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Revealing Fashion: Throughout history, fashion has conveyed the politics and culture of an era

The words “fashion emergency” take on new meaning when you consider choosing the wrong outfit could land you in jail or a “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl could, well, land you everywhere.

British fashion designer Mary Quant in 1967 with her designs Quant Afoot
British fashion designer Mary Quant (seated, at the front) helped make the miniskirt a wildly popular fashion statement in the 1960s.

While Janet Jackson’s fashion mishap has triggered heated debates for stricter Federal Communications Commission restrictions on television and has made its way on every media outlet imaginable, it is an interesting time to reflect on the role of fashion in American and world history.

The theme of morality has always been at the forefront of fashion controversy. It often dictates what is acceptable to wear and creates a social norm in which all fashion is judged.

“During the Victorian Era there was a strong sense of morality,” said Dr. Ann Dupont, fashion-merchandising specialist in the Department of Human Ecology at The University of Texas at Austin. “Fashions were conservative and covered up.

“There are even some correlations to how hidden the closures are in Victorian costume. If you look at the interior of a Victorian gown, you’ll notice all the hooks and eyes were buried under layers of fabric. This is an example of how closely guarded and how strict the laws of the day were. You would never make it obvious how easily it would be to get out of a garment. To put it in context, compare that to the 1960’s garments, during the sexual revolution, that had the huge zippers down the front.

Painting of woman wearing large black hat with feather by Rococo artist Joshua Reynolds
“Miss Gideon” by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1786, reflects the large hat styles in 18th century French fashion.

“A lady’s ankle was pretty shocking stuff,” she added. “To the point they often had separate men’s and women’s staircases in Victorian houses in order not to risk the person walking behind a woman getting a glimpse of her ankle.”

During colonial times there was a sense that fashion represented the condition of the state. Regulating fashion was seen as a way to protect morality, social or gender distinctions and the home textile production. As a result, people began to look at fashion with exaggerated suspicion, particularly during times of threat—real or perceived.

“When we identify a problem, we start looking inside our own boundaries for pervasive agents,” said Dr. William Scheick, the J. R. Millikan Centennial Professor in English Literature at The University of Texas at Austin. “This is particularly heightened during scary moments throughout history.

“During colonial times, a woman could be brought to court or even face imprisonment for wearing the wrong clothes,” he said. “The man of the house would be summoned and instructed to get his woman under control. Going to court was very embarrassing, considering these were extremely small communities. The idea of shame as a deterrent had a big impact.”

Scheick has discovered some interesting examples of “what not to wear” in his research on the relationship between fashion and domestic policy in early American literature. He first became interested in the topic after reading Nathaniel Ward’s “The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America,” printed in 1647.

Jacqueline Kennedy's pillbox hat from 1961 Inauguration Ceremony
Pillbox Hat, 1961, Beige felt
Worn by Jacqueline Kennedy to the Inauguration Ceremony,
Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 1961
John F. Kennedy Library and Museum

For example, Ward, an influential Massachusetts Bay minister, was particularly incensed when women followed the latest fashion of the European courts. Because France’s Queen Henrietta Maria was Roman Catholic, he perceived her influence on fashion as a religious threat to the colonies. Opposed to any ornamentation in dress, he condemned the “animal-like appearance” of French fashion, saying that the women who wore clothing in the French style appeared to possess “squirrel’s brains” rather than “wit.” He called on gentlemen to deplume their “feather-headed wives.”

“In Ward’s book, his fear of the Roman Catholic Church is recast as a fear of New England women being converted into French flirts,” Scheick said. “This phrase refers not only to little flower ornaments, but also to prostitutes, one of the meanings of flirt in his time.”

While fashion in history might have symbolized morality, it also sometimes reflected patriotism, and that was sometimes at the expense of the French.

Early republican Frank Amity, in an “Address to the Ladies of America,” which appeared in the 1787 issue of American Museum magazine, argued that the natural beauty of American women did not require foreign female fashion. In order to get them to reject French fashion, he claimed the designs were meant to conceal various physical deformities. One of his supporting tales exposed “the expedient of a large hat” as initially created to conceal the missing eye of a French woman’s face.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Senate event in Boston in 2004
As first lady, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first to be photographed wearing a pantsuit to an official White House function. Here she is photographed (third from left) at an event in Boston wearing her trademark black pantsuit.

Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons

“Although she did not regain her lost eye,” Amity observed, “she effectively eclipsed that essential part of beauty in all her rivals, who followed the fashion.”

“Amity’s post-revolutionary emphasis on independence is characteristic of his time, but he takes it even further by his suggestion that foreign fashion is a form of imprisonment,” Scheick said. “He correlates independence in dress with independence of country.”

There have been other times in history that showing one’s patriotism has been more about what a person didn’t wear. During World War II, embargos against China made silk hard to come by and an increased need for textiles placed limitations on home use. Another interesting twist on fashion was that women began wearing pants because of their more active lifestyles—a trend that has not ended.

“Ladies had to draw lines on the back of their legs to imitate seams of stockings, because you couldn’t obtain silk,” Dupont said. “Standards limited the amount of fabric available for domestic use. If a garment required more than two and a half yards of fabric you couldn’t make it. You had to have stamps and that was all you could purchase. The textiles were being used to turn out uniforms and other war materials.”

Chiffon velvet evening dress typical of 1920s flapper style, worn by First Lady Grace Coolidge
First Lady Grace Coolidge wore this chiffon velvet evening dress during Calvin Coolidge’s administration. The dress is typical of the 1920s flapper style.

Another important influence on fashion has been American first ladies. Much like the European queens of the earlier centuries, American first ladies have been frequently in the spotlight—now more than ever—with television and the Internet. It is hard to think of fashion without thinking of first ladies such as Jacqueline Kennedy with her elegant evening gowns and classic suits topped with pillbox hats. In some cases, they have even been fashion groundbreakers. As first lady, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first to be photographed wearing a pantsuit to an official White House function.

“The Reagan administration is a good example of a glamorous cast during good economic times,” Dupont said. “We saw more flashy formal dresses than we would have during a period of warfare or less stable economic times.”

Probably one of the most exciting times to examine fashion’s intersection with political and social events is the 1920s.

“Within 10 years of each other, we see women go from wearing mono-bosomed ankle-length gowns to knee-length and sleeveless,” Dupont said.

Women had the right to vote and their fashion reflected their newfound freedom and rebellion against traditional lifestyles. It’s not until bra burning in the 1960s that America saw such a bold fashion statement for women’s equality again. The 1920’s flapper style became the hot new look with its shortened hemlines, sleeveless dresses and androgynous haircuts. This celebratory fashion has become an icon.

While considered in vogue, there were still some critics. Dupont has a personal antique wedding gown collection of about 250 gowns and had the opportunity to speak with a bride who had worn one of the dresses during the 1920s. According to the bride, her grandmother refused to attend the wedding because she thought the dress was just too shocking because it was sleeveless. However, the grandmother eventually accepted that her granddaughter was just ahead of her time.

With the stock market crash of 1929 and a depressed economy, fashion took on more somber tones. It was considered in bad taste to show off or dress too extravagantly.

“Ultimately, fashion reflects the temper of the times,” Dupont said. “Consumer confidence drives the fashion industry. When we have a stable political environment you tend to see a little bit more frivolous fashion and in times when things are more serious we see a much more sensible or practical approach.”

Michelle Bryant

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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