the 1800’s then she would’ve been able to play with her looks. She could pick cuts and embellishments which she felt represented her inner being and revealed some part of her personality. But that same woman would’ve found that if she needed to wear trousers for some reason she’d have to set out to get a special lisence to do so. And even in the modern day women can find themselves being pressured to conform to traditional feminine silhouettes and styles due to outdated ideals and expectations of those around them, despite the fact that we have so many more options set before us.
Looking at all of the many aesthetics and avenues for outward self expression that we have now I think it’s fair to say that we as women have more than “made do with our hats and our dresses”. And I’d like to think that political organizer and activist Georgiana Cavendish would be proud of the progress we’ve made.