The Feminism of Fashion

That last post reminded me of some interesting facts I’d like to throw out there.  FIRST

In case no one has told you…the fashion industry is a consumerist death-trap of elitism- with a marketing strategy aimed at making people feel insecure about themselves.

But then again, so are the cheese, housing, indie music and ironic tee-shirt  industries.


The fashion industry has very political, intellectual and feminist elements.


I will share the stories of my two two favorite houses of fashion and perhaps you will see why I care and why I love them. Super Condensed.


Hem Hem.

I love the house of Chanel.

Before Coco Chanel there was Paul Poiret- who, while known for freeing women from corsets, was also a completely pompous, extravagant,  dude.  His motto in life was “I’ll tell women what they want to wear.”  His work was creative and fun, but not practical in the least.  It was, and he admitted this, poorly made clothing. The clothing was meant to “read beautifully from afar.” For men of the era, structured, well stitched, practical, long lasting clothing.  For women, poorly made, structureless, huge, gaudy clothing.  He seemed to love creating fashion as far out of the realms of actual usefulness as possible.  Giant balloon pants.  Super flowey draped dresses that look like giant bags, freakishly huge hats.  You really couldn’t wear a Poiret while doing anything practical.  Women were meant to be somewhat ridiculous visions of otherworldiness. Now, to be fair, he was trying to break out of previous fashion traditions, and his work reflected the popular Art Nouveau of the era- but seriously.

(Poiret Dress) "Take me seriously. No? Why not? Could it be the FREAKING BELL I'm wearing around my waist?"

(Poiret Dress)"I'm just going to head down to the office now after my factory wait, I just remembered. I should be sitting still or standing ornately because I'm wearing FREAKING BALLOON PANTS."

Nutshell:  Before Chanel women wore corsets with a million petticoats like their grandmothers  or they wore Poiret clothes which would fall apart in the space of a few months,  were ridiculously expensive and impractical.


Coco Chanel was a penniless orphan who learned from her Aunt how to sew.  Using this skill she worked as a seamstress for many years with her sister.  Preferring independence, and seeing how marriage disenfranchised women at the time, she vowed never to marry but still managed to increase her social circle and power, and just plain personal fulfillment, through being an independent mistress to some, actually, pretty cool guys.  She began to rock the fashion world by wearing menswear type clothing, because she found it to be more practical and less friggin’ ridiculous and demeaning.  She is reported to actually have had an altercation with Poiret, himself, when she wore a simple straw hat and a practical tailored suit-dress to watch the horse races.  Poiret insisted that women would not want to wear such simple, practical things, when they had the honor of dressing like the fairies of the world.   Coco’s (whose real name was Gabrielle) hat had caused some whispering around the course, and legend has it that during Poiret’s and Coco’s arguement, a visiting princess sent someone to inquire where Coco had bought her super awesome hat.  Her, sort of sarcastic, reply?  “Tell her I got it at the House of Chanel.”

Later, realizing that her current dude-friend and patron had plans to keep her dependent on him, she bravely packed up everything and decided to make her own business (un-HEARD-of!), selling practical hats.  She failed, due to a lack of marketing strategy, and that might have been the end but the true love of her life, Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel, stopped by for a visit one day and decided to help her out.

AND, may this be an important point.  It took a little bit of patronage and trust from someone more empowered ( not a lot, like the guy Coco was professional mistress for, but just a little push)that can make all the difference in disempowered people succeeding.  So, feminist guys, your goal is NOT to help women by “taking care of” them, but by giving them the support and resources they need. Ok.

With this money she created an entire clothing line, and got a nice new shop, which she promptly painted completely white, because she loved simplicity and practicality.

Inspired by menswear, affordability for independent working women (scandal!), clothes that looked good on anyone, and clothes that could be easily worn and cared for, she took over the industry.  Inspired by the rugged clothes that sailors wore she created an entire line of practical sailor-type wear…for women.  People were shocked and appalled… and women bought it all because after centuries of corsets and being the flower, but not the brains of the operation, they wanted to run down the beach too.

(Early Chanel Dress) Ah... That's better.

During the first world war and the rise of female empowerment, Chanel skyrocketed.  She started completely dominating multiple exclusively male industries.  She was France’s primier feminist, and always had been a pretty big radical for women’s rights ( who knew!).

Poiret’s house closed completely not long after that.  Turns out nobody actually wanted his crappy sexist clothes. *shrug*

A few years later, Arthur died, and Chanel made a simple black dress that she could wear, because she was sad, dangit,  and still run the world in.

Now, before Chanel, black was only used for mourning.

Prior to the 1920s, black was often reserved for periods of mourning and considered indecent when worn outside such circumstances, such as depicted in John Singer Sargent‘s painting, Portrait of Madame X. A widow’s mourning dress was closely observed at a time when details in fashion conveyed a sophisticated symbolic language. During the Victorian and Edwardian ages, a widow was expected to wear several stages of mourning dress for at least two years. “Deep” or “full” mourning required the woman to wear plain black clothing with absolutely no decoration for the first year and a day of mourning. The second stage lasted nine months and permitted the wearing of black silk. In “ordinary mourning” for three months, the widow could accessorize only with black ribbon, lace, embroidery, or jet jewelry. The final six months of “half-mourning” allowed the bereaved to wear muted or neutral colors: shades and tints of purple were most common. Because of the number of deaths in World War I, plus the many fatalities during the Spanish flu epidemic, it became more common for women to appear in public wearing black.

