It isn’t news to anyone that clothes can be used to make a social or political statement, you just have to look to the runway – from Vivien Westwood’s “say yes to independence” slogan to Calvin Klein’s “this is not America” 2017 show, or even to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat. Whilst most of the interest in clothes as a political statement has focused on these overt expressions of political affiliations or views, one method of self-expression is more nuanced. Debates on gender have constantly been commented upon, and so many people have harnessed this discussion to make broader remarks on the position of women within society. Whilst it may seem trivial, to the women and designers who pioneered trends – the changing shapes of corsets, shoulder pads, as well as the advent of women’s trousers, were powerful agents in the arena of self-expression.
Corsets are often seen as a symbol of female oppression and sexualisation, and “Corsetlessness had, been long identified with radical feminist and utopian movements.” However, you only need to scroll through Instagram to see that corsets are having a comeback. Is that because women want to re-experience that oppression? No, of course not – quite the contrary, corsets are now seen as empowering and fashionable. So, what has caused the shift from corsets as a tool of female oppression to a symbol of female liberation? As historian Jill Fields argues in her article, “Fighting the corsetless evil.”, “Scholarship on nineteenth-century women’s history and dress explores the power of the corset to regulate women’s behaviour as well as to signify women’s subordinate status.” Despite anecdotes of corsets causing young women to “drop dead due to tight lacing”, many doctors championed the corset, with corsetier Gossard in a 1909 pamphlet, describing the benefits, even prescribing corsets to improve posture and “preserve the lines demanded by fashion but without discomfort or injury.” This medical championing of corsets would come to contradict the intuitive concept of comfort as Fields points out even after Poiret’s introduction of a dress that could be worn without a corset, women “did not toss away their corsets en masse,” and the lack of willingness to give up these corsets can be greatly attributed for the argument that these items were medical necessities, even to be worn in pregnancy.
Historian Johanna Goldberg notes that, “the corsets final death knell was World War I,” however this viewpoint is simplistic. Fields argues that “1920s corsetry [was imbued] with essentialist notions about flawed female bodies, racial hierarchies, nationalist imperatives, dubious sexual identities, and suspect political standpoints inscribed dominant ideologies upon women’s bodies”. Debates about women and corsetry were still alive and well post-war. These concerns about the morality of not wearing corsets gave more popularity to corsets themselves, figures from the underwear industry found that between 1920 to 1921 sales of underwear dropped by an astounding 50 per cent with the only logical assumption to this discrepancy being that women were buying corsets instead. This sharp rise in the purchase of corsets came at the same time as Gossard’s classification of women’s bodies emerged in the early twentieth century, devising nine figure types. Warner’s classifications followed in 1921, this time devising eight classifications. It could be argued that whilst at first these ‘scientific classifications’ of women’s body shapes could seem reductive, they would lead to greater liberty and the understanding that different body types could exist, rather than the one à la mode figure that corsets wished to create.
It would be nice to assume that with the current body positivity and female empowerment movements, that the days of women forcing themselves into corsets were long behind us, however this is clearly not the case. In 2020, eBay noted a 36 per cent increase in corset sales. Corsets are available everywhere, from Urban Outfitters to Amazon, Nasty Gal to Vivienne Westwood. There is no denying it – corsets are back and they are here to stay. In their recent ‘Vogue’ article Maude Bass-Kreuger and Elle Timms have attributed the resurgence of the corset to period drama Bridgeton. However, perhaps that more logical reason for the sustained success of corsets (both in fast fashion companies’ designer brands) is the fact that women are now greater agents in the fashion industry. They are both designers and influencers, fashion is now a consumer-led business, women are now the agents and drivers of change in fashion. Instead, or where once corsets represented restriction and objectification, they now represent the reclaiming of female sexuality and the feminine form as an act of empowerment.
Although originally created for men in the 1830s, shoulder pads would be repeatedly, appropriated by women for what Joanne Entwistle has described ‘Power Dressing.’ In Tori Tefler’s article for Bustle she claims that shoulder pads, “convey all the right things: Power! Capability! Confidence!” Shoulder pads are often deemed a relatively new phenomenon when it comes to women’s fashion, with their popularity, beginning in the 1930s before reaching a dizzying peak in popularity during the 1980s.
