A to Z: A Concise Dictionary of Unfeminist Fashion
Can women ever truly reclaim clothing as a means of self-expression, if the roots of fashion are embedded in patriarchal control?
The fashion industry is overwhelmingly for and about women. And yet, its foundations lie almost entirely in the gratification of the male gaze and the male idea ofhow women should present themselves. If clothes are a way for people to express themselves, then, can women ever truly reclaim their clothing as an expression of their choice, if the very roots of fashion are embedded in the patriarchal control? Historically, women’s clothes have been deliberately made to deny function and constrict free movement. The female body and its cover have always been the prerogative of patriarchy and capitalism, with religion and globalization making things even more complicated for women across socio-economic fault lines in society.
A 1963 article in the American Quarterly explains the origins of women’s fashion and the motives behind it. It argues that women’s fashion is a byproduct of a larger patriarchal propaganda to make women subservient by cultivating a restrictive, slave psychology. “The forms of dress that women wore were consciously designed to prevent them from earning an income and/or becoming successful, except through marriage,” the author Robert Riegel writes.
With the foundation of women’s fashion rooted in misogyny and control, can any amount of Katy Perry’s “daisy dukes-bikinis-on-top” optimism ever reclaim women’s fashion as truly theirs? Here’s a concise dictionary of unfeminist fashion to highlight how deeply and insidiously patriarchy is hiding in our closets, ready to jump out and puppeteer us every morning.
A is for the Aviation Industry
A 2014 report highlights almost one-third (29%) of female flight attendants reported being sexually harassed while on duty; it makes sense when you look at the extent to which the industry sexualizes air stewardesses to literally make them a part of the service the airline provides to the passengers. It has to do with keeping the pornographic-mile-high-club, tea-or-me fantasy alive. The job description itself puts women on display for consumption, aided by strict grooming and fashion guidelines such as hair and makeup rules, the mandatory high heels when air hostesses walk through an airport, to a very common no-pants rule. Or, this Avianova airline advertisement, which abandons all subtlety and has air hostesses stripping from their uniform skirts into bikinis, all while the male staff and crew of the plane watch.
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B is for Bikinis
When it comes to swimwear (and everything else), women have gotten the shorter end of the stick with plunging necklines and sharp V-cuts on bikini bottoms — which, in an ideal world, are just regular clothes. Pretty freeing clothes, actually. But the inherent public sexualization of a woman’s body further amplified by capitalism makes the foundation of the bikini murky. University of Princeton research found that when men were shown photos of women in bikinis, as opposed to “modestly dressed women,” the region of the brain associated with tools, such as hammers, lit up. So, while bikinis inherently are not sexist, their perception aids in the objectification of women and sexualization of the female body. In fact, before the skimpy version of the bikini we now recognize became a mainstay, even modest two-pieces were advertised as having been “designed from a man’s point of view.”
C is for Corsets
Corsets, as an undergarment, can be traced back to the 1600s in the West. They have since become a permanent and pervasive garment for women across classes. Corsets used steel, whalebone, and silk in order to “discipline the (female) body, improve physical appearances, correct physical deformations and help enhance social status in society while restricting, silencing and punishing the body from childhood to old age,” as described in this 2017 study on the history and culture of corsetry. Detailing the damage that tight-lacing a corset has on the body, The Lancet published an article on the subject on June 14, 1890, entitled “Death From Tight Lacing.” It went on to say that “[…] by this process almost every important organ is subjected to cramping pressure, its functions interfered with, and its relations to other structures so altered as to render it…a positive source of danger to them.” Today, the corset is used as an undergarment, as outerwear in high and everyday fashion, and as a fetish garment. Some might even say it has been reappropriated by women as a symbol of sexual liberation and feminine rebellion, but the truth remains this: corsets have always and will always embody the dichotomy between power and restraint, ideologically and painfully superimposed on the female body.
