Throughout the history of fashion, women have utilized style as a method of resistance, making political and social statements by using certain articles of clothing, or styling themselves in a particular manner. Unlike other possible types of resistance, fashion is a tangible form of defiance for someone of any social standing or background. As a result, various groups of people have utilized clothing and style as a form of resistance, employing fashion as a form of power in a situation in which they might otherwise be immobilized. By adapting bold fashions, different subcultures have been able to develop a form of resistance within society. In his piece, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige, explains that “it is this alienation from the deceptive ‘innocence’ of appearances which (gave) the teds, the mods, the punks, and no doubt future groups of as yet unimaginable ‘deviants’ the impetus to move from man’s second ‘false nature’ to a genuinely expressive artifice; a truly subterranean style” (152). This capability was tremendously important for women, especially within the 1960s, where fashion presented itself as a platform in a society without many opportunities to speak out.
For centuries, women were forced to follow a very specific gender ideology that clearly manifested itself in the clothing they wore. Society informed women that they belonged in the domestic sphere, where they were not required to be as mobile as men, leaving them with constricting and burdensome fashions that instead served to define and emphasize their female figure. As a result of these circumstances, feminists in the mid-nineteenth century resisted against this form of dress by creating the bloomer in hopes of blurring gender lines and bringing about a new version of femininity. Despite their best efforts, the conversation around the bloomer centered on the fashion itself instead of having the message about gender equality heard. Instead, men denounced the bloomer for obstructing the female body by making it “immodest” and essentially “usurping what was rightfully man’s” (Nelson 24).
Despite these types of setbacks, women’s resistance through fashion continued into the twentieth century. In the 1960s, women’s fashion took a great turn from decades past. Females of the period were able to battle issues such as gender inequality by taking styling actions, including shortening their hemlines. By donning shorter skirts, women freed their legs of the cumbersome dresses and skirts that society had placed them in for centuries. Rather than sporting a hemline that kept women tied to the domestic sphere, women were able to resist this gender role by wearing skirts that expressed their confidence, sexuality, and freedom from the confines of familial life.
Women of the 1960s also showed resistance to predetermined gender roles when they began wearing pants. Like miniskirts, pants freed women from predetermined gender roles, while the unisex style also lent itself to being practical in the workplace. As men adopted more feminine details in their clothing, many women began adopting menswear looks, defying the specific characteristics that had come to define a strict gender binary. By dressing alike, men and women were able to fight against falling into their expected position within society.
In some cases, women of non-white racial categories were fighting a double dose of inequality, and their fashion resisted this additional oppression as well. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, African American women such as Angela Davis sported afros as a sign of resistance in a time of severe racial inequality. By wearing their hair in its most natural state, African American women were able to embrace their ethnicity, and resist the socially acceptable norm of silky “white hair.” Instead, “these styles sought to ‘liberate’ the materiality of black hair from the burdens bequeathed by racists ideology (Mercer 40).
By making startling fashion choices, women of the 1960s were able to bring notoriety to their resistance. By utilizing fashions that were “a symbolic violation of the social order,” these women were able to create a “movement (that) attract(ed) and (would) continue to attract attention, to provoke censure and to act… as the fundamental bearer of significance in subculture” (Hebdige 152). Women of the 1960s drew attention to their specific causes through shocking trends, such as mini skirts, sheer clothing, and flashy midriff baring tops, wearing clothing that you couldn’t help but notice.
Although these fashions were shocking and provoking in the 1960s, styles such as pants and miniskirts do not reflect the same dose of resistance that they did in the 1960s. Whether the message became irrelevant, or the style of clothing commodified, the meanings of these fashions have been redefined. As Fred Davis explains in his book Fashion, Culture, & Identity, “There is reason to be cautious about ascribing precise meanings to most clothing,” because “the very same ensemble that ‘said’ one thing last year will ‘say’ something quite different today and yet another thing next year” (150). Today mini skirts and pants are considered standard items of clothing for women to wear. In 2014, there is nothing shocking about a crop top or sheer blouse, and instead these items of clothing are considered in vogue for contemporary youth. Although many of the fashions that women of the 1960s used to create a form of resistance have a changed meaning, new fashions have taken their place. Despite being much more commonplace in the twenty-first century, women still utilize masculine items of clothing in order to resist the domestic roles that society has previously laid out for them, and instead use these items to help define their positions as current or potential CEOs or world leaders.
Unlike the many forms of resistance that have come before and after the dawn of fashion, style still exists as one of the most tangible forms of defiance, not only for women of the 1960s and today, but also for various groups and subcultures around the world, giving a visual voice to their cause.
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture, and Identity. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1992. Print.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. Print.
Mercer, Kobena. Black Hair / Style Politics. 1987. Print.
Nelson, Jennifer L. “Dress Reform and the Bloomer.” Journal of American & Comparative Cultures 23.1 (2000): 21-26. EBSCO Publishing Service Selection Page. EBSCO. Web. 2 May 2014.