surinenglish

The glamour of the revolutionaries

The book by Laura Castelló and one of its illustrations.
The book by Laura Castelló and one of its illustrations.
  • Fashion has helped to inspire success with regards to the movement for women’s equality throughout history

The beauty standards of the nineteenth century meant that many women of the time had to wear corsets to define their waistlines, leaving them literally out of breath.

“Uncomfortable pieces that crush the torso causing serious health problems: from breathing difficulties to internal bleeding, as well as causing complications due to organs having to alter their natural positioning to adjust itself to the body’s new form,” Laura Castelló explains in her book Vestidas para la Revolución (Dressed for the Revolution).

And what about trousers! Towards the middle of that same century in the US, laws were introduced banning women from wearing them, classifying the garment as "a clothing item that didn’t belong to their sex". As such, women wearing them would not become the norm until a hundred years later.

Bloomers.

Bloomers.

But around 1850, Elizabeth Smith Miller, an advocate for women’s rights, appeared; with long loose breeches tied at the ankles or pants acquiring the name "bloomers", named after Amelia Bloomer, suffragette and magazine editor, who made them popular. She defended dressing like this due to being faced with another kind of abomination; hoop skirts, a system of wires to keep skirts flared which caused falls and serious burns when getting too close to candles, fireplaces etc.

But those who dared to wear bloomers had to put up with ridicule from men and also women, even in cartoons and jokes - hence the expression 'make a bloomer' or make a mess of it - explains Castelló. And feminists, believing that their discourse would not be taken seriously, ended up throwing this controversial garment back in the closet. It wasn’t until 1890 that they became fashionable again, becoming a commen garment in the world of sports.

Promiscuous and crazy

Achievements in terms of equality were happening alongside wardrobe changes which got rid of garments that prevented women from moving freely. And these changes often came alongside the changes in music trends, as was the case with jazz and Charleston of the 1920s.

Flappers.

Flappers.

This also happened with "flappers", a name which, according to the author, referred to "their wild character". With the integration of women into the workplace, they partly managed to free themselves from sexist oppression and swapped heavy dresses for lighter ones. The flappers "were androgynous, promiscuous and danced jazz or Charleston in private clubs". They smoked and took cocaine. They wore, as Castelló describes, a corset with a built-in garter belt to hold the stockings up, but they did not use it to define their silhouettes but instead used it to blur their body shapes. It reduced breasts and hips to show a more childlike, vulnerable and masculine figure. Voluminous dresses reaching below the knee, dropped belts to accentuate a thinner form and a bob haircut. In France, the 'garçonnes' adopted a similar style.

Another curiosity noted in the book is how a figure as objectified and sexualised as "pin ups", images of women in swimsuits with pointed breasts like missiles which ended upbeing popular with soldiers, used to be a "symbol of the liberation of female sexuality". Castelló places their origin in the 19th century, when 'burlesque' actresses, "scantily clad dancers, promoted themselves by putting up posters. In those times of conservatism, it is understandable that the liberation and lack of inhibition surrounding sexuality was ground-breaking and revolutionary". In 1946, swimsuits gave way to the bikini, which, created by the Frenchman Louis Réard, left the abdomen exposed for the first time.

Their brothers' trousers

But jazz and swing became more and more popular in society during the 30s and 40s, causing a desire for change among young people. In Germany, the 'swingjugend’ copied fashion trends from the British and Americans, with skirts shorter than normal and a dancing style viewed as degrading and immoral. It goes without saying that Hitler took care of taking apart that anti-militarist and anti-racist movements which clashed with his ideals.

In Spain, there were the 'chicas Topolino', girls from rich families of the Salamanca neighbourhood of Madrid, nicknamed as such either because they drove Fiat 500s (also called 'topolinos') or because of some huge soled shoes inspired by Hollywood. They imitated the American style with skirts flared at the knee and preferred swing to the paso doble. They drank Martini and smoked openly. They were free and independent, very modern, something unheard of in Franco’s Spain, where they were perceived as rebels. In the words of writer Carmen Martín Gaite, "Those scatter-brained girls were out of tune with a society that urged women to stay in the background, not to progress in any way and not to attract attention."

Modette.

Modette.

Continuing with the trends, rock and roll triumphed in the 50s and the 'teddy girls' emerged and they evolved into girl 'rockers'. The former, the author explains, “made their own jackets and wore shirts and scarves tied around their necks, stole their brothers' trousers and rolled them up at the ankles. Their motto was 'Our clothes are our answer to a boring world'. According to photographer Ken Russell, 'These girls were tough, they were born in years of war and food rationing that didn't end until 1954. They were proud and knew their worth. They just wore what they wore'."

The 'beatnik' movement also had an impact on young women, with its tendency towards cynicism and existentialist philosophy and jazz, explains Castelló. They wore, like men, black or sober colours. "They wore their hair and clothes somewhat unkempt, berets, turtlenecks, different types of sunglasses, striped sweaters, they listened to jazz and smoked rolling tobacco." Additionally, they wore "black leggings or tight trousers reaching the lower leg, knotted shirts or large sweaters: hair either long or very short".

The 70s saw the arrival of the well-known hippie movement and a commitment towards equality: maxi skirts, bell-bottoms, sandals, Indian or African clothing, long hair and the rejection of the bra and waxing.

Northern Soul.

Northern Soul.

And after the punk of the 80s, whose greatest representatives in Spain were Las Vulpes, Ana Curra or Alaska, the 90s burst in with the arrival of 'indie girls'. According to Sam Knee, author of Untypical Girls: "The sense of sexual equality within the 'indie 'guitar scene was, in hindsight, a rare phenomenon, compared to the stupid macho mentality of most other rock scenes from the 80s."

The book ends with the current 'genderless' movement, which advocates, in terms of fashion, removing the differences between feminine and masculine "to get rid of any label and focus on who we are in essence".

If the ridiculed 'bloomers' could only raise their heads...