D is for Dresses
…and skirts, and society’s obsession with how long or short they are. There’s really no winning with this one. If your dress/skirt is ‘too short’ you are whoreish, slutty, asking for it, provocative, cheeky or flirty. Below the knee, you are either proper, old fashioned, prudish or matronly. This policing of the length of dresses and skirts is deeply entrenched in our institutions: from sexist dress codes in schools that don’t allow you to wear a skirt any longer or shorter than the length of the arms, to the egregious sexualization of Maria Sharapova, one of the most talented tennis players in the sport, because of her “short skirts.” All this is done under the garb of protecting women from men’s uncontrollable sexual appetite, which may be stimulated at any point with zero provocation. How much of a woman’s legs can be seen dictates how distracted men can get, because in this rape culture that encourages victim blaming, “who asked her to wear a short dress and head out” remains the most common refrain after an incident of sexual violence.
E is for Empire Waistlines
Closer to the 20th century, with the women’s emancipation movement picking up steam, the female dress form started revealing the actual form of a woman’s body. With this, the bodice required a tighter fit to highlight the ‘natural waist’ and in contrast, the skirt became fuller to give the appearance of an hourglass figure. Soon, there were empire waistlines (where the darting is done right below the bust line to accentuate the chest and give the appearance of longer legs), basque waistlines (with a literal ‘v’ shape pointing down from your waist to your, well, pelvic area), mermaid dresses (which dramatically cinch in at the knee and then flare out) and princess waistlines (which have a small bodice and vertical seams running from under the arms to the bottom of the dress for a seamless, curvaceous look). Amid all this, men’s fashion saw the drastic progression of their pants getting longer and waist-coats getting shorter, and of course, a top hat! Do you see the difference?
F is for Feminist Fashion
How do you reconcile the desire to look good, for yourself and to other people (as is natural and necessary for the survival of the species), and the feminist idea that women are more than just how they look? Added to this contradiction, at the heart of the debate, are several other live-wire issues, such as the over-sexualization of the female body, body policing, self-esteem regulation by corporations who thrive off of women aspiring to look like the pictures the companies put out in the first place — the list can go on and on. But if fashion has been a site for oppression, it has also been a site for the zeitgeist. Women, since the suffragette movement, have chosen to resist sexist fashion not by refusal, but by reversal. Today, the red lipstick, which was considered only worthy of a harlot, is considered the go-to classic for a work meeting, thanks to the third-wave Riot Grrrls. Lingerie is marketed to women as clothing they should buy to ‘make themselves feel good,’ and heels, the excruciatingly painful invention, are now an integral part of a woman’s power strut towards and beyond the glass ceiling. In that sense, feminist fashion has always existed and will continue to exist as a counter-force to fashion by way of giving women a voice and a means of self-expression.
G is for Garters
Functionally, a garter is a band of fabric worn around the leg to ensure a sock or stocking is kept up. Starting from the 16th century, garters started gaining prevalence, with men also using them extensively. Around the same time, a wedding tradition required that a piece of the woman’s bridal gown be given to the wedding party as proof of consummation of marriage by the groom. This gave birth to the ‘sexual garter,’ which is worn by the bride on her thigh and removed by the groom as a sign of him owning her after marriage, and hence, her virginity.Today, while the archaic nuances of this tradition fade out, the memory of it lingers, with garters and stockings becoming an integral component of ‘sexy’ dressing and lingerie. Bonus fun fact: they almost always fail to hold stockings up, so functionally, it’s fake news.
H is for Heels
Here’s a doozy: high-heeled shoes were originally worn by men in horseback-riding cultures of the 10th century. With the migration of the Persian cavalry, the trend spread to Europe, and soon, the heels became associated with the horse-owning upper class. Around the 17th century, women slowly started wearing heels and they became a staple of aristocratic fashion of the time. Till this point, heels were not a signifier of gender. However, heels slowly started getting gendered in design, with men’s heels becoming broader and sturdier, and women’s heels being narrower and more decorative than functional. Even with the more practical design, around the 18th century, men deemed heels too uncomfortable, and thus, they became a woman’s shoe.
