What Does The Current Romantic Dress Style Say About Women’s Rights?

Female fashion has evolved along the expansion of women’s role in society, from wearing very restrictive clothing that prevented women from having any form of an active life to the track bottoms and tank tops today (and flowery milk-maid dresses…).

Fashion’s mantra is that ‘everything comes back’. With that in mind, can a connection be made between the undeniable comeback of the ‘romantic/ dirdnl’ style of dressing with its yearning for traditional female and family values and the possible reversal of women's rights? Should we be worried?

Fashion and women’s role in society have always been closely linked. The Victorian Era fashion, which lasted about the whole 19th Century, put the corset, a form of a torture instrument, at the center of all its designs. The corset was both an aesthetic item and a tool to constrain women into a certain role, restricting their movements, and sometimes being laced so tightly women would faint. This type of clothing certainly dissuaded women from intervening in any man’s business. In fact, women’s internal organs and ribcages were so pushed together in the corset that it is a miracle women got anything done at all.

In the 1920s, following the First World War, women completely – and very happily - dropped the corset and started wearing easy flowing, loosely fitted flapper dresses. Women were also seen wearing trousers for the first time. They started smoking, wearing lipstick and driving cars. This evolution in dressing and lifestyle came from a newfound confidence and eventually resulted in women finally getting the right to vote.

The Second World War and women’s necessary involvement all aspects of the economy – as all working age men away– initiated another turning point in women’s clothing. Women’s fashion started looking more utilitarian; fabrics were more basic; skirts shorter and silhouettes slimmer (to save on fabric) and shoulder pads were introduced into women’s clothing to make women look bigger and broader. This was again a case of fashion mirroring the societal shifts in the position of women and the roles they fulfilled and jobs they held during that time.

Fast forward, shoulder pads met their great revival in the 1980s in what was then called ‘power dressing’. Suits with padded shoulders became a defining look of the Margaret Thatcher era, the first female prime minister in Britain, and a way for women to assimilate with the men they worked with. And shoulder pads do work as a literal and figurative boost to women’s empowerment as in 2018, this fashion item had a sudden new burst of life, marking another highly important moment in women’s history (and dressing) with the beginning of #MeToo movement.

Oddly, today, the style that seems to be making a comeback is that of the ‘romantic woman’ rather than that of the powerful woman. The romantic style originally appeared in Europe at the beginning of the 19th Century and suggested the ideal of a woman as feminine, delicate, and demure. Julie de Rycke explains the main characteristics of the style, being the promotion of simplicity and natural beauty expressed by floral prints and soft tones. The modern version of the romantic dress style, which resurfaced recently, brought back puffy sleeved, milkmaid-style dresses, wide skirts, and lots and lots of floral patterns.

Unfortunately, this style resonates with a period which Virginia Woolf describes as a period in which the status of women was ‘practically completely insignificant’. This would correspond to the current regressive period for women's rights, characterised among other things by the reversal of Roe v.Wade.

However, this correlation of a women’s position in society and female fashion could maybe be more nuanced. The return of the romantic trend could equally represent the concept that women do (no longer) need to adopt masculine dress to be legitimately powerful and exercise authority.

Designers such as Emilia Wickstead point out that dress features described as ‘frivolous’ in romantic dressing, such as the volume of a dress or the puffy sleeves, could instead be considered as a way for women to literally take up more space. Romantic fashion can thus be interpreted as a claim, aka that power dressing for women does not need to be androgynous anymore. Rather that a woman is at her most powerful when, through her clothing, she can show her individuality. And if that is a flowery puff dress, so be it.

By Hanna Bernard.

Sources & links: