It wasn’t that long ago, that women in the United States were required to dress in a certain way. The suffragettes battled legislation in the 1910s that was trying to make it mandatory to wear corsets & hemlines that were only one inch off of the ground. This sounds ridiculous to modern women of today (for example, I am sitting here writing this article wearing shorts & a t shirt… scandalous!), but we owe these rarely thought about freedoms to women of the last hundred years who advocated for women’s rights on all fronts.
MBA@UNC, an MBA for executives, has put together an incredible article here detailing how fashion & women’s history have evolved together. It is an important reminder to see how far women have come & makes the phrase, “dress for success” take on a whole new meaning!
Before the 1920s, fashion was very restrictive, & not just in the figurative sense. Fashion held women back from doing normal every-day tasks easily & comfortably. They were not wearing yoga pants & going for a morning walk. Women were wearing constricting clothing with long, tight hemlines that made it difficult to walk at a reasonable pace, & they were wearing undergarments that made it difficult to even eat normally. Coco Chanel came onto the scene in 1925 & introduced a chic, business casual look that allowed women to move more freely. Interestingly enough, this coincided with the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.
The pantsuit arrived on the scene in 1932. It was a big step to move away from skirts & dresses & have women wearing power suits. Women entered the workforce in large numbers in the 1930s because employers were happy to pay them lower wages than what they would have to pay their male counterparts. The 1930s were also a time of political firsts for women putting that pantsuit into even higher demand.
In the 1940s, women began showing more skin, but for a reason that we don’t often think about! During World War II, fabric was in short supply. Fabric was in great demand for more & more military uniforms, which meant that no fabric could be wasted & fashion had to become more minimalistic. New styles with less fabric became fashionable, & women’s military uniforms dictated fashion trends as well. World War II saw the creation of women’s branches in the armed services, & many brave women entered the military to serve their country.
The 1950s fashion was a reaction to the end of World War II. Flirty, feminine fashion that used excessive amounts of flowy fabric came into style. These styles showed off women’s shapes in a way that a military uniform never did, & they sought to distance women from men again. Now that the crisis was over, women were expected to leave the workforce & be content being wives & mothers. Women rose to the occasion just a decade earlier when their country needed them the most, & now there were attempts to put women back “where they belonged.”
Fortunately, the women of the 1960s were not going to simply accept this line of thinking. Fashion moved towards a structured, yet sexy look with miniskirt ensembles being a popular look. The 1960s was also a great time of progress with the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, & a Presidential Executive Order in 1967 banning discrimination on the basis of sex in hiring & employment.
By the 1970s, 43.4% of women participated in the United States workforce. Women were standing up for equal rights & careers outside the home, and fashion followed that call for equality. Pantsuits became increasingly popular again, & pants in general became mainstream. Girls were allowed to wear pants to public schools for the first time in 1972. Yes… you read that right. Girls were not allowed to wear pants to school before 1972!
Women moved up the corporate ladder throughout the 1980s. The power suit, with its androgynous style, took off in popularity! Women continued to enter the workforce in increasing numbers with 51.5% of women joining the workforce, but they were also working their way to management roles at a substantial rate.
The fashion of the 1990s was in direct response to fashion overload in the 80s. Neon colors took a backseat to simpler color palettes. Women wanted to be seen for the person they are, not just what they were wearing; & for the first time, women began to gain financial freedom. Women had worked hard to reach this point & were finally in a place to make their own choices. The 1990s seem like yesterday, which is why it was so shocking to hear this fact quoted in the MBA@UNC article – “…in 1993 U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Carol Moseley-Braun forced the Senate to lift its ban on women wearing trousers by wearing pantsuits on the Senate floor.”
There were interesting legal changes that took place in the 2000s. Companies were no longer allowed to enforce different dress code requirements for men & women, which meant that you couldn’t require women to wear skirts if you didn’t require men to wear skirts. An important step that took a long time to come to fruition.
This short trip through the last century was very eye-opening to me. I always took the ability to wear jeans or dresses for granted. Women currently don’t have to wear power suits to try to reflect a certain status. Women can choose to wear beautiful skirts & dresses if they prefer. Or they can simply go out in public in yoga pants & a t shirt. These fashion choices reflect a century of change for women in the United States, & women of today owe these freedoms to the brave women who came before us.
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