With the invention of photography, pornography and pin-ups came to the forefront with posters of women in high heels donning almost every barrack during World War II. When the war ended, and the men returned, demand turned into supply; the hellish stiletto was invented, and the heel made its way into the street, office, and home. Except, you can’t drive, run or hike in them, and you need to stay away from grass, ice, and polished floors. Also, podiatrists believe that most types of heels are a recipe for blisters, swollen toes, throbbing heels, and even long-term health issues, like nerve damage. So, recently, when Japan’s Labour Minister declared that all women must wear heels to work if the employer so demands it, thousands of women were rightfully livid over it.
I is for Inadequate Warmth
On a cold winter’s day in February 2018 in London, Jennifer Lawrence stepped out to promote her movie, Red Sparrow. Dressed in a black, sleeveless Versace gown with a plunging neckline (almost to the waist) and thigh-high slit, Lawrence looked out of place posing for pictures with her other five male cast members who were dressed in coats, scarves, boots, and winter coats. Why? Because it was close to 4 degrees Celsius outside. Sure, she can say it’s her choice — after all, it was a beautiful dress — but a more nuanced understanding of the feminism of choice is needed. Did she really have a choice not to be warm, or was she the next in a long line of actresses everywhere being told to dress by prioritizing fashion over comfort, sexy over warmth — because their unique selling point is sex and not talent, unlike their male counterparts’? Bollywood seems to be especially good at this differentiation, with a big chunk of 90s song-and-dance set in the snowy mountains of Switzerland and the actress in sheer, chiffon sarees with backless halter blouses, while the actor is bundled up like he’s going to the North Pole. This has inevitably trickled down to everyday fashion, and the result is, women’s winterwear consists of long-sleeved tops, camisoles, cardigans, and jackets meant to be “layered.” Yes, because I want to buy four different types of clothes from the same shop to be as warm as a man will be in a T-shirt and a sweater? No! If it’s winter, give us warm clothes, for god’s sake?
J is for Jewelry
It’s not so much as what jewelry looks like and how it aids in the sexualization of the female form as it is the role of jewelry embedded in our conceptions of masculinity and femininity. When you think of jewelry for women, you think decorative items: earrings, necklaces, bracelets, anklets, nose rings. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say men’s jewelry? The uber functional wristwatch. This aside, the origins of jewelry as a marital and socioeconomic status marker for women are problematic and hard to dismiss as history. The fact that the amount of jewelry a woman wears peaks when she’s getting married is because her value to society as a fertile woman is considered to be the highest then. Mangalsutras,or red bangles, denote a woman is married, while the man wears no similar ornament. The engagement ring has roots going all the way back to primitive times when men tied braided grass around their chosen mate’s wrist and ankles to “bring her spirit under control.” More violent manifestations include stretched ear and lip plugs enforced on women in the Igbo tribes of the Niger Delta. All these and more are important instances of the ways jewelry mediates the interaction between men and women within existing patriarchal power structures.
K is for Keyhole Necklines
…and all other necklines. A keyhole neckline is created when a hole is cut in the neck starting from the collarbone till above the breast for no other reason than to draw attention to the breast. And the ‘sweetheart neckline’ literally has two curved pieces of cloth converging over the breasts in the shape of a — wait for it– heart. If that’s not sexualization for sexualization’s sake (and for power over the female form’s sake), then what is? How the neck area (really, they mean the chest area) of a woman’s attire looks has varied in history, depending on how tightly regulated was the idea of a woman’s modesty and purity. Starting with the relatively liberal Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian civilizations, U- and V-shaped necklines prevailed. In the Victorian Era, high collars and full skirts were the norm. We have reached 2019, when at least more than 20 different necklines exist for women, while men continue to be content with T-shirts with possibly three variations of necklines and shirts that all look the same.
L is for Lingerie
There is a reason why the word ‘lingerie’ conjures up a Victoria Secret-esque, ‘this-is-what-your-sex-life-needs’ outfit designed to appease the male gaze. I’m talking lace, leather, and silk; exquisite fabrics in exquisite cuts for exquisite prices that make a performative costume for the pleasure of the beholder. It’s because the multi-billion dollar lingerie industry is primarily led by men. The CEOs of Victoria’s Secret, Agent Provocateur, and Calvin Klein are all old, white men. This means a vast majority of the advertising and marketing of lingerie is based on the idea of sex. With pornography fetishizing lingerie and the woman wearing it to adamaging extent (think: fishnet stockings and sheer bodysuits), it is a long way until women can successfully reclaim lingerie as something they wear to feel good about themselves.
