Women’s fashion is constantly changing and has been for thousands of years. From the draped stolas worn by ancient Roman women, to the massive hoop-skirts of the antebellum south, one can easily identify a historical period from looking at the women’s fashion of the time. Women’s fashion has been consistently restrictive, women being forced to wear layers upon layers in order to stay modest, and even now in schools, girls are dress-coded for the same reason: modesty. But why? The media does not portray women to any degree of modesty, so why have we been timelessly forced to wrap and cover up our bodies for the peace of society?
I have wondered this for many years, and when I saw Alissa J Rubin’s article on the Burkini ban in France, I knew I had to investigate. The article contained these two contrasting, yet eerily similar photos (pictured above). A woman on a beach getting a ticket for wearing a bikini in 1957 and a woman on a beach in a burkini forced to take off her long-sleeved shirt in 2016. But what makes a burkini different from a bikini? A bikini is a two piece swimsuit for women, something one sees all the time nowadays at beaches. But a burkini is a swimsuit designed for Muslim women, a new type of swimsuit that “covers the arms, legs and hair”(What is a Burkini?) and allows Muslim women to swim and have fun at the beach while still observing their religion. Surely if a skimpy bikini was frowned upon, a burkini that covers most of your body would be accepted with open arms. But tragically, it was not, as covering too much of a woman’s body is also an offense. It seems as though every time women get more freedom in the way they dress, it seems to offend people. If a woman wants to wear crop tops, short shorts, mini dresses, and everything as small and tight fitting as possible, she’s a slut. If she wants to wear loose and flowing shirts, dresses and skirts, then she’s old-fashioned and too conservative. One can never seem to win in this situation can they? But why?
This is because the universal issue of social dress codes designed to restrict women is an ancient and well-known practice that has been used to determine the respectability and supposed wish to be assaulted of women for centuries.
Let’s start in Ancient Rome…
In Ancient Rome, there was the clear divide between the stola and the toga. Stolas were worn by wealthy respectable women, while togas were worn by men and prostitutes. One could tell, simply at a glance “who was respectable (…who couldn’t be assaulted) and who wasn’t (and so could be)”(Komar). In ancient Greece, the Controllers of Women, a group of men elected to the government, kept fashion in check by making sure women did not overspend on clothing, appeared sober and modest in public, and wore the appropriate clothes to attend a festival. Many greek women had to wear veils as well, because as ancient greek writer Plutarch wrote, men “cannot forbear prying into sedans and coaches or gazing at the windows or peeping under the balconies where women are”(Komar). This idea is all too common today as the excuse of a woman ‘asking for it’ by wearing more revealing, tight, or lacy clothing.
Fast forward to the Civil War, a Crucial Point in American History…
Around the time of the Civil War, hoop skirts gave women independence and freedom as they were finally able to free themselves from layers upon layers of petticoats under their skirts(Liverpool) and “women’s legs were unbound for the first time in half a century”(Makaris). The hoop skirt, or cage crinoline as it was called, was light, cheap, and gained instant popularity among southern women(Makaris). The light weight and leg room allowed for freedom of movement, and the large size of the hoop skirts allowed women to take their space, feeling powerful and safe. With multiple feet of steel rings jutting out from every side of oneself, it’s rather hard for men to grope or touch a woman from that far away.
Women were given the distance and respect they deserved, but men began to panic once African-American women began wearing hoop skirts. Because of hoop skirts large size and their abundance on both white and African-American women, men were astounded to find that simply walking on the sidewalk was “so unlike anything [they] could imagine [before the war] … Negroes shoving white persons off the walk — Negro women drest in the most outre style”(Makaris). Women were finally able to literally take their space in the world, and their freedoms only expanded as the 20th century grew near.
What About Pants?
In the 1800s, starting with the cowgirls of the West, the trend of women’s pants began to spread, slowly but surely, as more and more “pro-bloomers”(Komar) supported the cause. In 1885, Dr. W. A. Hammond wrote his opinions on women wearing pants, and explained the reason for such a backlash and stigma. According to Dr. Hammond, at the time, men were “thoroughly imbued with the prejudices received from a blasted education”(Hammond) and were “indisposed to accept new ideas”(Hammond), carrying with them a “deeply endowed…love for the beautiful”(Hammond) which caused a man to be “reluctant to pay his addresses…to a woman in pants”(Hammond). But Dr. Hammond believes that women should indeed be allowed to wear pants as “Women will settle all the questions of dress for themselves”(Hammond). Another article mentioned women’s love of “the convenience of trowsers for locomotion and other physical exercise”(Wearing). A woman “needs her freedom for activity, for accomplishment”(Barry).
How Have Things Been in the Last 100 Years?
Even in the 1970s, it was a struggle for women to wear pants, as shown in the iconic case of actress Nan Kempner. Earlier, Yves Saint Laurent had made ‘Le Smoking’ suit, a classy tuxedo designed for women. One fateful day Kempner wore this suit to the elegant restaurant La Côte Basque. She was stopped by the maitre’d, as he told her she was not allowed in while wearing something “as jarring as trousers”(Komar). She responded by stripping off her pants right then and there, and walking into the restaurant as the maitre’d grabbed her menus, showing her to her table.
