Tag Archives: fashion

From Bicycles to Surfing–freeing women to lead their lives

Fashion never sleeps, and the holiday season when people are planning end-of-year celebrations, is an especially active time. Fashion decrees what women should wear and influences how they lead their lives. The people who decide what is fashionable have usually been men. In fact, women who have chosen for themselves what they want to wear have often been harshly punished–either by law or, perhaps even more damaging, by laughter.

When Amelia Bloomer and several other leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement during the mid-nineteenth century introduced the bloomer costume they were criticized and laughed at for their efforts. The Bloomer outfit consisted of a dress worn over wide pants. The obvious health benefits of not wearing a long, heavy skirt that scraped up dirt from the roadway and streets did not persuade men that women should be allowed to determine how they want to dress. As the activist AngelinaGrimke wrote, the bloomer dress suggested that women should have the freedom to move around the streets and participate in public events. It was the freedom the new style offered women that was frightening to many conservatives.

In the end it wasn’t disapproval as much as jokes and laughter that drove the sensible bloomer dresses from the streets of America. Relentless scorn in newspapers pushed women back to more conventional, and restrictive clothes. Bicycle costumes brought a brief revival of bloomer costumes in the 1890s, but they soon disappeared. It took more than fifty years for women to win the freedom to wear short skirts and eventually pants.

Now it is the turn of the Muslim world to design clothes for women that enable them to choose a lifestyle outside the sheltered walls of their family home. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco currently has an exhibit of clothes designed for Muslim women. Many of them are in conventional styles showing some of the many varieties of clothing worn by Muslim women and other Middle Eastern women, but some of them offer glimpses of new lifestyles as well as new clothing styles.

Surfing costume

The exhibit shows outfits suitable for active sports, such as surfing, but all of them fit within the comfort zone of women following Muslim standards for dress. The DeYoung Museum may be too far away for you to visit, but the exhibit is accompanied by a lavish

catalog full of illustrations of some of the most exciting fashions now being shown anywhere—many of them designed by women to help women live more exciting, active lives. And if you cannot buy a copy for yourself, ask your local public library to buy one for the whole community to share. It is an eye-opening experience for everyone.

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Fashion that lives through the years

Necklace by Elsa Schiaparelli

Necklace by Elsa Schiaparelli

Many years ago I heard Nigel Nicolson , the well-known publisher, writer, and friend of many members of the Bloomsbury group, give a talk about his books and some of the famous people he had known. When it came to Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell, Nicolson said, (this is not an exact quote) “They always dressed the same way, in long graceful dresses, and every twenty years or so fashion came around to put them in style”. I was struck by how much confidence they must have had to ignore the whims of fashion and dress to suit themselves. This summer, however, I’ve seen two art exhibits that have convinced me their feat would be quite possible.

When I was in London at the beginning of July, I went to the Tate Modern to see and exhibit of the art of Sonia Delaunay.

Dress by Sonia Delaunay

Dress by Sonia Delaunay

Although I had admired many of her paintings, I had never seen a large exhibition of her work and had no idea that she designed fabrics, dresses, and even magazine covers as well as being a painter. As I looked at some of the clothes she designed, I thought how attractive they would look at a party or public event these days—even perhaps on the red carpet at the Oscars. A woman wearing a dress like the one at the right, would stand out, but would look very fashionable.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I went to an exhibit of “High Fashion” at the Palace of the Legion of Honor to see the work of some twentieth century designers from the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit was crowded when I was there, and it is easy to see why. The dresses on display—most of them designed for lavish parties and social events—are amazing. We saw dresses by Christian Dior, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mainbocher and many others. It was striking how many of the fashions are almost timeless. They still look as beautiful and wearable today as they did during the last century. (The shoes worn by the mannequins, however, do not look wearable at all.)

Dresses by Mainbocher

Dresses by Mainbocher

I’ve never been particularly interested in fashion and have spent most of my life wearing the informal clothes that are the usual choice of academics and librarians, but after seeing these two exhibits, I can understand better why there are so many fashionistas in the world. High fashion offers some delightful examples of how clothing can also be high art and add pleasure to the world. I still have some reservations about the excesses, however. Elsa Schiaparelli’s insect necklace (above) probably goes a step too far for most of us to accept as wearable.

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