However, progress is underway. The Guardian reports that in 2017, sales of push-up bras fell by 50%, while the sale of padded bras fell by 20%, based on a sample of retailers in the U.S., U.K., and Europe. But here’s food for thought: what if the lingerie industry has simply depoliticized and co-opted feminism so that it comes down to the individual woman’s right to choose, as opposed to structural social changes? That way, the mindset at the heart of the issue — the one that allows Victoria Secret to introduce a bra called ‘Body’ with its perfect, size-0 lingerie angels and the tagline, “The Perfect Body” — remains unchanged, and business goes on, per usual.
M is for Makeup
While this one calls for its own A to Z list, here’s the gist of it: the amount of time (nine days a year), money, and energy vast numbers of women spend applying makeup — first moisturizer, then concealer, foundation, eyeliner, mascara, blush, lip liner, lipstick, bronzer, highlighter, and powder — only to conform to a societally-set beauty standard is absurd. This, even with studies claiming that women expose themselves to more than 200 synthetic chemicals during their ‘beauty’ regimen. And sure, women are reclaiming this front of fashion as a means of self-expression, as well. But the choice to wear makeup is only an empowered one when the choice not to wear makeup isn’t so stigmatized by society, and petrifying to women because of constant social conditioning, making her feel that, maybe, she’s not worth it and that one lipstick will fix it.
N is for Nylon Pantyhose
Sheer tights, usually made of nylon, emerged as an alternative to stockings once hemlines of women’s clothes began to rise in the 1930s. What originated as a piece of clothing intended to cover up a woman’s legs for warmth slowly morphed into the exact opposite: sheer, thin tights which serve no functional purpose than to make the legs look smooth, blemish- and bruise-free, and reduce visible panty lines. Their only redeeming quality? It freed women from having to wear dastardly garter belts and clips to hold up their individual stockings
. But even how this transition was marketed is symptomatic of how inescapable the male desire is when it comes to fashion: this 1968 advertisement for Burlington Cameo’s pantyhose entices women to “get rid of their garter bump” with the following copy: “There you are in your skinny skirt…telling the world the exact point at which your stockings are attached to your garter. Please. Have a little mystery.”
O is for One Size Fits All
When I say that most fashion sexualizes the female body, I don’t mean all female bodies — just the tall, ultra-thin, with-a-hint-of-curves kind of body, thanks to a monolithic trend in physiques of celebrities and models who endorse said fashion. Most women’s clothes are made for a range of bodies that fit under the reasonable gambit of fit and/or thin, making it hard for women to find clothes that they like and that fit a body size 16 and above. Around 2015, a new kind of clothing store started popping up, which promoted ‘One Size Fits All’ clothing. Needless to say, it didn’t (and doesn’t) work because women’s bodies don’t come in one size and that’s okay. But this trend is an important reminder of the expectations that society has of how women should look. Every extra pound on a woman’s body is scrutinized, and clothing is limited to exclude those who don’t fit into the ideal body type and weight.
Plot twist: the ideal is unattainable and heavily produced, so you’ll always be excluded in one way or another, thereby entering the vicious trap set by patriarchy and capitalism of lifelong self-esteem and body-image issues, which only a pair of thigh-high stockings can fix.
