elcome to the 21st century—a time when American women earn on average 81% of their male counterparts; are underrepresented in certain sectors; and continue work at a disadvantage based on their gender.
Consider fashion: one of the most female-dominated businesses—think Devil Wears Prada—the fashion industry empowers women in that women are encouraged and almost expected to succeed. But then why are so few women heading major fashion houses? Today, there’s a short list of around 10 major female fashion house designers (Miuccia Prada, Stella McCartney, and Tory Burch to name a few). A 2012 list of the “Top 10 Highest Paid CEOs in Fashion” consisted only of men, which exemplifies the persisting gender imbalance. While there may be a diverse array of women at the entry and intermediate level, the executive floors of the big fashion conglomerates are still disproportionally run by men. The fashion industry, although less hyper-masculine than other fields like technology or business, still prescribes to structures and practices that allow for continued gender inequality. And it’s a significant problem when many brands’ leadership lack representation from their core demographic of strong, independent female consumers.
From left to right: champagne jumpsuit from DFTI Boutique, blue velvet pants from Intermix, teal jumpsuit from DFTI Boutique.
Which is not to say designers haven’t been outspoken in bringing attention to this issue. Just this year, Dior’s Creative Director Maria Grazia Chiuri opened the Spring 2018 show with a Breton-striped shirt that read: why have there been no great women artists? It was a direct reference to historian Linda Nochlin’s 1972 essay which explored the patriarchy’s lasting effect on art, namely how viewpoints and ideals of men are prioritized, and artistic genius is a trait primarily ascribed to men. Thus, even within the aesthetic realm, gender inequality determines who is deemed culturally and artistically relevant; this kind of imbalance of power impacts art and society as a whole. (Read more of Dior’s statement and Nochlin in “Does Dior’s Statement T-Shirt Really Mean What It Says?”)
Dior’s graphic shirts weren’t the first instance of feminist fashion. Throughout history, women have used fashion to change and challenge the limitations of gender, whether it was shortening a skirt or abandoning traditional womenswear altogether for “men’s” clothing. Throwing on a blazer or slipping into a little black dress might not seem like a revolutionary choice now, but in the past, clothing was used as a sociopolitical tool for women who wanted to fight for space in the public sphere. The best example of this would be Chanel’s two piece suit, a classic silhouette inspired by the suits of her lovers. While she wasn’t the first to make a suit for women, she took the classical man’s tailored suit and made it feminine. Taking a traditionally masculine model of “power dressing” and combining it with a celebration of femininity, she challenged traditional binaries of “masculine” and “feminine” dress.
Women have spent decades battling the narrow definition of what is expected of them, and continue to this day to break through the glass ceiling. The power of dress is an important tool that help them challenge and break through oppressive gender norms, allowing women to define for themselves what it truly means to be a woman.
Photos by Aychin Sultan. Styled by Sonia Hussain, Michaela Tinkey, and Airika Yee. Modeled by Ana Chisholm, Anna Eringis, Mackenzie Lukas, and Madeline McGovern. Clothes courtesy of Bonded Boutique (3724 Spruce Street), DFTI Boutique (2026 Chestnut Street), and Intermix (1718 Walnut Street).