In the light of the movements that, these days, struggle for freedoms not yet acquired, the role of women becomes increasingly vital and meaningful. But what is also relevant, in all these battles, is the way fashion can help to break boundaries and prejudices. From the right to vote to political guerrillas, she was always there.
In times of cholera, when everything is more conducive to analysis and nostalgia, let’s rewind on a story that tells us a lot: the history of women's struggles for rights so universal that, now, sitting on the couch for moral and sanitary obligation, they may do more meaningful than ever. We are deprived of our freedom but we know that, after this “state of emergency”, everything will return to normal. We can go to work. We can wear whatever clothes we want (a miniskirt? why not?). We can travel. We can vote. But it was not always so. Female emancipation, an ongoing struggle since the beginning of the time, has a very dirty past. They wanted to shut them up. Close them at home. Hide them from humanity's great decisions. Only they didn't succeed. In the late 19th century, women began to realize that words were a powerful weapon. And they took to the streets. The first women's rights convention took place on July 19 and 20, 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, in the United States. Self-proclaiming itself as a meeting to “discuss the social, civil and religious conditions and rights of women”, it attracted enormous attention, both in that country and outside, and set the tone for the suffragette movement, which had to fight for more than 50 years to get the right to vote. It was in the USA, and also in the United Kingdom, that several groups emerged that stood out for the way they used fashion to disseminate their ideas, and desires, of freedom.
"In the 19th century, suffragettes were caricatured as unattractive, feisty and matronly, perpetuating the idea that women who wanted to vote were marginal figures, who should not be taken seriously." This could be read in 2018 in the English newspaper The Telegraph. Most of the press of that time showed them “screaming and being taken by the police.” But suffragettes soon understood the power - and the impact - of a careful wardrobe. Since its founding that Women’s Social and Political Union (also known as WSPU, was a militant organization that fought for female suffrage in the United Kingdom between 1903 and 1917) created by Emmeline Pankhurst, encouraged women to look feminine and elegant. Pankhurst even imagined a color scheme that turned out to be a triumphant landmark in the suffragette struggle: purple meant loyalty and dignity, white symbolized purity, and green represented hope. WSPU activists were encouraged to wear these tones as "a duty and a privilege." In the USA, there was also the gold, which personified the Kansas sunflowers, where Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two well-known suffragettes, campaigned. Fashion caught on. The Selfridges department stores sold striped tricolor ribbons for hats, belts and badges. White was, however, the most used color and, on more important occasions, such as marches, participants were advised to wear full white from head to toe, which gave the cause extra visibility. It was a smart advertising option - a pin with the three colors mentioned above, strategically placed, was a sign of a sharing of values; and the lace-trimmed dresses, the high-necked blouses and the clean skirts that we associate with the Edwardian era were easily modified for this new look that screamed for freedom, nothing but freedom. Comfortable corsets were even made for those who “marched and spoke.” The suffragettes, who in the UK ended up getting the right to vote in 1918, are one of the best examples of the union between fashion and freedom.
She was, for decades, the favorite target of paparazzi, who refused to forgive her choice of clothing, namely accessories - that final touch that can elevate or destroy a look. In the case of Hillary Clinton, it was almost always the second case. While she was "just" Bill Clinton's wife, her tendency to use hair bands - along with her unusual pattern, cut and tone clothes that are now considered, as in a fabulous plot twist, iconic - pushed her to the pages of gossip and, in a way, diminished the relevance of her long career dedicated to social work. All of this changed when she took over as Secretary of State in 2009, at the invitation of Barack Obama, and even more so when she entered the race for the presidency of the United States for the Democratic Party in 2016. In July of that year, when she made her first speech as a candidate, she was no longer the scrunchies’ woman who discarded looks as something frivolous or irrelevant. By that time, Hillary was already an experienced, polished and presidential-looking politician who said "I'm ready, let's go to work." Hence her choice, at the time, to dress in a white suit, with impeccable tailoring, which left no room for criticism - and which definitely distracted the conversation about her physical appearance and centered it on the message that she, Clinton, wanted to pass. In this case, and unlike her opponent, a message of freedom.
