Fashioning an Expanded Role

How women used everyday attire to press for independence and equality


In 1912, two American suffragists launched a Throw-Away-Your Corset campaign, calling on women to emancipate themselves “in matters of dress as well as in politics.”

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, PhD, describes that action and others in a new book chronicling how women used fashion to gain more freedoms and propel the growth of feminism from the 1890s to the 1970s.

“In the early 20th century, feminism was as much about clothing that would not hamper movement as it was about voting or equal pay,” said Rabinovitch-Fox, a history lecturer at Case Western Reserve and author of Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism (University of Illinois Press).

The book begins with the fictional Gibson Girl, who became a stylish fashion icon in the 1890s. She wore a shirtwaist and skirt ensemble, which signified modernity, offered ease of movement and represented the demand for equality. Suffragists soon adopted the fashion, with white their signature color.

The sartorial march continued throughout the 20th century, as women used fashion to communicate their desires for greater freedoms, from 1920 flappers—whose knee-length skirts allowed them to drive cars, dance and play sports with ease—to 1970s career professionals in pantsuits, a symbol of women’s empowerment and economic independence.

Rabinovitch-Fox also provides glimpses of activist actions from opposing sides of the fashion divide. In the 1920s, some cities—including Cleveland—legally mandated appropriate swimwear for women, while in the 1970s, women took to the streets to protest midcalf skirts by staging “clipins” to publicly cut these “midis” with scissors.

The book ends with contemporary female political leaders wearing white both to honor suffragists and support ongoing fights for equality. “They are treating fashion and appearance, not as an oppressive tool to be ignored or resisted,” Rabinovitch-Fox writes, “but as a liberating force through which they could reclaim their voice and power.”

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