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Natalia Ruggiero

English 137 H

23 October 2013

Paradigm Shift: Change in Women’s Clothing from Conservative to Provocative

Have you ever thought of your decision to wear a particular article of clothing as
a privilege? Have you ever thought that what you decided to wear today was once a
controversial topic of discussion? In the early twentieth century, the notion of what
women should look like and act like limited them to their own personal expression.
Cultural changes, such as World War I and II, rendered a shift in women’s clothing
because of their growing freedom and equality in society. The expectation for women to
dress conservatively and femininely transitioned to more revealing clothing as their rights
and independence progressed.
At the start of the twentieth century, women played very basic, stereotypical roles
in society. They were to stay at home, while their husbands were off at work, and take
care of their children. Women were expected to get married and have children - simple as
that. Prominent women such as Queen Victoria were not aiding the cause by stating, "Let
women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and
vocations." Tied to a woman’s status in society was the way she was presumed to dress.
Tight, uncomfortable, and elaborate clothing lined a typical woman’s closet in the 1900s.
Their skin was to be covered with conservative dresses, long skirts, and high necklines
and their hair was to be kept long. Their primary duty was to be their husband’s trophy
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According to research reporter Richard Worsnop, “It has been argued also that
abrupt changes in economic and/or social conditions soon find expression in clothing
fashions. Great wars ordinarily create a vogue for simple, even proletarian styles…”
American fashion, in the early twentieth century, began to change in the years around
World War I. Women became responsible for an increased amount of tasks, such as
industrial work, while their husbands were out fighting the war. This meant that women
had the opportunity to leave the house and earn their own wages, which could then go
towards buying clothing not made at home. Simultaneously, skirt hemlines rose well
above the ankles and women’s suit jackets were introduced mimicking men’s fashion. In
1914, one of the largest names in fashion even today, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, had a
daring idea to design a dress shirt, pea coat, and pants for women even though she did not
wear them herself. Americans based their style off of the European designs that could
now be seen through international publications of magazines such as Vogue. They
quickly relinquished their corsets, shortened their skirts, and cut their hair short.
In the 1920s, the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote.
Women also started enrolling in higher education, working in offices, and driving
automobiles. They needed clothing that was more practical to their current situations.
Since they started performing some similar roles and jobs as men, they began to dress
similarly as well. Elizabeth Smith Miller is credited with wearing the first type of
trousers, called Bloomers, out in public. As Connie Ann Kirk noted, “Bloomers not only
brought new physical freedom and comfort in daily life for women in the mid-nineteenth
century, but they also served as a vehicle for opening discussion of other women's issues
such as suffrage and property rights.”
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The United State’s entry into World War II caused an even larger impact on
women’s clothing. A wartime guideline, entitled L-85, regulated the amount of fabric and
garment types that could be manufactured because an abundance of materials were
needed for military uses. “Rosie the Riveter” became an example of practicality and
efficiency, specifically for women entering the workforce. Pants, or slacks, grew
immensely popular but were still questioned as to whether they were appropriate for the
workplace until the 1960s. Christian Dior’s runway collection in 1947, referred to as
“New Look,” brought women back to femininity and prosperity after the war. There was
now a new emphasis on formfitting clothing and a reemergence of dressing for one’s
husband and “Wife-Dressing” (Vintage Fashion Guild).
By the end of the twentieth century women had the freedom to do what they
wanted and wear what they pleased. The well-known court case of Roe v. Wade,
legalizing abortion in 1973, was a landmark in females taking ownership over their own
bodies. It stimulated women to stand up for themselves more and challenge the way men,
society, and the government once viewed them as. It became evident that women sought
independence through their decisions to attend college, work full time jobs, move out to
rural areas alone, and delay their age of marriage and conceiving children. Rather than
women being portrayed as a man’s asset and trophy wife, they now took care of their
physical appearance for themselves and not only just for men.
As women’s image in America evolved, they began to dress the opposite of how
they once were expected to in the early twentieth century. In reality, they were now not
