Why conservatism in fashion isn’t the answer

Chanel Runway SS/15 Paris

Where would ‘womanity’ have been today, if Coco Chanel hadn’t released us from the tyranny of corsetry a hundred years ago? If Yves Saint Laurent, André Courrèges, Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood hadn’t challenged the status quo and hadn’t liberated women from under-structure?

One of the most influential inventions in 20th century of fashion history has been Le Smoking, the first tuxedo for women. It consisted of a classic dinner jacket in black grain de poudre wool or satin trousers, with a satin side-stripe, worn with a ruffled white shirt, black bow tie and a wide cummerbund of satin. This was a bold alternative to the little black dress by Yves Saint Laurent. Despite the second-wave feminism of the 60s, encouraged by developments like the contraceptive pill, well into the decade it was still controversial for a woman to wear trousers in public. Wearing YSL’s Le Smoking effectively demanded: “If men can wear this, why can’t I?”

The image of women began to shift in the 60s, from being a wife and mother to a young, single and carefree individual, proud of her sexuality and confident with her power to accomplish her individual goals. The miniskirt would express—and serve as a tool for this growing women’s movement. Regardless of who really “invented” the miniskirt, both Mary Quant and André Courrèges deserve credit for revolutionising fashion with their daring hemlines. Quant’s position at the heart of “Swinging London” and Courrèges’ position in the more sophisticated Parisian couture world, helped the miniskirt become a major international hit.

As a designer, Courrèges made it his life mission to liberate women, acknowledging the disconnect between womenswear and daily routines of modern life. He desired to design clothes that allowed women to move freely. “In his own famous words “a woman, to drive her car must pull up her skirt, we have failed her in designing her clothes.” Besides the miniskirt, Courrèges became renowned for his trousers for women and cut-out backs, all designed for a new type of athletic, confident, active woman.

All these inventions were a reaction to the spirit of their times and brought massive social changes to life- and not just for women. In liberating women, fashion demanded them to be treated equal- realising a collective psychological and behavioural change in society. This is a side of fashion that is often forgotten today, driven by ephemeral narratives and trends.

On Fashion’s current state of affairs, Edward Meadham accurately noted in his manifesto “We are so bored by the un-inspired clothes we are presented with – that focus shifts to shallow ideas of political expression.” We are living in a time where fashion is more and more used to justify rigid political and religious views, with conservatism slowly putting a damper on creativity, freedom of expression and beauty- manifested in sexual taboos and politicisation of the female body. Simply put, the more bleak or ‘politically unstable’ society becomes, the more conservative becomes the idea of dress. It is up to us, to continue this dark path or to restore fashion’s integrity and power to democratise, through the freedom to create and freedom to be.