In her new book, Jacki Willson explores the anarchic nature and re-appropriation of fashion and femininity. Here, she considers the evolution of fashion as statement…
Every era of protest has its stereotypical feminine attire, whether that be, Edwardian dresses and placards, burning bras, painted naked breasts, padded shoulders or a ‘You Can Do It’ headscarf. In contemporary Western protest one could even say that ‘sluttiness’ has become an appropriate means to making a point.
Expressions of resistance coexist within particular historical timeframes. Fashion itself is expressive of its time and the cultural tensions, pleasures and politics of the era. It is therefore a signpost to how women have lived, a visual marker of the socio-political co-ordinates of the time. In time, of course, this becomes distilled down to a specific gendered look, cliché and style. Audacity Chutzpah’s cabaret act, ‘A Complete History of Women’s Liberation in the 20th century in Six and a Half Minutes’ revisits each of these sartorial clichés for women’s freedom. As she strips off layer upon layer of costume, she performs a particular routine as the Material Girl, or driving a truck during the war effort. When the final layer is stripped off to reveal nipple tassels and g-string Chutzpah displays a banner with the word ‘liberated’ emblazoned on it which she has just pulled out of her black pants. This is indeed a cheeky joyous gesture – humorous because she is devilishly upturning stereotypical feminist assumptions that stripping down to pasties and pants cannot possibly be an act of liberation.
The performance is also though not devoid of criticality, for why, one must ask, is it taken as read that the spectacle of a naked woman is now synonymous with liberation? One could say that this creates rigid binaries which pins the act of unveiling to an ideal of Western democratic free-thinking whilst simultaneously creating, as it oppositional position, the act of veiling as a site of oppression and subordination. Femininity cannot help but be bound up with debates around questions of citizenship. Shifts in political thinking and dissent are clearly expressed in the way that women are presented and then in the way women live
by, play into or play out of these tropes of femininity. Femininity can become a potent counter to expected and acceptable ways of behaving. Exploring the evolution of fashion as statement can therefore be an incredibly rich document as to how women have tested the limits of these social rules.
We see that historically the spectacle of the suffragettes in their beautiful finery created a stark challenge to the way in which they were depicted by the media. The caricatures of wizened old hags was evidently challenged as an untruth when women witnessed the spectacle of the ‘weaker’ sex behaving against the grain by being able to express their femininity and be political subjects. And we see this challenge to underlying gendered assumptions throughout the 20th Century in the various ways that women have styled their politicized actions, visually marking out women’s place within the social and political landscape. The practical femininity during the 1940s for instance was still resplendent in lipstick whilst demonstrating independence, driving and working. And the shoulder padded jackets and dresses of the 1980s mimicked, perhaps even consciously parodied, the successful masculine workplace silhouette, negotiating how women may also be visualized in the public sphere.
Indeed this idea of freedom and style is something that I reflected on one day when I saw a young woman with the word ‘freedom’ tattooed on her arm. As she walked into the distance, she left me thinking about and questioning what it could now meant to be a free woman. Dressed in a Betty Page style fringe, 40s headscarf and dress, and a 21st Century tattoo, that particular young woman was expressing her freedom by way of dress, accessories, hairstyles and make-up: the historical pastiche of womanhood redirected through a new millennium outlook. This was a radical femininity, using a pre-feminist aesthetic with a post-feminist mindset in order to challenge, reinvigorate and re-envisage the idea of what a free woman might look like.
Being Gorgeous: Feminism, Sexuality and the Pleasures of the Visual by Jacki Willson is out now
Jacki Willson is a Cultural Studies lecturer for Fashion, Textiles and Jewellery students at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. She is the author of The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque (I.B.Tauris, 2008).