Thursday, October 23, 2014

Menswear Women

    The language of Attire does more than allow us to speak our minds in a personalized visual sense; it also operates as a banner that announces, and sometimes carries forward, broader social change.  Its difficult, maybe even impossible for folk under 40 to really understand what a huge shake up women's clothing went through in the 20th century.  From our 21st century perspective, the notion of women in pants, man tailored shirts, jackets, and coats is one that is a common part of the daily wear of many women, and seeing anyone dressed that way would inspire almost no negative comment whatever.
    But a mere eye blink in human history ago, it was not so.
    Before the 18th century, women dressing as men in any way was virtually unheard of.  Where the change began, was the slow creeping influence of military and riding clothing shapes into women's clothing.  Aping the color and decorations of men's military wear, especially during a time of war could get a lady by as being patriotic, or supportive of her husband.  And through the offices of royal ladies like Sophie Marie here, menswear inspired riding clothes became first a shocking challenge, and then an accepted part of any stylish ladies wardrobe.
  During and after the French Revolution women donned hussar styled jackets and hats, in imitation of Hungarian hussars uniforms.
    Once we got into the 19th century shake ups came more often, and with greater impact.  During the mid to late 19th century a movement called the Dress Reform Movement was trying with some success, actually, to get both women and men to dress with more sense and practicality.  It was from this movement, (about which I'll post another time in more detail), that the Bloomer Girls emerged.
  These were the first women to be out in public on the streets and by ways wearing bifurcated garments on their lower bodies rather than skirts.  Sure, to our eyes now they look more than a bit silly; but trust me when I say, this was a huge cannon shot right into the heart of women's dress traditions.  Did it change everything overnight?  Not a bit of it.  But it shook the foundations of the edifice that had been women's apparel, and helped make the upcoming changes possible.
    By the beginning of the 20th century, edgy couturiers like Poiret were designing harem pants and culottes outfits for women who had style and no fear of reprisals, socially.
  And once the First World War happened, and women started doing men's jobs, pants gained even more acceptability.  Sure, once the war was over, women dutifully went right back into their dresses and skirts, but the door had been opened, and could never be closed again.  Right along side this was the incredibly popular Gibson Girl.
  Created by Charles Dana Gibson, his girl was a suffragette, a strong, principled woman, and also quite at home in a man styled shirtwaist with a man's collar and tie, a straw boater and a mannish jacket.  She was frequently illustrated by Gibson as being taller and larger than her menfolk, a curious change that infiltrated popular culture.
    The thirties and the film industry in the USA pushed things forward as actors like Dietrich and Hepburn took to wearing full on menswear on a pretty regular basis.  It increased the acceptability of it across the board and made it all the more reasonable that when World War two happened, women would think nothing of jumping onto overalls and dungarees to get the job done.  They never really ever left them again.
    Sure, the primacy of menswear looks for women has waxed and waned over the past several decades, but it has remained a presence, and few women now, in Western culture at least, have a wardrobe with no pants, no tailored shirts and no coat that could just as easily pass for menswear.
  The Attire language steps up to the plate each time social change is coming, often helping to push things along, by visually exciting and challenging us to think differently.  Is the process for women completed with regard to their emancipation from a narrow construct of acceptability in dress?  No, of course not, but we can look back along the track of years and see how far we have come, which is very far, indeed.

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