P is for Pockets
In the medieval era, both men and women had bags tied to their belts to carry around their essentials. In the 1700s, men abandoned the little pouches and received permanent pockets sewn into their clothes. Women, however, did not get the same luxury because of two reasons: one, it was considered unladylike to hide your hands, and two, women never had any money of their own to keep in pockets. With the French Revolution came slimmer silhouettes and therefore, less space for a pouch to be attached. This is when small purses were first introduced. At the end of the 19th century, thanks to movements led by early feminists calling for more functional clothing, practical pockets began to be sewn into women’s clothes. But, after the First and Second World Wars ended, a societal expectation was put upon women to dress more feminine, now that their men were coming back, and the pockets-for-women trend took a hit before it could gather any speed; handbags became the norm. A 2018 study of 80 pairs of men’s and women’s trousers revealed that women’s pockets are nearly 50% smaller than men’s pockets, and while 100% of men’s pockets could handle the average male hand, only 10% of women’s could fit a woman’s hand. Till this day, most women’s jeans come with two fake front pockets with the seams literally sewn shut, and finding a dress with pockets remains an unbeatable joy. “Pockets, unlike purses, are hidden, private spaces. By restricting the space in which women can keep things safe and retain mobility of both hands, we are also restricting their ability to navigate public spaces…or to travel unaccompanied,” the study concludes.
Q is for Queer
All fashion, and its commentary, is overwhelmingly heteronormative. Queer style, however, has always run a counternarrative to that of patriarchy’s sense of fashion and has dismantled limiting style rules, since it is fundamentally rooted in gender nonconformity. Historically, queer style has always been at the forefront of “a fashion revolution, from the flapper dress to the Zoot suit to Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner gracing the covers of mainstream glossies…,” writes Anita Dolce Vita in Advocate. Quick to jump in on a new trend, the fashion industry has swiftly capitalized on the “gender ambiguous trend” as noted in The New York Times. However, there is more to queer fashion than androgyny and masculine attire. Feminine queer fashion has space in the queer style narrative, too, because it is all about reclaiming and redefining femininity.
R is for Ruching
Ruching is a way of tailoring women’s clothes wherein layers of fabric are gathered at strategic places — namely the breasts, waist, and buttocks of a woman’s body — for no reason other than to accentuate them further. The visual message that ruching conveys is literally that a woman is ‘well endowed’ enough for the fabric to appear to stretch at certain areas in a ripple-like manner. It was a trend in 80s fashion, transforming the traditional bodycon dress with a sexualization upgrade that “magically hugged the curves and concealed them at the same damn time.” Fashion commentators claim that the trend is making a comeback in 2019 with brands like YSL and Gucci taking to it, but the premise of the technique remains obsessed with the female form and how prominently feminine it looks. The same goes for certain kinds of darting used in women’s clothes as well.
S is for Spanx
…and all shapewear, because the underlying premise for their existence lies in negation and critique of women’s natural bodies as they go through life. Tummies, muffin tops, ‘love handles,’ and cellulite are all very common features of the human form. Shapewear — tightly-boned garments to compress a woman’s shape under an evening dress — imposes shame about not having the perfect natural body. And Sara Blakely, the woman who invented Spanx, has made billions out of just this insecurity.
T is for Thong
A special shoutout to all the designers, models, pop stars and celebrities who made the thong a reality, and then had the nerve to push the envelope further by creating a G-string. From all the women who have ever worn a thong and tried to be functional: you can kiss our very chaffed asses. Also, what is the functional purpose of at least five different cuts of panties and why is the most comfortable, practical one called “boy shorts”?
U is for Underwear
I don’t know who needs to hear this but bras being good, even necessary, for a woman’s health is a myth. Bras don’t make breasts sag or keep them perky, because, between gravity and old age, breasts inevitably sag at their own pace. So, why is there such a brouhaha around wearing a bra? Why is it almost a rite of passage into womanhood? The origins of the bra are well known: it evolved from the more restrictive corset by the 1920s, and over the next two decades, women slowly started preferring it over that tight-lacing nightmare they had to previously endure. In 1947-48, no one asked, and yet, a man invented the push-up and padded bra for no reason. Soon, Hollywood and cultural influencers like celebrities and models started jumping on the bra bandwagon, and the rest is distorted history.
However, feminists have always been onto this patriarchal trickery and held a protest in 1968 outside a Ms. America Pageant claiming bras were instruments of female torture with the intention to burn them. However, the authorities dispersed the crowd and no such arson took place. The false urgent narrative around the bra nevertheless survived, but there is still hope for the Ladies with the new wave of feminists demanding that society ‘Free the Nipple’ with immediate effect.