This problem of the restriction of women’s clothing, and therefore of women themselves has perpetuated through World history and American history. Is the problem similar today? Or have we left the issue of fighting for pants and hoop skirts behind? Will women ever truly “settle all the questions of dress for themselves”(Hammond)?
Want to read more about the historical restrictions of women’s clothing? Check out my full essay here!
What About Today?
We may be free of the asphyxiating corsets and heavy petticoats of the past, but we’re not out of the woods yet. School dress codes are an easy and widespread example of society still discriminating against and restricting the choices of women. No spaghetti straps, no short-shorts, no bare shoulders(to state a few examples) anything the schools claim to be “disruptive, distracting, or inflammatory”(Mandal). This restriction of “young people’s freedom of expression”(Mandal) typically targets women and girls in school, with some schools going far enough as to edit yearbook photos to include “digitally raised necklines”(Orenstein) and added sleeves “to female classmates’ shirts”(Orenstein). Girls are told to cover up and regulate what they wear at school to keep their male classmates from being distracted from schoolwork, “As if young men cannot control themselves in the presence of a spaghetti strap”(Orenstein).
The Case of the (Little?) Red Dress
In the case of Mary Salazar, a high school student from Los Angeles, “spent most of the day in the office instead of in class”(Kohli) for wearing a red dress with thin shoulder straps, which exposed her bra straps. She was first assailed by her counselor, offering her sweaters to cover up her “revealing”(Kohli) clothes and offering to call Mary’s mother to see if she could bring any clothes from home. Mary refused both offers and went to class, but unfortunately was called to the office as the dress code states that if a student’s “situation cannot be remedied”(Kohli) said student is not “permitted to attend classes and may be sent home”(Kohli).
“No one said a thing to me”
Said Lizzy Martinez, a Florida high school student who wore a “long sleeve, oversize, crew neck gray T-shirt”(Krischer) with no bra to school. She had been at a waterpark all weekend and was badly sunburned from it, and as she did not want to subject herself to the constricting pain of a tight bra on burned skin, she decided to wear the loosest most unassuming shirt at school to stay comfortable while learning, and stay within the dress code. But at around 10am, she was called out of class to meet with the school principal and dean. They told her that “boys were ‘looking and laughing” at her’”(Krischer) and that she needed to wear an undershirt.
She unwillingly complied and was then instructed by the dean to “‘stand up and move around for her.’”(Krischer), a request that she questioned, then complied with, despite being “‘creeped out’”(Krischer). The dean then brought her four bandages from the school nurse, instructing Lizzy to X-out her nipples as they were still showing through both shirts. Lizzy wore the band-aids for about 45 minutes until she began crying in class from the “stiff..rubbing”(Krischer) pain she felt “Any time [she moved] around”(Krischer). She tweeted about her experience and the following Monday a silent protest was held at her school, with about 30 female students not wearing bras to school and countless other students “[decorating] their backpacks with Band-Aids in the shape of an X”(Krischer). But this small-scale protest, and others at various schools are not enough.
Interested in the current state of women’s fashion and discrimination? Check out my full essay here!
So What Can We All do to Finally End This Archaic Belief System?
Starting at the personal level and changing your own beliefs about the consent, and personal expression of women is excellent.
Understanding that a woman can wear what she wants, and not have wishes or meaning tied to her fashion choices is important.
Just because she’s wearing a crop top, or booty shorts, or a dress, or lacy underwear, doesn’t mean she is asking for anything or wants anything.
You don’t know why she is dressed like that.
You need to be in control of your own actions, and believe you are in control of your own actions, especially if you identify as male.
“What a woman wears … is her business and does not indicate interest or consent”(Safronova).
Interested in More Activism?
You can protest your school’s dress code, a system that typically tells female students to cover up and keep the boys from being distracted in class. Advocate for change and encourage your school to implement a non-sexist dress code such as the one created by the Oregon branch of the National Organization for Women:
“(a) Students must wear clothing including both a shirt with pants or skirt, or the equivalent (for example dresses, leggings, or shorts) and shoes.
(b) Shirts and dresses must have fabric in the front and on the sides (under the arms).
(c) Clothing must cover undergarments (waistbands and straps excluded).
(d) Fabric covering breasts, genitals and buttocks must be opaque.
(e) Hats and other headwear must allow the face to be visible to staff, and not interfere with the line of sight of any student or staff. Hoodies must allow the face and ears to be visible to school staff.
(f) Clothing must be suitable for all scheduled classroom activities including physical education, science labs, wood shop, and other activities where unique hazards exist.
(g) Specialized courses may require specialized attire, such as sports uniforms or safety gear”(Model).
Recommended Social Media
@i_weigh is a body-positive and life-positive Instagram account striving for equality and self-love for everyone
CrowsEyeProductions on YouTube has videos on historical clothing and hairstyles
Vintage Fashions on YouTube has authentic historical television clips centered on vintage fashion
priorattire on YouTube has videos on dressing up in various fashions from the past
Keep the discussion going!
Check out my full essay on my solutions to end this issue here!
Check out my sources for this project here!