The recent Golden Globe Awards launched one of the most exciting views for eveningwear fashion. The glamorous, couture gowns get as much attention as the nominees as journalists probe actresses with the staple question, “Who are you wearing?”
Actresses spend months grooming themselves and watching their figures in hopes of wearing the perfect gown that could elevate their careers and place them on a magazine’s “best dressed” list.
On the big day, stylists work frantically to tape, cinch and tuck their clients into these fabulous and quite expensive designs and send them off to look as natural as possible. However, this year one actress took a less traditional route in terms of black-tie attire.
“I’m not trying to protest dresses,” actress Evan Rachel Wood was quoted as saying. “I wanted to make sure that young women and girls knew that they aren’t a requirement and that you don’t have to wear one if you don’t want to. Just be yourself, because your worth is much more than that.”
Her decision to wear a pantsuit on the red carpet is a flashpoint on the current social climate in fashion in modern society. Fashion reflects the social zeitgeist, and it encourages the stereotypical sexism and gender roles that have plagued our nation for centuries.
Throughout history, fashion has been used to express social status. Individuals who could afford to purchase luxurious silk gowns and elaborate suits decorated with embroidery showed off their wealth in the form of fashion. The physical constraints of the garments further communicated the individual’s wealth and conspicuous consumption. The garments were designed to make mobility physically impossible, therefore further communicating that this elite social class wasn’t performing manual labor.
The infamous crinoline was an undergarment that physically restrained women in a circular cage. As she began to dress, a woman would stand trapped in this structure and observe as servants piled heavy dresses and petticoats layer by layer upon her, increasing the weight and physical strain on her body. The garments, although elaborate and aesthetically beautiful, relayed a message. A woman’s purpose was to look pretty. Her main objective in life should be to alter her body by whatever standard of beauty society mandated at the time, even if that caused discomfort or immobility.
In the 18th century, those standards included corsets constructed of whalebone and wire used to squeeze the waist and physically shift organs up into the rib cage, making it difficult for women to eat or breathe freely. A scene from “Gone With The Wind” depicts Scarlett O’Hara holding on for dear life as her “mammy” laces her tightly into her corset.
As time progressed, women began to gain more independence and power in the world. Functionality is a key complaint today from women who want to look polished and fashionable, but need to wear clothing that allows them to be active.
Take, for example, the cellphone. Everyone carries one, but most of the pockets designed for women in their pants or jackets don’t allow for practical use. If the garment actually has functional pockets, the size is too small to carry the average-size smartphone.
A man’s jacket, by comparison, offers a variety of pockets allowing him to carry his wallet, keys and phone so that he is not constrained by dragging around a handbag, further identifying the gender distinction. In fact, the handbag has become a silent weight dragging women behind their male co-workers.
The lack of pockets has a long absence in women’s wear and to this day has never been resolved. In the 1700’s women had to wear sacks tied around their waist tucked deeply under layers of petticoats.
It was difficult to access the items they carried under their elaborate dress. As silhouettes became sleeker in the 1800’s, women carried reticules which were miniscule, portable purses.
These purses were elaborately decorated and weren’t even large enough to hold money further defining a woman’s dependence on a man and his larger, more dominating pockets.
The stiletto is another modern form of fashion repression, yet it continues to be a fashion favorite. Heels can range upward of 5 inches, completely distorting the posture of a woman while throwing the spine and hips out of alignment.
In addition to the physical pain, a coveted designer pair can cost a pretty penny. The iconic Christian Louboutin heel with red sole costs upward of $700 for a basic pair.
Society propagates the message that a sexy heel is the epitome of femininity and is a sure way to appeal to the male species. We see successful women portrayed in magazines and film wearing designer dresses and stiletto heels further promoting this connection of the heel to power and femininity. As a design, the product is beautiful, but the construction of the shoe itself prevents a woman from moving quickly and painlessly. Ever caught your heel in a subway vent or break one while running to a meeting?
And what does it say to be running after your male counterparts who can walk quickly painlessly and briskly to a lunch?
We either suffer, painfully running after them or again carry the weight of a flat in our handbag as constant reminder of our unequally in not just fashion, but in life in general. Maybe not as extravagant as the corset, but it is a modern example of how fashion enforces the importance of what it deems as feminine appeal over liberty and practicality.
Some may ask, but isn’t that the purpose of fashion? To be able to choose how you want to express yourself however that may be including wearing a 6-inch heel and having the freedom to do so? Well yes, but how much freedom do you really have in your selection that isn’t influenced by societal pressures?
I’m not challenging the freedom to express oneself through the use of fashion. What should be questioned are the subliminal messages we are receiving as a society on what is acceptable for a woman to wear and how the construction of clothing contributes to those sexist ideals and restricts her from mobility and success.
Designers realize this social inequality, and some address it in their collections. Alexander McQueen developed imaginative and transcendent designs that used magnificent imagery to tell his stories. He empowered women by using fashion to portray the atrocities women endured by arming them in couture artistry. He once said that he wanted people to be afraid of the women he dressed, using fashion as a form of communicative power to reject the societal standards inflicted on them.
Yet, still in this modern day, the majority of fashion designers contribute to the oppression of women when they design clothing that is either aesthetically pleasing and physically restrictive or functional and plain. Why can’t a woman have both?
It’s time for designers to take note of the modern woman and how we define beauty as a society. It doesn’t mean that a woman has to dress like a man to be successful, but rather redefine the functionality of garments that are designed for women who have goals and ambitions and lead a modern lifestyle. Beauty may come at a price, but it should be restricted to one’s wallet.
Jessica Ciarla is a fashion designer and a lecturer of textiles and apparel at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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