Intellectual, visual and social freedom. Throughout history, several women have used their clothes, – considered by many people subversive clothing – to demarcate a position, fight for their rights and prove that dressing is a political act. Understand!
For many, fashion is something exclusively frivolous and ephemeral. For others, it is an act of resistance.
Through history, we can see that our society appropriates different pieces to express itself. The famous shirts with political phrases take the place of several other pieces that, historically, have the function of marking a social-political position. Or rather, one uses it as a “fight mantle” to shout to the world their opinion.
When we bring this view to analyze women’s clothing throughout history, we understand that, unlike the contemporary social imaginary, women were not only victims of the clothing of each era. Quite the opposite. Many of them appropriated pieces to empower themselves and help conquer their place in society.
According to the course Feminism & Fashion – Subversive Clothing & Feminism, taught by Journalist and Fashion Researcher Valéria Said, over time, we can observe several transgressions in women’s clothing. According to the professor, it is in these moments “that we deconstruct the idea that fashion only served to reinforce women’s subservient roles”.
To better understand this movement, it is important to contextualize some concepts.
Subversive Clothing: The walk hand in hand of Fashion & Gender Politics
To understand this phenomenon a little better, let’s go through some concepts.
According to great researchers such as Gabriel Tarde, fashion can be considered universal. In other words, we can find it in all civilizations and affects all social institutions.
At the same time, fashion is also a particular phenomenon. This is because it developed from the moment that there was the individualization of societies. Therefore, starting in the 14th century and reaching its apex during the 19th century. From that moment on, clothes were no longer standardized. In a way, it was possible to distinguish social class, religion and culture through people’s clothing.
Gender Binarism & Gen Z
Today, Generation Z has been breaking down – even if still discreetly – the barriers of gender binarism. Freedom became the main word in the battle cry. But this shows that the agenda of respect for others is extremely young. Gender binarism prevails in western society, which has markedly Eurocentric standards that reflect in clothes.
Until the 12th century, there was not much differentiation between men’s and women’s clothing. It was from this period that gender identification started to be given by the clothes.
The bifurcation of male attire – or rather, the creation of pants – further reinforced this division. It provided the “social construction of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman”, says Said in her class. From then on, there was a historical construction in the social imaginary. Creating a pre-established separation of what means to “be a man” and to “be a woman”.
The professor also adds that, in our society, “children grow up with the sense that clothing should reflect their biological sex, which even reinforces their almost predestined and, in a way, imposed role in society”.
The subversion of Marie Antoinette that ended in the guillotine
Queen Marie Antoinette definitely did not live up to what society expected of someone with her title.
As much as it is arrogant to say that her clothes and attitudes led to her death, at the same time, it is impossible not to establish a relationship between her attitudes and her destiny.
In the 18th century, Louis XVI’s wife scandalized the court by wearing clothes from the men’s wardrobe and catalyzing a radical movement in women’s clothing at her Petit Trianon. The queen posed for portraits with clothes deemed inappropriate for the time and her attitudes bothered French society.
As much as the exaggerated ostentation was part of her personality, at various times, Marie Antoinette broke with the political emulation that social position should be revealed through clothing.
The Chemise à La Reine: proof of the “queen’s dishonor”
In Marie Antoinette’s time, the chemise was a kind of slip that went under other clothes or worn as casual attire. That is, the woman could use it exclusively when she was resting in her intimate space.
After the queen began to wear the garment without covering it, it became known as Chemise à La Reine. Therefore, giving a dishonorable meaning to Marie Antoinette, as it contradicted the official attire of French royalty.
In fact, in the same period, the artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun painted a picture in which the queen used this piece. The court didn’t like it and demanded the replacement of the portrait. They wanted another one that was more acceptable to the society of the period. After all, a queen who used fashion politically to deconstruct and challenge the court through clothing was not well regarded.
When Marie Antoinette used the chemise, the revolutionaries questioned a lot her attitudes. But later on, they began to use the piece, giving it a new connotation: Chemise à La Constitution. And from there, the story began to change.
Subversive Clothing: The French Revolution, women’s clothing and fighting attire
From the French Revolution on, the adoption of clothes as a form of subversion came to be treated as an important element.
As much as the revolution opened many paths for men, for women the situation was not like that. The creation of the Sumptuous Laws (13th to 18th century) allowed, in a certain way, the democratization of clothing. However, from the perspective of the gender equality discourse, it did not contribute to the freedom of women’s clothing.
The revolutionaries rejected the use of men’s garments by women. They said that the ladies would best contribute to the cause by staying at home and providing children for the army. Thus, even in movements that wanted to break with the current order, there was a social reaffirmation of binary gender roles, reinforcing that women should stay in private, taking care of the home and family and that their clothing should reflect this.
The “Great Male Renunciation” & female imposition
In the 19th century, men began to abandon the colors, bright fabrics and ornamentation on their clothing. Flügel created the term “Great Male Renunciation” from the moment that men did not seek beauty in the way they dress, but rather bring usefulness and respectability in their appearance through sober colors.
