by Beth Hammarlund
I’ve always found it mildly humorous when someone who considers themselves politically and socially active states that they have no interest in fashion. Though that may be true in their own mind, not caring about fashion is a political statement in itself. Everything that we wear sends a message, and knowingly or not, politicians and citizens are wrapping themselves in politics every day.
Whether by forgoing a bra or drawing a line down the back of one’s leg to mimic the seams of silk stockings (embargos with China made silk hard to come by in WWII), our clothing is both a reflection of our own values and beliefs as well as a product of current political climate. (Notice how hemlines tend to rise during times of economic stability, but fall as frivolity falls out of favor in darker times.) Political expression through fashion is perhaps my favorite chapter of sartorial history, so in honor of our nation’s birthday, I wanted to share a few of my favorite eras in American fashion.
Upon later viewings, it became clear to me that Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins wasn’t the greatest example of women’s suffrage. Thoroughly wrapped in her political endeavors, she was so oblivious to the rest of the world that she couldn’t have even told you where her children were at any given time. She’s certainly not as admirable as Sybil in Downton Abbey. That said, when I watched Mary Poppins as a child, I loved watching her proudly strut around the Banks home, transforming female servants to comrades in arms with a fist held high as she sang “Sister Suffragette”:
“We’re clearly soldier in petticoats
And dauntless crusader for women’s votes
Though we adore men individually
We agree that as a group they’re rather stupid”
During this era, women in the United States and Great Britain seemed more linked than ever, sisters in a social uprising that bridged the Atlantic Ocean. Though much of women’s power struggle was expressed through styles of clothing (wearing trousers in the early 20th century was beyond shocking) or embracing traditionally male activities, such as riding a bike, it was also encouraged to literally spell out your views. Banners and buttons shouted for equal opportunities and the right to vote. A suffragette was less concerned with carrying a handbag than she was with her picket sign. This spring at Retroram at the Minnesota History Center, Max Lohrbach infused traditional suffragette pieces with his signature whimsy, dressing his model in trousers, an antique lace feminine blouse, and a hat that simply stated “VOTE.”
Bobs and Bathtub Gin
If suffragettes were the self-sacrificing and determined older sisters, flappers were the brassy little sisters that openly rebelled against social norms by brazenly flashing their disdain for the society’s perceptions and expectations of women. Suffragettes caused a ruckus by wearing trousers or showing off ankles. Flappers took that five steps further by showing off their knees and wearing sleeveless or strapless dresses. During prohibition, an era in which temperance and excess were at constant odds, they smoked and drank excessively, treated sex casually, drove cars, cursed, and partied just as hard as the boys. They wore the trends of the time as if they were a uniform, flaunting their values and choices as blatantly as someone wearing a sandwich board.
Flapper fashion adopted masculine and boyish qualities, favoring dresses that created a flat-chested straight frame, without restrictive undergarments. Women wore their hair short, but played freely with makeup in styles that would typically mark a woman as slutty.
Burn that bra!
Flappers made a fuss when they traded hourglass-shaping corsets for step-in panties and less constricting bodices, but in the ‘60s, women across the country did away with brassieres altogether, organizing bra burnings from coast to coast. At least they did metaphorically. In reality, there is no record of any bras being publicly burned, and undergarments were symbolically thrown into trash cans during only a handful of demonstrations.
During this time, hemlines rose comfortably above the knee, and tops and bathing suits exposed more skin than ever before. As women reclaimed ownership of their bodies, they began to stop apologizing for them as well. A woman shouldn’t be ashamed of her sexuality, and if someone had a problem with that, then they should look somewhere else.
Hair was worn natural, whether that meant long and straight or short and afro’d. It was all about accepting natural female beauty and refusing to conform to the commercialized expectations of the male gaze.
Wear Your Beliefs
Most recently, protests against the manner of Florida teen Trayvon Martin’s death have been simply marked with a black hoodie. The public outcry manifested itself in marches across the country, ranging from dozens to thousands of participants outfitted in hoods. Occupy Wall Street staged its own Million Hoodie March, and public figures across the country made their views clear by simply tweeting photographs of themselves wearing hoodies. (The entire Miami Heat basketball team posted such a photo.) Local designer Emma Berg referenced the tragedy and the ensuing movement in her piece for Retrorama, showing a black hooded dress in a subtle nod to the tragedy. It will be interesting to see if and how this demonstration of protest works its way into the ready-to-wear lines of major fashion designers.
Over the past several weeks, in celebration of Pride and in protest of the Minnesota Marriage Amendment, citizens of Minneapolis and Saint Paul have been decked out in rainbows and covered “Vote No” buttons and stickers. Whether you’re a buttoned-up attorney who occasionally sticks a “Vote No” sticker to your lapel, a teacher with a rainbow manicure, or a proud gay man in five inch heels, you’re participating in a society-wide visual conversation.