Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vintage Sewing and Gender Politics

Despite the serious title, I think this is a fun topic. Gail made an excellent comment on last week's wiggle dress post that really got me thinking.
Gertie, The look is fabulous but I've got to say I'm uncomfortable about the return to 50s fashion. This was a terrible time for women and the wiggle skirt is a symbol of just how unemanicipated women were. Why do women want to wear a symbol of our oppression. Are you like my daughter - born in the post feminist era and thinking I should just "get over it!"
I think this is an excellent point, and one that I wanted to address.

First of all, let me establish than I am a feminist. Not a "post feminist," but a regular old feminist. I'm proud to live in a time where I have certain choices and freedoms, and I know that I owe my current liberties to feminists past who paved the way. So. I am a modern feminist gal who likes fashions from the fifties, a time period which, as Gail pointed out, is not exactly known for being woman-friendly. How do I reconcile these contradictions?

Well, thinking this over brought up more questions than answers for me. For example:
  • Is wearing a fashion from an oppressive time period indeed a symbol of that oppression?
  • Is there such a thing as "reclaiming" these fashions so that they are symbols of power rather than domination?
  • Should we only make patterns from the eras that were the least oppressive to women?
  • If wiggle skirts and the like are offensive to those with feminist sensibilities, what is the alternative? I mean, what could we possibly wear that would establish us as feminists to those who view us?
  • Are 50’s wiggle skirts really that different from modern pencil skirts?
  • What about current fashions that are restrictive? Stilettos, Spanx, etc? Skinny jeans? Are these symbols of oppression towards women?
So, to try to answer these questions, I thought about my relationship with vintage patterns. First of all, I like to sew 50's fashions so that I can make them wearable for me, in 2009. I shorten hemlines so they're more practical and modern. I make the waists wider so that they don't have to be worn with a girdle. I lower the bust darts so an unpadded bra can be worn. I mix current ready-to-wear blouses and shoes with vintage-style skirts. In other words, I don't dress as though I'm wearing a happy housewife costume. I think to most people, I look like a woman who is inspired by vintage fashion, but does not feel the need to look like Dita Von Teese or Betty Draper every day.

But why do I like these looks? I hope it’s not some sort of self-loathing that makes me want to wear a symbol of women’s oppression. I simply prefer the silhouette of vintage fashions as opposed to the current styles offered by pattern companies. I think the design is better and the lines are more flattering. If you want to oppress me, try to make me wear a pair of skinny jeans!

I should also note that I like vintage patterns because I’m interested in the historical and archival aspect of it. I think that sewing my way through Vogue's New Book for Better Sewing is connecting me to women of the past. Doing this project, and researching the evolution of home sewing (women's work, no doubt), is a way for me to honor the lives of women past (however painful) rather than pretending they didn't exist.

So that's where I'm coming from on this topic. While I agree that the 50's were not our most liberated decade and that many of the fashions were oppressive and uncomfortable, I find that I am leaning towards respectfully disagreeing with Gail that bringing back 50's styles is in some way symbolizing the oppression of women. I think there are ways to incorporate 50’s looks into your wardrobe as a feminist. There's something to be said for refashioning these styles to suit yourself, as opposed to refashioning yourself to suit a style, whatever decade it might be from.

Whew. I've exhausted myself on this topic. Now, please chime in with your thoughts!

P.S. Thanks, Gail, for raising the level of discourse in this joint! I appreciate any feedback like this that others might have.


  1. Wow! As a feminist (or 'equalist'?!)and having just done a fantastic gender subject at uni last semester, I have been thinking about this topic ALOT. I even went off 50's fashions for a bit, otherwise one of my favourite fashion eras, just because I was so concerned about the very issue Gail has raised. But I have to say Gertie, I really do agree with you. By wearing these clothes and updating them we are reclaiming these fashions, because after all, they were truly beautiful, and who wants to lose sight of that aspect, and simply class them as oppressive and forget about them? At the end of the day as long as a person is wearing something because they themselves want to, and not because society says they should or they think someone else must like it, as long as wearing what they wear makes them happy then how can it be oppressive?

  2. I think, by her argument you could say women shouldn't wear skirts or dresses at all b/c they are a symbol of our "inequality." I am a feminist (I don't hold with any qualifiers to that; i.e. proto, post, etc) and I feel that part of my feminist ability is that I can wear whatever pleases me and wiggle dresses happen to make me (a hippy woman) look sexy and make me feel good when I wear them. Not to mention that the 50s are not the only period wiggle dresses were in fashion (as I see late 80s versions all of the time).

    I happen to think us women are lucky that we aren't pigeon-holed into having to wear trousers every day.

  3. Are we supposed to avoid SKIRTS altogether because those are traditionally for women? Just wear Mao Pajamas? Only flat shoes? I think we can wear whatever fashions we want , as feminists, and celebrate our femininity - make what was perceived as 'girly' a proud badge of feminism. Plus, the retro clothes are cute, Why worry what otehr people think. What clothes you wear should be your chpice and choices are what being an adult is all about.

  4. I wrote a comment like that on someones blog who is also into 50's fashion and the comments I got where a lot less thoughtful than Frances'
    And yeah, I am old enough to call myself a feminist. It's not about skirts, after all men started out wearing skirts too. It's the symbolism behind the clothes. The return to the home after WW2 when women were fired from the jobs they held so that the returning soldiers could have a job. It symbolizes the restrictions on women in the 50's and into the 60's. We do have the freedom to choose what we want to wear and what we want to do with our lives that women didn't have. 50's clothing is about more than sexual politics.