Le Triomphe du Noir – “the triumph of black” – meant that the lighter colors were left to the women. At that moment, the thought that fashion should be more linked to the women’s sector arises. Thus, it gains a sense of futility and frivolity. As a result, women became a “showcase” of their husbands’ wealth and therefore should always dress in an “acceptable”, “respectful” and even ostentatious manner.
Since women were supposed to stay at home, they didn’t need clothes that gave so much movement. Skirts with countless layers of fabric and corsets that barely let women breathe were mandatory and contributed to “maintaining the role of subservience of women”, as Valéria Said said in her class.
Movement against corsets & the beginning of the deconstruction of gender binarism in fashion
It’s impossible to talk about subversive clothing without mentioning the movement against corsets.
The term “feminism” came up with a negative connotation, but, little by little, suffragettes re-signified it. Together, they brought indignation at clothing imposition that, above all, was uncomfortable and limiting.
Women who courageously faced what, theoretically, served as a rule gradually adopted pieces like the Bloomer Pants. The pants were created by Elizabeth Miller and first worn by Amelia Bloomer. The feminist reformers adopted it in 1851.
The use of men’s wardrobe pieces brought with it a symbolic value. The use of these pieces in the clothing of emancipated women can be explained by the transfer of symbolic capital associated with intellectuality, rationality and a “serious craft”.
Women not only began to wear these pieces but also to look for jobs outside their homes, claim their rights and fight for what they believed in. As Said said, “this is what even bothered men, because it implied that in addition to wanting to occupy the professional space, they were also appropriating clothing that, symbolically, was just theirs. A daring change of roles”
Subversive Clothing & the Suffragettes of the 20th Century
There were several women who throughout history left their marks in the way they dressed. Whether it was wearing pants, loose hair and shorts, leaving the corsets aside or getting rid of bras. To this day, it takes struggle, courage and a little subversion for women to prove that they can wear whatever they want. Of course, being judged or disrespected for doing so was not an option. They didn’t – and still don’t – accept it.
Suffragettes, for example, began to use jackets and ties in their daily lives. Because of this type of attitude, they ended up being marginalized.
In fact, there are few records of women at that time. The press of the period accused them of being “sloppy” for not following their pre-established dress code.
The 1st Feminism Wave began at the end of the 19th century and lasted until 1960. It continued the movement to fight for gender equality and contributed to continuing social convention subversions. Women at that time began to think about fashion more strategically. In other words, use the clothes in their favor and in favor of the movement.
A fight flag of social struggles
Fashion has increasingly become a political tool and this has gained more and more strength.
Women of the 2nd Feminism Wave (1960s and 1970s) applied the style coup by confronting the Victorian aesthetics of the period. They brought the “New Feminist Look” to life.
It was in this period that the movement adopted the colors Green, White and Violet to endorse the slogan “Give Women Votes”. These colors began to appear in accessories, such as brooches and jewelry, which helped the militants to identify themselves in the streets and public places – giving rise to the feeling of sorority, which defends the importance of women helping each other.
The adoption of men’s pieces was not forgotten. Hats, pants, jackets and other clothing were increasingly incorporated. These pieces continued to serve as a weapon of struggle, helping women to reaffirm their role and conquer their rights.
The Great World Wars & Femininity
The coming of the two great World Wars marked a new phase and was decisive in the feminist movement. Women had to assume the men’s roles in factories, who in turn went to the fields to fight.
It was impossible to carry out her new social commitments wearing long skirts and pieces that limited movement. In addition, in times of war, resources were scarce – there was even a lack of food. So restocking clothes in stores was definitely not a priority. Therefore, it was from that moment on that the adoption of masculine garments among women became popular.
At the end of the fighting and with the return of the men to their homes, they tried to resume their social role and put women back within the four residential walls. But this was becoming less and less accepted.
Gradually, women conquered the right to study, to choose work and their physical and intellectual liberty. There is still a long way to go in terms of female freedom. However, throughout history, we can see that women who, by many were considered subversive and demoralized, actually served as an example of resistance and struggle. They used fashion in their favor as a form of expression and resignified several pieces.
Subversive Clothing in Contemporary
Feminism has contributed to women taking control of their visual identities, politically challenging their social representation, by breaking with female stereotypes. But the fight for gender equity continues. After all, it is not because women can vote that the battle is won.
As Said said in her class, “dressing is a political act”. Today, the subversion of clothes lives up to the affirmation of non-binarism, to complete freedom of choice regardless of the individual’s sexual orientation and gender identity. Especially because, as Simone de Beauvoir said, values and social behaviors are not biologically determined, but socially constructed.
Fashion serves to give visibility to the plurality of each individual. Unlike the standardization that the industry has imposed for many years, wearing pieces that give freedom of expression, grant self-confidence and break with beauty standards established by the media and mainstream industry is a revolutionary act that persists and strengthens over the years.
Did you like this article about subversive clothing and want to learn more about Fashion & Social Changes? Read: 5 SIGNS THAT WILL HELP YOU TO UNDERSTAND HOW FASHION REFLECTS SOCIAL CHANGES!