Fashion and Feminism: Trends that Shaped Women’s Empowerment


Fashion and Feminism: Trends that Shaped Women’s Empowerment

How apparel achieved a new assertiveness for women

March marks the arrival of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day (March 8). In the spirit of female empowerment, we bring to you an overview of some of the most liberating and empowering designs in women’s fashions over the past 70 years.

The Mini

“A miniskirt was a way of rebelling” – Mary Quant

Cher and Dionne wearing miniskirts in Clueless (1995) |Credit Paramount

Popularized by groundbreaking British designer Mary Quant, the mini became a fashion staple of the swinging sixties. During this dynamic decade, fashion embodied the spirit of the broader social and political freedoms that women were beginning to access as they took charge of their reproductive health and entered the workforce. The mini was one of the most explicit examples of this. Released around the same time as the pill, the skirt became a sartorial symbol for women’s sexual liberation, lending itself to freedom and comfort by liberating women from the cinched waists and balloon skirts of the 1950s. Its high hemline represented a rejection of the modesty imposed on women in previous decades, and wearing one was seen as an act of rebellion. 

Female activists, notably Gloria Steinem, wore miniskirts to project femininity while rejecting traditional clothing constraints when protesting for the Women’s Liberation Movement. Nevertheless, women wearing the mini continued to face resistance into the 1970s. And it was in the mid-1970s that Gloria Steinem spoke out against societal pressure to return to midi-skirts: “When we were told to give up our miniskirts for midis, there was a semi‐conscious boycott on the part of American women. We were fed up with being manipulated. We now wanted to make our own decisions on hundreds of things, not have them handed down from on high” (NY Times. 1977).

While Steinem made a compelling point, the mini’s popularity was replaced by the flowy skirts of the 70s. The mini subsequently reappeared in the power suits of the 80s, paired with structured blazers and bold hair and makeup, and retained its popularity in the 90s and early 2000s, adopted by the Spice Girls. Having undergone several transformations, the mini remains a timeless piece that embodies the fun and rebellion of its period.

The Wrap Dress

“It’s more than just a dress; it’s a spirit.” – Diane Von Fürstenberg

Invented by the avant-garde French-Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s, the wrap dress marked a return from the boyish styles that characterized women’s apparel in the 1920s to something more feminine yet functional. However, it was Diane von Fürstenberg who launched the wrap into the stratosphere in 1974.

After the swinging sixties, liberation for women continued to be reflected in fashion trends. The period that followed was noted for fewer undergarments (including some burned bras), less constrictive dressing, bold colors, and more variety. The wrap dress’ simple silhouette exemplified this changing spirit of clothes for American women of the period. Recognizable for its v-neckline and its fitted, self-tie shape that emphasized women’s curves, the wrap dress quickly became a potent symbol of freedom and independence for women. With a wrinkle-resistant silk jersey as its fabric of choice and iconic prints, the legendary wrap dress was stylish and extremely practical. Fürstenberg highlighted her goal to spread the “three F’s” in her work: feminine, flattering, and functional.

Below, Amy Adams wears DVF inspired wrap dresses in American Hustle (2013):

Images Courtesy of Pinterest

But what did this mean for women? Really, the wrap dress not only spoke to the moment, it galvanized it. It allowed women to dress practically and comfortably in the workforce while green-lighting them to be seductive and feminine. In some ways, the design contrasted with elements of the feminist movement where women felt pressure to reject traditional femininity in order to project power in a male-dominated world. But as the wrap dress proves and encourages, feminism is not about conforming to ideals established by a patriarchal society; it is about embracing the strength of womanhood without compromise, feeling confident, and pursuing what you want, no matter your gender. 


“I gave women a sense of freedom.” – Coco Chanel 

Even more so than the mini, pants were the most controversial article of clothing a woman could wear in the 20th century—and apparently can be controversial today as Russian aluminum company Tatprof paid women to wear skirts instead of pants in 2019

Women faced backlash and even legal repercussions for wearing pants in public in the 19th and even 20th centuries. However, when special circumstances such as wartime demanded it, pants were accepted as sensible for women. Notably, WWII sparked a shift as women entered factories and began wearing pants for work (like Levi’s “Freedom-Alls”). French designers Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, respectively, brought pants into high fashion. Chanel rejected typical women’s garments such as heavy skirts and corsets as too constraining, aiming instead for style and comfort.

Women’s pants have evolved significantly since their humble beginnings in wartime factory work. Today, women wear pants of all kinds without a second thought. But one lasting feminist pant has endured: the “power suit.”

Images Courtesy of the White House | Tasos Katopodis/Getty | Getty

Notable pantsuit wearer––and the first woman to wear pantsuits in her official White House portrait––Hillary Clinton spoke about using a pantsuit as her “uniform” when she campaigned for Senate and President respectively: “I did this because I like pantsuits. They make me feel professional and ready to go.” Vice President Kamala Harris can be seen carrying forward the trend in numerous public appearances. Outside of politics, Janelle Monae can often be seen rocking the trend on the red carpet. 

Pants are the only garment on this list that was not designed specifically for women but rather adopted over time. Like the women who wear them, pants take many forms, but each iteration of the garment can be traced back to the fight for equality.

Red Lipstick

“Femininity has power” – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Red lipstick stands apart as another iconic staple with feminist underpinnings. It was worn by queens, including Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth I, lending it an association with high status and royalty. However, over time, it was seen as promiscuous and improper, and women avoided the shade at all costs throughout the 19th century. 

The American women’s suffrage movement put red lipstick back on trend in the early 20th century. Elizabeth Arden, a noted suffragette and founder of what became the eponymous cosmetic empire, famously handed out red lipsticks to marching suffragettes on Fifth Avenue. The suffragettes, in turn, used the daring color to call attention to their movement. However, it is worth noting that as the women’s suffrage movement elevated primarily middle-class white women, the feminist symbolism of red lipstick has been criticized for excluding women of color. 

Making another feminist splash, red lipstick was at the center of Revlon’s iconic Fire and Ice ad of 1952. Among a sea of beauty ads promising women products that would enhance their appeal to the male gaze, Revlon’s groundbreaking ad acknowledged women wear makeup for themselves (!!). Featuring a series of provocative questions for women to determine whether they were made of “fire and ice,” the ad encouraged women to be daring and embrace their confidence and sensuality. Women responded to this messaging, and Fire and Ice red became Revlon’s top-selling shade and the most sold lipstick of all time.

Finally, the shade retains its symbolism for powerful women in the 21st century. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, pictured above, famously wears Stila’s Stay All Day red lipstick in Beso. The Congresswoman explained her choice to wear the bold color reflects her desire to feel confident and put-together during hectic days, “… When you’re always running around, sometimes the best way to really look put together is a bold lip. I will wear a red lip when I want confidence.”

Asserting oneself in a public way involves many visual cues. These examples show the progress women have made in displaying their own confidence and control over their bodies and their roles in society. Whether it is red lips or thigh high skirts, the message is a strong one: “I decide”.

Feature Image Courtesy of Getty Images

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