The shapes women’s dressing has taken through social shifts, over the decades
Words: Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha | Photography: Glen Montgomery | Styling: Akim Jardine
Inasmuch as the pieces that have historically been characterised as “feminine” occupy sizeable sections in our wardrobes, the restrictive nature of women’s fashion – compared to men’s – is an issue that feminists have challenged for centuries. Particularly the 19th century when women being seen wearing anything remotely masculine was a criminal offence. Even around the 1920’s when the zip of a trouser or the flash of a thigh could cause hysteria, making society panic every time women decided to define femininity for themselves. Concepts that continue to normalise gender policing, even to this day.
Despite the trench coat’s deserved sartorial prowess, it’s an item that was designed for function over form. Initially intended as waterproof outerwear for military use during WWI, it got really popular after the war when soldiers wore them off-duty and the British army started distributing the surplus merch to civilians. Of course, they were only worn by men, but women started wearing them in their second wave of popularity after Holly Golighty wore one in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Its other iconic moment was when worn by Meryl Streep’s character, Joanna Kramer, in Kramer vs Kramer.
After Coco Chanel gave women air from corsets with the iconic jacket and skirt suit that became the ‘woman’s uniform’ in the 1920’s, Yves Saint Laurent came with Le Smoking in the 60s. Which was the first pants power suit for women that became very popular among celebrities. But the pantsuit only started picking up momentum in the 70s, when women started joining the workforce – after some laws had been changed – and needed to get into some serious power dressing. The suit’s mainstream peak was the 80s though, when the style started becoming more accessible. Cut to it being an evergreen wardrobe essential.
However pervasive pants are today, they can still cause a surprising amount of controversy. Whether it's Hillary Clinton being chastised for looking too masculine in her pantsuits, a transgender man trying to find clothing for their body, or women fighting for the right to wear pants at work, one innocuous pair of pants still holds a lot of power.
For so long, women’s fashions prohibited movement and the ability for the female population to do anything but act as an accessory. Wearing pants gave women the freedom to move unencumbered and participate in society as equals to men, a welcome change that started with the original riot grrls, the flappers.
Initially a symbol of class and masculinity, the white shirt is one of the fashion pieces that has seen many transformations. From being a statement of wealth in the 19th century, because only rich men could afford to wear clothing that needed regular washes, to the uniform of power in the man’s working world by the mid 1800’s, white shirts eventually became something women wore, from the 60s onwards. Made popular by women known to defy and redefine social norms, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly were some of the first to try different variations of the classic, helping to make the white shirt a unisex essential by the 80s.
The blazer started becoming a power piece for women in the 90s, circa Ally McBeal’s blazer and mini skirt combos. An era where women choosing to combine menswear separates with women’s clothing instead of going out of their ways to wear pants made (male) entertainment reporters question the death of feminism. A favoured modern way of dressing that even through all the shapes it’s shifted through – with the rise full skirts and plisse fabrications – has allowed women the sartorial freedom to define femme fashion on their own terms.