However, playing with the shape of the shoulder in order to create a persona of female power, is not new, as Kevin Almond explores in his detailed analysis of shoulder pads. Almond discovers that from 1820 to 1890, and despite many changes to dress styles the “shoulder remained rounded and dropping from the natural shoulder line.” However, throughout the 1890s, women would broaden their shoulders with epaulettes and the use of leg-o-mutton sleeves helped to create a broader look without the use of shoulder pad. The broadened shoulders coincided with the suffrage movement, when in 1890 women in Wyoming were granted the right to vote. Whilst the fashion trend of the 1890s’ shoulder is vastly different to the angular masculine shape later associated with power dressing, they were arguably equally as effective. The trends of broadened shoulders and bustles kept a very feminine line but crucially occupied more space, and it could be argued that these trends were the 1890s woman’s version of “man-spreading.”
The angular shape of power dressing really took off in the 1930s when, according to Almond, “the appropriation of the masculine shoulder line,” was reflective of a time when “women began to adopt more traditionally masculine roles.” Almond later argues that this trend continued as women replicated the “exaggerated military solider,” in solidarity with men on the front line. This view is however slightly far-fetched and it is more likely that women would copy these traditionally masculine styles for ease when performing the jobs that had up until that point been occupied by men. However, this look would come to an end in 1947 with Dior’s, ‘New Look,’ which championed a “softer silhouette and an overall return to femininity.” This masculine look would however come back in full force in the 1980s, brought back into prominence by both Prime Minister, Margret Thatcher and by the film, Working Girl. Thatcher, assisted by Tory MP, Airey Neave, carefully curated her persona. Thatcher’s power dressing was a necessary part of what would go on to create the “Iron Lady,” and the tradition of the power suit has continued to be popular among women seeking to assert political power, from Hilary Clinton to Kamala Harris. The shape of the power-shoulder has even continued to this day, though in a less mainstream manner, with superhero’s, such as wonder woman having enhanced shoulders, to assert female power.
Arguably the change in women’s fashion that has surpassed changes in trends is the trouser. Not catching on in mainstream fashion until the mid-twentieth-century, trousers, or pantaloons, had been in circulation in the Georgian era. They were worn by social-reformer, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. However, they did not catch on until the campaigns for women’s rights. Sally Feldman points out, “if you really want to be deadlier than the male, then try wearing his clothes.” Early feminism wasn’t the sole reason for this shift, with practicality an equally important factor. Curiously, the most significant development was the advent of the bicycle. Many inventions were created in order to facilitate women’s use of the bicycle, including the side saddle bicycle, before trousers were eventually adopted for the bike-riding women. The Association of Bloomers called for “mothers, wives and daughters to embrace dress reform.” Much like shoulder pads and corsets, one of the biggest historic events that would change the popularity of trousers was World War I, when women began to take on the roles that were traditionally the reserve of men. Chapman notes that Lloyd George and Herbert Samuel when stood at a window in Whitehall must have been in shock to watch the women’s social and political union march past, “in their overalls and trousers, some in khaki uniforms, some in farm labourers’ garb.” Lloyd George and Samuel’s shock is perhaps still relevant today in certain circles. After all, it wasn’t until 1999 that schoolgirls were allowed, by a ruling passed through by the equal opportunities commission, to wear trousers. It was even later (2016) that the female cabin crew of British Airways were first permitted to wear trousers. Even today the Debretts etiquette guide states that women must wear dresses for both black and white tie events. Historian Elizabeth Wilson argues that Trousers are “an index of the advancing freedom of women and their equality with men” and if this is the case then in terms of the freedom of women, we are not quite there.
Fashion trends constantly change but shapes and silhouettes constantly resurface, often in response to social change. The trends of the past were often slower or even in some cases deaf to social change, and this deficit is arguably as a result of the lack of agency of women within the fashion sphere. However, now with women at the forefront of the design of the clothes that they wear, clothes are no longer just able to respond to social change, they are also able to create social change too, with brands held to greater accountability when it comes to environmentalism and body positivity. Hopefully, brands will take this opportunity to use clothes to empower women rather than restrict them.
Written by Sophie Whitehead
Almond, Kevin. “An analysis of the shoulder pad in female fashion.” Fashion, Style, & Popular Culture, vol. 6, no. 1, (2019), Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A563182205/AONE?u=ed_itw&sid=AONE&xid=09502e4c. Accessed 4 Feb. 2021.
Bill, Katina. “Attitudes Towards Women’s Trousers: Britain in the 1930s.” Journal of Design History 6, no. 1 (1993): 45-54.
Bernadette Morra. “The Brave New Wave of Fashion ; ‘80s Shoulder Pads and Bomber Jackets Return with Attitude.” Toronto Star, 2000.
Steele, Valerie. The Corset : A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
BBC. Thoroughly Modern. The Corset. London: BBC, 2007.