Fashion has the power to change the world and the style icons who set those fashions have sometimes been the revolutionary people that have remained iconic in our collective cultural memory. From the revolutionary fashionistas whose approach to style became a significant aspect in shaping the society around them to those in charge who set fashions to suit their ambitions, fashion has always played an important part in the lives of these style icons who changed the world.
First, we will start with the world’s original fashion icons who out of the samples I’ve chosen to discuss today are probably the least revolutionary style icons. I am of course talking about Royal Style Icons. Fashion to Royal Families throughout history served a political purpose, meant to separate them from the ordinary common folk who constituted a majority of the population. The two noteworthy royal examples I will be discussing in this section are Elizabeth I of England, Louis XIV of France, and Marie Antoinette.
Elizabeth I crafted her image as the Virgin Queen from the styles she wore, she was meant to appear extraordinary and larger than life, this resulted in many imitators. Ladies of the court would copy her styles, even dying their hair red to look like the queen. One of the reasons that her image remains so iconic today is that she required that all portraits of her remained youthful well into her old age. She was essentially a PR genius who weaponized fashion as a way of asserting herself as a female monarch who wanted to subvert the ‘weak female’ expectations that were common in her time.
Louis XIV was as obsessed with fashion as he was with himself and he is also the reason why the majority of us would say that Paris is the Fashion Capital of the World. Throughout his reign he banned courtiers from acquiring clothing from foreign-sourced materials, this essentially limited their options to French Fabrics and French Tailors. As he was also establishing himself as the most powerful monarch in Europe, other European monarchs quickly followed suit and adopted French trends for their courts. This reinvigorated the French economy as their tailors and fabrics became the most sought after on the continent.
Louis XIV strongly believed in the Divine Right of Kings and dressed in a manner that he felt best represented his godlike status. His court at Versailles had strict sumptuary laws that dictated the status of his courtiers consequently making him the most dazzling attraction at Versailles.
Another one of Versailles most famous residents who was known for their fashion was Queen Marie Antoinette. Unlike her predecessors, Marie Antoinette didn’t stay sheltered behind the walls of Versailles, instead, she presented herself in Paris regularly with her fashions that were then circulated through fashion prints throughout the country.
Controversially, Marie Antoinette also popularised the simple white muslin dress and the simplicity of these dresses was designed to resemble peasant outfits. This along with her extravagant fashions are believed to be a contributing factor to the French Revolution and the public disdain for the queen which eventually led to her execution.
When we hear the word corset we immediately think of conservative Victorians who thought that constricting a woman’s internal organs was the best way of keeping them in line. But not all women in this era were ok with this and rebelled by abandoning corsets all together.
In the 1880s the Rational Dress Movement emerged as women were working, attending university, playing sports, and bicycling. As such, common sense became a greater concern for women and the Rational Dress Society wanted to develop a style of dress that would ensure comfort and ease of movement to the greatest number of people.
In 1883 a meeting of the Rational Dress Society saw a woman named Mrs. C McLaren address the meeting saying that ‘the dress of women handicapped them in business and in domestic work, wasted time and health, and had no compensation in comfort or beauty.’ Consequently, in the 1890s a new type of corset emerged named ‘health corsets’ which were believed to put less pressure on the vital organs. However, they forced the torso forward giving this decade of female clothing an S shape.
In 1851, an editor of the women’s rights journal The Lily Amelia Bloomer wrote about a style of dress similar to what Turkish women wore which was a shorter dress with trousers underneath. Bloomer wrote about it and started a minor fashion craze which became the first instance of women experimenting with trousers.
The late Victorian period saw a new style of dress emerge known as the Artistic Dress Movement. Championed by the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the followers of the Aesthetic Movement, Artistic Dress rejected the heavy trimming of Victorian styles in favor of simplistic designs.
Members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood dressed their female subjects in Medieval styles. These styles of dress were then worn in the everyday lives of their wives and models and became popular in intellectual circles.
Similarly, the followers of the Aesthetic movement also adopted a similar style, however, this was for different reasons. The ideals of Aestheticism was to value arts and literature on the basis of aesthetic ideals, as such they favored simplistic and sensual lines paired with extravagant and lush fabrics.
The years following the First World War saw a newfound liberation for women which was reflected in their clothing and hairstyles. During the First World War, more women entered the workforce and it was during this time that the women’s suffrage movement reached its success throughout the western world. For the first time, women’s clothing made comfort a priority as young women wore looser clothes to dance and even play sports in.
Coco Chanel became a revolutionary fashion designer when she popularised masculine-inspired styles for women, which allowed women to be active while remaining stylish. In the 1910s she used jersey fabric, which had traditionally been used for undergarments and sportswear for casual traveling suits. She also designed the iconic Chanel tweed suit in 1923 which remained a key design for the Chanel label, which was practical, comfortable, and above all stylish. Chanel also popularized the little black dress which has been seen ever since as an integral part of any woman’s wardrobe.
In the 1920s the terms Flapper was used to describe these newly liberated women who bobbed their hair and wore looser clothing. It was a stark contrast from the buttoned-up and corset restricted Victorian fashion that had dominated only a few years before. At the time Flappers were not viewed positively by the majority of society it is only now after we have seen the effects of their revolutionary styles that they have become the cultural icons that they are today.
Fashion has been an integral part of image-making, revolutions, and social movements. Therefore it has the power to change the world. What fashions today do you think will have this effect?
A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, Mimi Matthews
Fashion that Changed the World, Jennifer Croll