To mark International Women’s Day on the 8th of March 2019 I will be celebrating 8 women throughout fashion history who have showed a middle finger to the patriarchy and used clothes to empower them and generations to come. I couldn’t write this article however without paying homage to Joan of Arc, who in the 15th century used crossdressing as a means for her to gain power within the French military and fight in the Hundred Years’ War. As Joan of Arc has paved the way for many women to use fashion and clothing as a means of female empowerment so have these 8 inspiring women.
1. Sarah Bernhardt
Sarah Bernhardt was one of the most famous, if not the most famous, actress of the late 19thand early 20thcentury not only famed for her performances but also her gender bending fashion choices. She chose to wear trousers and trouser suits on multiple occasions and most memorably in 1876 posed for a pictorial portrait in a white trouser suit in front of a bust of herself. This paved the way for more women to begin wearing trousers, with the fin de siècle (end of the 19thcentury) seeing the emergence of “The New Woman” who wore trousers and just generally showed the patriarchy a middle finger. In 1918 Levi’s debuted “Freedom-Alls” and then a decade later released the “Lady Levi’s” all in a time when the law actually stopped women from wearing trousers or “dressing like men”.
2. Suzanne Lenglen
An infamous tennis player of the 1920’s, Suzanne Lenglen was the first woman to wear bare arms and a shorter skirt while playing the sport as well as fur coats to matches and drinking alcohol in between sets. She was famously pictured in 1926 at the Wimbledon Championships in her flapper-style headband, knee length pleated white Skirt and sleeveless top. She paved the way for women to have freedom of movement and to be powerful in their clothes, freeing them from the corsets and awkward full-length skirts that impinged the movement of real female athletes. We have Suzanne Lenglen to thank for Serena William’s catsuit and tutus!
3. Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker was one of the most famous flappers and black entertainers of the 1920’s and 30’s whose fashion choices broke the mould and allowed her to reclaim her image as a black woman, most importantly through her banana flapper dress. While performing in Paris in 1926 Baker wore a skirt made of rubber bananas and jewellery to cover her breasts. What this outfit managed to do was play on the imagination of white men at the time and the stereotypes surrounding black culture and its savagery by exaggerating all of these stereotypes that white people believed. She still influences fashion to this day with modern black female fashion icons such as Beyoncé and Rihanna wearing looks inspired by her.
4. Robin Morgan
One of the organisers of the Miss America protest in 1968 who threw symbol of women’s oppression through clothing and domestic objects into the Freedom Trash Can. While the story goes that bras were burnt as a show of women’s protest against their oppression by the patriarchy Morgan debunks this myth and tells how women threw lipstick and high heels as well as bras into the Freedom Trash Can as a show that women would be influenced no more by beauty standards that the patriarchy imposed on them.
5. Grace Jones
In her Nightclubbing album cover of 1981 Grace Jones is pictured in a tailored suit jacket, cigarette in mouth and signature flat top haircut. Grace Jones was arguably the catalyst for the androgynous crossdressing of the 1980’s. She redefined the beauty standards for women and how women were “meant” to dress, challenging even deeper the categories of feminine and masculine.
Certainly one of the biggest fashion icons ever, Madonna has been a paragon of fashion risks ever since her emergence on the music scene in the 1980’s. Her most iconic look, in my opinion, is the cone bra first designed by Jean Paul Gaultier and worn on tour in 1990 during her Blond Ambition phase. What Madonna did was to shake up the idea of women’s sexuality as taboo and help women embrace it, wearing underwear as outerwear and exaggerating and thus reclaiming the sexualisation of women’s bodies by the patriarchy.
7. Ibtihaj Muhammad
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the U.S in the Olympics in 2016. While other Muslim women have worn hijabs to compete in sports such as weightlifter Kulsum Abdullah in 2011 and track runner Sarah Attar in 2012, Ibtihaj gave the issue a worldwide platform showing Muslim women and girls that they are not and should not be prohibited from playing the sports that they love and competing just because of their religion and choice of dress. She has had the first hijab wearing Barbie modelled after her and has influenced Nike’s Pro Hijab campaign of 2017.
8. Rachel McAdams
I give Rachel McAdams the last spot on this list of inspirational women because of her cover of Girls Girls Girls magazine in 2018 where she is pictured in head to toe Versace, modelling Bulhari jewellery and accessorizing with breast pumps affixed to her chest. With this cover Rachel manages to show how badass mothers truly are and obliterates stereotypes of breast feeding as scary, unnatural or disgusting. Remember Nigel Farage’s comments from 2014 that breastfeeding mothers should sit in a corner? I think the cover of a magazine is far more appropriate.