In 1926 Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel published a picture of a short, simple black dress in American Vogue. It was calf-length, straight, and decorated only by a few diagonal lines. Vogue called it “Chanel’s Ford.” Like the Model T, the little black dress was simple and accessible for women of all social classes. Vogue also said that the LBD would become “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.”

Pants! Pants! And a buttonless tee-shirt! Do you know WHAT YEAR this was taken? 1916. She is wearing pants and a tee-shirt in 1916- just out there, on the street....cause she felt like it.

Coco Chanel is where we get modern women’s business wear, women’s loungewear, tee-shirts, women’s sports wear, women’s slacks and  women getting to wear the color black.

I mean….I love Chanel so much….I could go on some more…but just suffice it to say- the House of Chanel rocks in a super feminist way. She redefined everything.  I kid you not.  Every fashion innovation in women’s wear, starting in , like 1892, can be directly linked to Coco Chanel, and a pretty huge chunk of women’s rights advances can also be traced to her as well.   And if not for her, in all likelihood, me and all the other women around you and I would still be wearing really impractical things which would prevent us from doing some really awesome things.  Seriously.

In the late 90’s, early 2000’s there seemed to be a

The dress on the right was the original dress, but then they handed the template over to Coco Chanel in her later years, where she chopped it down, saying "No woman would leave the house in a fashonable city looking like that." Breakfast at Tiffany's look was born. And this was in 1960, which the 50's housewife look was still the thing. This streamlined look was completely radical.

return to Poiret-style clothing for women- cheap, poorly made, untailored, super flowy sacks of over-ornamented doom.  May such clothing, which is only fair in that looks good on no one, burn forever.   Women are not window treatments.  Avoid draping things on them.


I love the house of Prada.


Mario Prada founded the the Prada company in 1913.  Basically, what it was was a shop for the floods of tourists who came to Italy.  His forte was making sturdy traveling trunks made out of walrus skin for fashionable train and carriage travelers.

Now , Mario Prada was so ridiculously sexist that he did not believe that women’s simple brains could handle the business world.  He banned women of any kind from even entering his workshop, including his ow daughter Luisa Prada.

As air travel began to…um…take off (he he he), the demand for huge-as-death walrus skin trunks decreased  because of flight weight requirements.  Mario instead decided to start making little leather bags and suitcases for travelers.

Then Mario kicked the bucket.  His sons, who had managed to eat and drink and waste time and money, and who never much cared about the family business, went off to Rome to become broke, leaving Luisa at home to become….well, what did they care.  Luisa broke into her dad’s workshop and rehired the employees and kept the business going, all by her female self.  Noting an increase in female travelers, she started making wallets and handbags for women out of leather ( which was a pretty new thing).  She also started marketing specifically to well-to-do travelers, creating a high-end tourist market.

Luisa had a daughter named Miuccia Prada ( now…this is important.  It is pronounced like “Mew-cha”, NOT “Mee-oo-cha” or “Mew-Chee-a.”  People might stare at you funny. I know. It’d be like mispronouncing Beethoven. )

Miuccia Prada went to University where she got a PHD in Political Science and worked her way through University as a part-time mime (*shrug* You know, whatever.)

Now this PoliSci PHD Mime had absolutely no fashion design experience, but she was very very smart ( the one gift the fairies forgot to give Sleeping Beauty…which might have really helped out) and was aware of what was going on in international markets.  She took an interest in her Mom, Luisa’s, company in 1970 and introduced a few changes.  They

A current Prada handbag.

stopped importing foreign products ( If it was going to be an Italian accessory shop…it was going to be THE Italian accessory shop), and broadened their product base.  Miuccia had noticed that there was demand for waterproof carrying cases among fashionable, independent women, like herself, and she introduced making things out of, not only leather, but black nylon ( which had never been done!).  Since the company already had a pretty big market among well-traveled rich old people, she had a foothold into the wealthier markets.  She unveiled her 1985 Black Nylon Prada Handbag…and though success was not instantaneous, it soon became the “must-have” thing.  She introduced a shoe line a year later, and the house of Prada ( already pretty rich because of Luisa) took off at a million miles an hour.


Soon, knockoff Prada bags started appearing, which Luisa used to her marketing advantage.  Which so many knockoffs, the style was popularized by everyone, and demand for REAL Prada became even higher.

(This is in contrast to All-Male Run Gucci, which suffered many civil wars among its male, don’t-actually-care-about-handbags, CEOs, until it became known as a “cheap airport brand”.  When knock-offs began to appear, instead of embracing the fashion as it trickled down to the populous, and using it as self-created marketing, they pretty much killed themselves trying to destroy knockoffs and raise prices.   And Gucci is now only alive because it sold bits and pieces of itself to everyone else until it only exists in theory.  I don’t like Gucci.)






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2 responses to “The Feminism of Fashion

  1. Pingback: The Feminism of Fashion « Jephthah's Dancing Daughter | My Singer Sewing Machines

  2. marcellus

    Hey Jephthah,
    I found your site and was just trawling thru nothing special, till i started to read your commentry, which i found unusual and entertaining, I thoght your light hearted approach was a pleasant change to the professional dribble that many sites conform to.

    Your description of the Gucci scenario was confronting, do you think they are a victim of failing to read the times or they were not realistic.

    nice work


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