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.
While Janet Jackson’s fashion mishap
has triggered heated debates for stricter Federal Communications
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.
“A lady’s ankle was pretty shocking stuff,” she
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.”
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
“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
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.
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
“In Ward’s book, his fear of the Roman Catholic Church is
recast as a fear of New England women being converted into French
said. “This phrase refers not only to little flower ornaments,
but also to prostitutes, one of the meanings of flirt in his time.”
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
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.
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.
“Although she did not regain her lost eye,” Amity observed,
“she effectively eclipsed that essential part of beauty in all
her rivals, who followed
“Amity’s post-revolutionary emphasis on independence is
characteristic of his time, but he takes it even further by his
suggestion that foreign fashion
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
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
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
to turn out uniforms and other war materials.”
influence on fashion has been American first ladies. Much like the
European queens of the earlier centuries, American first
frequently in the spotlight—now more than ever—with television
and the Internet. It is hard to think of fashion without thinking of
such as Jacqueline Kennedy with her elegant evening gowns and classic
suits topped with pillbox hats. In some cases, they have even been fashion
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
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
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
to speak with a bride who had worn one of the dresses during the
1920s. According to the bride, her grandmother refused to attend
because she thought
the dress was just too shocking because it was sleeveless. However,
the grandmother eventually accepted that her granddaughter was
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
“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
are more serious we see a much more sensible or practical approach.”