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V is for Veiling
The earliest known record of veiling in the sense of a woman covering her hair with cloth is from the 13th century, when it was a signifier of the aristocracy. Ancient Greek, Roman and Persian societies all had women participating in veiling. These customs ultimately trickled down into the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all three of which employ the veil as a measure of protecting a woman’s piety. Even Hinduism and Sikhism, which originated continents away, have codified women veiling as a sign of deference to god or man. This veiling becomes even more problematic during weddings when the bride-to-be is hidden behind some manifestation of a veil. This is done to ward off the evil eye and to assert her virginity, which can rightfully only be dismantled or ‘lifted’ by her husband, the owner.
W is for Wife Beater
A colloquial way of describing a ribbed, sleeveless, white tank top, the wife beater has become a mainstay of popular culture and teenage fashion, especially across the U.S. How did a white tank top come to be so unfortunately and violently named, and why does it remain cemented in our sartorial vernacular? In 1947, one James Hartford Jr. was arrested in Detroit for beating his wife to death. The story went national with a picture of Hartford in a stained white tank top next to the words “the wife beater.” Hollywood stepped in to amplify the link between male violence and white tanks, with movies like A Streetcar Named Desire, Bonnie and Clyde and later, Inglorious Bastards, featuring the clothing item. By the 1990s, the ‘wife beater’ had become embedded in vocabularies and wardrobes. If we’re going to have a discourse over how “plus-size clothing” is a poor choice of words normalizing the other-ness of a bigger body, we need to talk about this “wife beater” business. Because if there ever was an example of domestic violence being normalized in our conversations, this is it.
X is for X Line
If the dozens of waistlines slowly evolved over history are not enough options for you as a woman,Christian Dior came up with a new silhouette in 1947: the X Line. Business of Fashion defines this as: “X-lines celebrate the female figure — a small waist, emphasis on shoulders and a full hem follows in the shape of the letter ‘X.’” Is there a waistline I can adhere to if I want to look like the letter O instead?
Y is for Youth
Added to the list of things the fashion industry is obsessed with is youth and the blatant ignorance of women over the age of 40. That fashion is for the young, and looks better on young bodies, is still deeply entrenched in our cultural consciousness. Sure, every now and then, some brand does something gimmicky like getting Joni Mitchell for a Saint Laurent advertisement, but it doesn’t mean that the industry cares about older women. The models of the runway, billboards, and online shopping websites are still all young and thin. “The interesting thing about fashion is it’s a paradox because of its extreme focus on beauty,” said Ashton Applewhite, author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.” “Of course, we do idolize youth and equate it with beauty, but aging and beauty can and do co-exist.” So non-inclusive and ageist is the fashion industry, that at this point, it seems as if their stereotypes equating only youth with beauty are more important than even the bottom line. For instance, even though only a very small percentage of women, especially those under 40, can afford to buy a lot of high fashion, couture houses such as Christian Dior continue to use 15-year-old models on the runway.
Z is for Zippers
The zipper did not become a garment closure until the 20th century and then, for a long time, remained confined to men’s trousers. By the 1950s, women slowly started wearing pants and trousers as well, but there emerged a key difference: men’s zippers were in the front, easily accessible for putting pants on and taking them off, while women’s pants featured side zippers or back zippers. Since pants and trousers emerged as upper-class fashion, the understanding was that women usually had someone dressing them up and helping them with garment closures. According to this History of Trousers and Pants, “social norms…dictated a feminine modesty that seemed threatened by the easy removal made possible by front zip slacks.” Additionally, front zippers were deemed as not elegant enough and “too bulky” for women’s clothing.
Slowly, with increased women’s emancipation, by the 1970s, women started wearing men’s jeans, which eventually blurred the line of zipper placement to some extent. But the grossly impractical trend remains in dresses, skirts, and more formal trousers meant for evening wear. Every time I have stood in front of the mirror, contorting my hands behind my back for 15 minutes, I wonder if it is too much to ask to be able to dress myself up as an adult and get out of the house to live my goddamn life.
Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle's Features Editor. When she isn't fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.