The fashion world has never shied away from controversy. In fact, it’s an industry that’s always seemed to lean into it, embracing the difference and using style as a way to express opinions or send messages.
Same goes for the beauty world; when there’s an issue taking centre stage, it often finds its way onto the shelves of our favourite makeup retailers.
For ages, fashion and beauty have been used as a tool for progress. The suffragettes of New York used red lipstick as a tool for defiance in the early 1900s, women burned their bras in the 1960s as a statement on equality, and recently we’ve harnessed the attention-getting power of pink for women’s rights.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting some of the most memorable ways that fashion and beauty rebelled and helped shape our culture for the better. May we always wear our hearts on our sleeves…and our shoes, and in our hair, and on our lapels.
Lipstick as a symbol dates way back to ancient Greece at least, when prostitutes wore it as a means of identification. Over the next several hundred years, it was sometimes used to denote social status, but mostly looked down on as a tool for temptresses and even witchcraft.
By the early 1900s, however, it had come to stand for something completely different: girl power! The suffragettes of New York wore bright red lipstick as a show of solidarity over women’s right to vote. In fact, in 1912, Elizabeth Arden marched with 15,000 suffragettes in New York and provided them with red lipstick as a symbol of strength. Again around WWII, red lips were used to symbolize freedom and strength. To this day nothing screams “I am woman, hear me roar” quite like a stunning red lip.
Jeans for gals? Before the ‘30s, this would’ve sounded preposterous. Denim, it seemed, was reserved for cowboys trying to wrangle cowgirls. But Levi’s saw a hole in the market, and in 1934 released a line for ladies, aptly called Lady Levi’s.
According to fashion historian, Karlyne Anspach, women first began to wear men’s jeans as a symbol of revolt to level off the effect between the sexes. The rest is history.
For decades, womenswear was dominated by girdles. The undergarments would cinch waists into unrealistic and often painful proportions.
But by the 1950s, designers like Cristobal Balenciaga were bored of these unnatural silhouettes. And so, girdle-free fashion was born. Finally, we can breathe again.
Balenciaga’s new shape
Just in case you were wondering, this is what that looser silhouette looked like. These 1950s Balenciaga coats were a far cry from the cinched waists women of that era were used to. And we’d definitely still wear these coats today.
Hemlines first came up during WWII when designers traded prudence for practicality and created a shortened skirt that allowed women entering the workforce more mobility and flexibility. But after the war, the trend didn’t go away. Women liked being able to dress practically — plus it was sexy, an idea that in 1925 was pretty outrageous to many.
By 1927, skirt hemlines were hitting just below the knee with flamboyant flappers a la Great Gatsby. (Oh the scandal!) They came back down in the ‘30s and ‘40s and even into the’ 50s, but when the swinging sixties hit, things got hot quick. The miniskirt was born, which pretty much made it acceptable for women to wear any length of hems. And thank goodness for that!
From burning bras…
The ’60s saw an explosion of human expression in many forms, and many of the protest movements manifested themselves in the fashion world. For example, as a symbol of defiance, women took to the streets to burn the undergarments that constricted their bodies.
More recently, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop encouraged women to toss their lacy garments into the fire as a way to rid memories of and move on from former lovers…which isn’t exactly the same thing, but why not?
…to feeling empowered by them
Sometimes fashion speaks through an individual, and it definitely found a voice in Madonna. She taught us it was more than OK to Express Yourself, Vogue from time to time, and live life Like A Virgin…or not.
The legendary Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra she wore onstage in Japan in 1990 during her Blondie tour made such a sizeable countercultural splash that lifestyle writers are still using it in their digital roundups of rebellious moments nearly thirty years later.
The power suit
As women began moving into careers traditionally dominated by men in the ‘80s, fashion followed. Flimsy floral frocks simply wouldn’t do, and Chanel noticed the need for another option. Enter, the power suit: an ensemble that aimed to help women feel as powerful as their male counterparts. Pinstripes never looked so good.
Women’s nipples are still incite the ire of many but why? #Freethenipple if you so choose or go braless if that’s your preference.
Black shirts for Black Lives Matter
In 2016, some WNBA teams took a stance against the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the many lives affected by police brutality, declaring that Black Lives Matter by wearing black t-shirts on the court. Players on the New York Liberty, the Indiana Fever, and the Phoenix Mercury wore all black Adidas warm-up shirts throughout July 2016 in order to show solidarity with the victims and as a call for reform.
Pink pussy hats
The Pussyhat Project saw tens of thousands of protestors stand united in pink pussy power hats that symbolized their support and solidarity with women’s rights. The sewing, crochet and knitting patterns are all free online, so you too, can wear your pussy hat with pride.