They call it fashion activism and, no doubt, after New York Fashion Week, in January 2017, that was one of the hottest themes of the season. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) set the tone, encouraging participants to wear pink pins that read “Fashion Stands With Planned Parenthood” [in reference to the health organization that Trump declared war], and the motto was followed by everyone involved. In Christian Siriano, a model wore a t-shirt that said “People Are People”. Jonathan Simkhai offered shirts that read "Feminist AF" [initials for "as f * ck"]. Prabal Gurung closed the show with a series of t-shirts with messages like "Revolution Has No Borders" or "I Am An Immigrant". And the warning signs continued, from the irony of Public School (with the red cap “Make America New York” parodying Trump’s campaign hat) to the underwear of Raul Solis, who sighed “F*ck Your Wall”. On the streets, looks multiplied in which the watchwords were the most important piece. But there is no doubt that the most unexpected act of subversion came from W, the renowned fashion magazine, which brought together 81 industry figures in a video where the only repeated phrase was “I Am An Immigrant”. 2017 was, in terms of activism, a year of rebirth. Yes, Dior's “We Should All Be Feminists” viral t-shirt was launched that year. After Trump's unexpected victory in the November 2016 elections, which had a wave of impact across the Western world, people came out onto the street shouting "enough". And they used fashion to do it, more than once, either by wearing pussy hats, which filled the marches for women's rights in March, or through the recurrent use of t-shirts, which again became the most direct way to react to the cascade of news after Donald (no, this is not a formatting error) officially set his foot in the Oval Office. Because as Katharine Hamnett had already shown us in the 1980s, you can also fight for freedom like that, with a simple t-shirt.
Simple, too, is the future that is imagined, and that is desired, for fashion. Because if we think about what creators have been presenting in recent years, from Paris to New York - somewhere between neutral and sports-couture, athleisure-chic and minimal - we can easily conclude that clothes are for everyone. In other words, it may not be unreasonable to assume that, in a few decades, men’s and women’s collections will be a thing of the past. That’s what Alessandro Michele, whose proposals are always a cross between the desires of both sexes, seems to think. But let us, once again, take a journey through time. In the late 19th century, American activist Amelia Bloomer defended the right of women to wear pants (more specifically, bloomers) under dresses, and was severely criticized. In the 1960s, the unisex style differentiated hippies from the emerging middle class. There was a paradigm shift in the air, and people felt it. It was around this time that The New York Times first used the word "unisex" - more specifically, in 1968, to describe a pair of clumsy Monster shoes. In the Chicago Tribune, columnist Everett Mattlin lamented the state of affairs in a column entitled The Age of Unisex: “You know how it is now - the boy’s hair is as long as the girl’s and their clothing is similarly shapeless and genderless. She’s wearing boots and he’s wearing a necklace. Girls buy men’s pants, sweaters, and jackets in men’s stores, and I won’t be surprised when the versa vice comes true, too.” After that, the genderless concept has come a long way to the present day, in which there are dozens of brands that make gender liberation their raison d'être. Based, of course, on the growing importance of movements for gender equality, for example, this is a struggle for freedom that knows no faces or labels.
Back where it all started. Last January, for the third consecutive year, the female members of the Democratic Party to the American Congress decided to wear suffragette white on the day of the State of the Union speech. According to a tweet from Democratic Party deputy Brenda Lawrence, the group opposed “to President Trump’s delayed agenda” that goes against “the foundation that was built by the pioneer women of this country.” Last February 5, a huge wave of white invaded the Capitol: the president of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, stood out in imperial white, seated behind President Trump and beside Vice President Mike Pence, both in black suits. The other women sported different shades of cream, ivory, off-white and pearl-white, creating a deafening floodlight that screamed their discontent with the policies of the White House occupier. Also in 2019, at her inauguration ceremony, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress, dressed in white - except for her red lipstick, which became her image of brand. After the official event, she shared on Twitter: "I used white today to honor the women who paved the way before me and for all the women yet to come. From the suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm [first black woman elected by Congress of the USA], I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the mothers of the movement." Freedom, nothing but freedom, they say.
This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Freedom issue, from April 2020.
Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição de Liberdade da Vogue Portugal.