We cannot speak about the feminist movement without discussing the clothes women have been wearing throughout history. We don’t have to do a deep analysis to understand that a corset dress with full skirts represents a repressive social role, and two hundred years later, with the invention of spandex, leggings transformed women’s attire so they could be more active, and connected with their bodies. 

Today, we are going to talk about the case of shoes and pants for women. Two signature elements of women’s fashion and how they have evolved through history to better illustrate the evolution of the feminist movement. 

The case of shoes

High Heels were originally worn by men only. Image Courtesy of Ancient Origins.

To this day, many formal events still require women to wear heels as part of the “formal dress code.” This is a rule that we have been following since the 18th century. Aristocratic men previously wore heeled shoes, and after the French Revolution, fashion related to aristocracy was linked with corruption and dishonesty. Therefore, it was not very well seen. 

Time passed, and women adopted high heels. These shoes are ornamental and very much not as functional if we compare them with a pair of sneakers or even with a pair of formal Oxford shoes commonly worn by men for formal events. 

Carrie Bradshaw wears Manolo Blahnik shoes as a form of self-expression. No men in her social circle suggest what footwear she should or should not wear. Image Courtesy of MAX. 

It is exciting to see women wearing high heels that they like because they have the freedom and the choice to do so. But how many women wear heels because it is expected for them to wear this footwear at work, at school, at formal events because their partner asks them to, or because the dress codes demand them to do so? This is the moment when we start to connect fashion and politics. If the historical context of a high-heeled shoe is that it is a decorative type of shoe that is very much decorative and not really functional, are these characteristics that we still associate with the role of women in our world?

The answer is very likely a yes because the income inequality, the lack of reproductive freedom, and the overall lack of women in leadership cannot be covered with utopic cover pages of Forbes Women and one story of a successful businesswoman for every 100 successful businessmen who worked way less to earn way more. 

There is no absolute truth about the expectations that women have in our society. The reality of a woman from California is different than a woman from Alabama. After Senator Katie Britt delivered the 2024 State of the Union rebuttal, Senator Tommy Tuberville stated that Britt was picked “as a housewife, not just as a senator”. Image Courtesy of ABC.  

The narrative of decoration does not stop with high heels. This decoration extends to makeup, nails, hair, and accessories, meant to enhance the beauty of every woman. Again, makeup and hair can be beautiful when it comes from a place of self-love and self-empowerment, and women have control over this narrative. However, it is worth asking how often women feel required or expected to present themselves a certain way in order to get into a room or have a seat at the table. Women’s shoes, hair, and faces have been decorated for hundreds of years, but we have to stop going with the narrative that they are doing so because their role in society is decor. 

Makeup, hair, and shoes as a form of self-expression. Image Courtesy of Yahoo! News
Women, as well as men and every other gender, are allowed to paint their faces, do their hair, and wear the highest shoes to celebrate who they are and connect their inner authentic selves with fabulous colors and shapes that reflect this personality. So what we need to disassociate here is this patriarchal idea of women as decor in our society. 
Women are now wearing these high heels to walk into the office like the bosses they are.
 Women are painting their lips red to outline the power of their mouths and the impact of the words they share with the world. 
During the early years of Lady Gaga’s career, high heel shoes were a strong element in her looks. Even though many of these shoes were hard to walk with, the singer challenged all kinds of social expectations regarding women's shoes. Image Courtesy of Lady Gaga

Women wear long nails, short nails, or maybe natural nails because it is their freedom to do so. Not to follow a dress code and not to please the expectations of our ancestors to look pretty and stay quiet. It is fascinating to see women of all ages and backgrounds breaking historical barriers of what “appropriate nails” are. Senior women are now wearing hot pink and black nails. Younger women decide to go with a natural and minimal manicure. This diversity of colors speaks about the freedom of choice that women have now regarding their autonomy to choose the color of their nails. This hasn’t always been the case, and for many women, it is still not.

The case of trousers

Illustrations of early variations of pants going under skirts for women. Image Courtesy of Lifetime. 

Amelia Bloomer was an early suffragist, editor, and arguably one of the most important women advocates who leveraged Political Fashion for an early feminist movement in the mid-19th century. 

Bloomer was the editor of the first women’s newspaper called The Lily. After researching how unnatural and hazardous tight corsets and dresses were in the long term, Bloomer proposed in her newspaper the use of “pantaloons.” The intentions were mostly about addressing the health hazards of pregnant women being forced to use these corsets and the overall conditions that she was hearing from women around her about these very uncomfortable dresses meant to be worn on a daily basis. 

Image Courtesy of Movie Fashion. 

In those times, men were making all kinds of decisions for women. Not just how to live their lives and what they should say and believe, but also how they should dress. Men were creating clothes for women. Therefore, women were not able to tell a designer or a tailor how uncomfortable and painful the dress was. The norm was to cover this pain under layers of silk taffeta and a crinoline. 

Bloomer met activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and ended up introducing Stanton to Susan B. Anthony, two key figures of the women’s suffrage movement. 

A historically masculine garment is now embraced and embellished in all colors and for all personalities. Image Courtesy of Martha Debayle. 

Bloomer’s newspaper began the conversation about women deciding the clothes they should wear based on their comfort. This was a truly radical idea for the 19th century, considering that “psychiatrists” from that time would hospitalize “abnormal” women who dared to rebel against male desires. (Fauvel)

During World War I, it was inevitable for women to wear pants, as they were now joining the workforce since men were soldiers at war. This was a very important moment in history for women’s clothing because women began walking into rooms and being part of conversations that historically excluded them. Pants, however, are part of women’s closets but are meant to be worn for very specific occasions, including mostly work and bedtime. The idea of women wearing pants was not very well received at first, and it took several women advocates and leaders to open the door for these clothes to become more widely accepted. 

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel made pants popular for women as a piece of clothing to provide comfort. A strong juxtaposition after centuries of puffy and heavy skirts. Image Courtesy of CNN.

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, for instance, used to wear men’s pants during her vacations at the French Riviera or when riding horses. Chanel was a strong advocate of women liberating their bodies through clothes (Some historians call it a form of “women emancipation”), with designs that didn’t include corsets or very tight dresses.

Pants became a staple in Chanel’s collections moving forward and became popular for the French women aristocrats in the streets of Paris, trickling down to the mass markets of the US and becoming the big multi-billion market of women’s pants that we now know today.

History shows us that both high heels and pants were associated with men and masculinity. Years passed. High heels are now feminine, while pants still carry a masculine component to them. This is particularly true in formal social settings, when everyone is expected to “look good”, and men are expected to wear the pants while women are still expected to wear the dress or the skirt. 

Image Courtesy of Madison Brill. 
French filmmaker Justine Triet wears a pair of black pants with a black shirt and laced collar. Image Courtesy of Vogue. 

Women have been pushing the boundaries for centuries now. They have been pushing out the corsets so they can breathe, the pants so they can walk, the bikini so they can swim. All of these inventions illustrate the progress of the feminist movement through fashion. 

But these moments of history also show us that there was resistance before the first women put pants on. There were people who didn’t want to liberate the women from the corset. It is expected to receive some resistance or push back when trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, however, this resistance doesn’t mean that it is time to stop. 

Women should keep wearing those pants to work, that tuxedo to the red carpet, those comfortable sneakers that are “too masculine”. Women should continue to design for other women and get feedback from these women so these conversations result in more accommodating and empowering designs for them. The most political fashion thing to do is to wear the clothes you want to wear, because historically and systemically, there are people who would oppose that decision. So the pants, the bikini, the dress, the crop top or whatever you decide to wear, illustrate your courage. Keep moving forward.

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