“expected” to dress in any which way, but they were influenced by the media and society
to do so. For instance, celebrity names such as Madonna and Cher were revolutionizing
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women’s look from classy and conservative, to revealing and provocative in the 1980s.
Off the shoulder shirts, crop tops, tight leather pants, and exposed undergarments seen
through mesh tops were popularized by theses two icons. In 1984, after Madonna came
out with her single Like a Virgin, she was coined the name Material Girl. Young women
and teenage girls, both domestically and internationally, began to idolize her and tried to
mimic her look. Madonna’s style appealed more to a woman’s sexuality than people were
use to. Females emulated her fashion example and developed a newfound confidence to
wear controversial articles of clothing because Madonna was doing it. For example,
visible undergarments were once a sign of social ignorance and a big faux pa. Young
women went through a faze of showing their brassieres out in public because Madonna
did so herself. They also wore gaudy crucifix jewelry, mini skirts, and lace or fishnet
gloves. These fads in fashion came to be viewed as a declaration to a woman’s sexual
freedom to dress the way she wanted and a complete rejection from earlier conservative
styles. Even though one may not consider pop icons, such as Madonna, to be role models,
they were significant in changing the cultural values and attitudes of the American
Today, in the twenty first century, Americans are much more open and liberal as
compared to the past. For example, the pop icons Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Miley
Cyrus have debuted looks that have left many people aghast because of their revealing
and provocative attire. But, compared to the ideals, values, and standards from half a
century ago, the American society has come a long way. Even though there is still
controversy over such celebrities’ actions, for instance when Britney Spears decided to
shave her head in 2007 or Miley Cyrus’s most recent transition from Disney channel role
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model to wild party animal, they are more widely accepted by the media. Teenage girls
now feel pressured to look like these celebrities and dress as they do, even though many
times it is not appropriate. It is evident that there is a growing desire for females to show
off their sexuality and even flaunt it to gain attention from the opposite sex. Girls as
young as twelve are seen dressing in ways that would have never been imagined in the
1920s. It now takes a great deal for fashions to be deemed distasteful and vulgar, which
in turn, mimics the values and beliefs of Americans today.
Possible explanations that could explain the shift in American culture today in
their views of clothing may actually start at the home. Children are being raised much
more differently than they were fifty, thirty, or even ten years ago. American families on
a whole are less strict with their children and more open to their children’s personal
expressions. Also, the media is a big factor in the way children develop their values. If
they observe celebrities and superstars dressing in more alluring and seductive clothing,
they will want to imitate that themselves. Girls in particular pay close attention to the
latest trends in the fashion world so that they can keep up with the rest of their
Looking back in history, a connection is made between women showing more
skin to women having an increase in freedom. If women were not bound by society’s
standards to dress a certain way, then there would not have been such a drastic transition
from large dresses and long skirts to tight pants and mini skirts. Clothing steadily keeps
getting smaller and smaller and famous women icons continue to stretch the boundaries
of what is acceptable to society. It is a curiosity to discover how far society’s limits will
stretch until women’s fashion takes another major turn.
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Works Cited

American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, Victor Bondi, Richard Layman, Tandy
McConnell, and Vincent Tompkins. Vol. 3: 1920-1929. Detroit: Gale,
2001. Word Count: 1183.

Benenson, Robert. "The World of Fashion." Editorial Research Reports 1985. Vol. I.
Washington: CQ Press, 1985. 213-32. CQ Researcher. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

Kirk, Connie Ann. "Bloomers." Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler.
3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. 488-489. Gale Virtual
Reference Library. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

Lee, Kendrick R. "Women in War Work." Editorial Research Reports 1942. Vol. I.
Washington: CQ Press, 1942. 61-78. CQ Researcher. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.

"Vintage Fashion Guild : Fashion Timeline : 1940 To 1950." Vintage Fashion Guild :
Fashion Timeline : 1940 To 1950. Vintage Fashion Club, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Worsnop, Richard L. "Fashion World." Editorial Research Reports 1971. Vol. I.
Washington: CQ Press, 1971. 267-86. CQ Researcher. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.