  5. It's a tricky one. I personally agree with you that wearing them is ok.

    However I guess it is easy for me to say that - after all, I was not a woman in the fifties.

    For those women who lived it, however, I can totally understand their surprise, and even confusion, that we would want to return to these fashions.

  6. I've been trying to sort out my thoughts since I read your post... especially since I do not label myself as a virulent feminist (although I do strongly believe that women and men are created equal and should be treated as such!). So here's my thoughts for what they're worth. ;)

    There's something to be said for refashioning these styles to suit yourself, as opposed to refashioning yourself to suit a style, whatever decade it might be from.

    Right on! I think many people still confuse skirt wearing, "old fashions", and taking an interest in feminine pursuits (e.g. sewing) as "oppressive" because it hearkens back to a time when women did not have the plethora of choices they do now. The beauty of living in a post-women's lib age is that we do have choices both in what lifestyles/careers we choose as well as how we present our style to others. In this day and age, we've come to a point where the younger generation of feminists can comfortably embrace their choices in the world along with their own femininity (if they so choose), without feeling like they're somehow "joining the enemy". You can now easily embrace the feminine styles of the past, while still maintaining a successful modern career.

    Does this make any sense? I feel like my ideas are all garbled about this topic right now--it's been awhile since I've discussed feminism and style. lol!

    I got a good laugh from your comment about skinny jeans! I notice a lot of women flock to the vintage/vintage inspired bandwagon because they feel more comfortable and flattered in older styles (that's one of the reasons I do!). New trends are just too exposed and require that I be built like a super model in order to wear them. Now if that isn't oppressive, I don't know what is! rofl!

  7. Though I am defiantly not old enough to have lived though the heydays of feminism, I was raised by parents with those ideas and I share them. I was encouraged to do things that before women could not do, such as enter into the engineering career field. Even still I learned to sew because my mom did and when I was little I thought it looked like fun (it is too!). I was the only one of my sisters to learn to sew just as my mom was the only one of her siblings to learn, so to me sewing is like keeping a tradition going that might otherwise die out in America, it sets me apart from others as a rare skill and I treasure that.
    But, as an engineer, I do not feel comfortable wearing my beloved skirts and dresses to work. Engineering is still a very male dominated career, so I have to be ‘one of the guys’. It sounds silly to say it, but many of my female engineering friends agree, if I was to wear a skirt to work I might be looked down on as weak. It is sad, but we still have to fight for what we want and look the part too.

  8. Wasn't the whole idea of liberation just that. We are liberated to choose what we want to say, to be and to wear. What is right for some may not be right for others. I thought we had this all figured out by now.

  9. Right on Casey! That was such a good point about modern supermodel only styles being oppressive that I had to leave another comment just to agree with you ;) Oh and isn't it hypocritical to say women shouldn't wear something because it's oppressive- surely dictating what people can and can't wear according to their political views is just as oppressive as telling all women that they can only wear skirts- either way you deny individuality and freedom of expression!

  10. I think that it's possible to separate fashion/art from the values of the time in which they were created. For example - we can appreciate the beauty of Versialles, even though we all know that thousands of French peasants suffered as a result of its opulence.

    It's sort of the same with '50s fashion. I love '50s fashions because they allow me to celebrate my very womanly shape (as opposed to a lot of modern fashion). I think we can appreciate, reclaim, and delight in the style while at the same time recognizing that so many women were opressed during that era.

    I think it's very important to remember the historical context of these clothes. At the same time, gender politics should not stop me from wearing styles that I think are beautiful, feminine and flattering.

  11. I think people who like vintage style gravitate towards what works on their body, which makes perfect sense. It's no different than shopping modern clothes and looking for what works on your particular silhouette, you're just shopping through all of history!

    And as far as whether or not you are signifying opression with your clothes....I say, right on, Kathi G!! Exactly this: "Wasn't the whole idea of liberation just that. We are liberated to choose what we want to say, to be and to wear." Of course in theory we were, but in practice, the different factions have been snarking at each other ever since. (I was once called out publicly for daring to appear somewhere with friends looking "too cute", when I was supposed to be "representing" for young feminists. Which I didn't know I was supposed to be doing anyway.)

    I personally don't like when anything is classed as "oppressive" or whatever, because an outside observer has no idea why you wear what you wear. A woman could wear ANYTHING, be it a wiggle dress or a sack, makeup or none, because she feels empowered, sexy and more herself that way; or a woman might wear it because she is dominated by a partner (or by society in the name of fashion) who cows her into wearing what THEY want. How can you tell? You can't. That's why I think it is totally irrelevant to say that any particular look can signify anything. Everyone is an individual and brings their own meaning to what they wear. And yes, you do have to deal with people viewing you superficially and questioning you (just like with tattoos, hair color, piercings, whatever) -- no matter what you do/wear/say, someone out there will pooh-pooh it. But if you are doing what you want and what you believe it -- then you can deal with them.

    (Also, there have been too many eras to count that sucked for women -- are we forbidden to wear anything worn in all those eras?)

  12. I respect the concern that vintage fashions may represent for some eras of oppression, but I have a very pragmatic point of view. My hips are two sizes larger than my waist, which is quite defined. The 50's dresses with the full skirts fit my figure and makes me feel like a woman! I can wear very few modern styles and feel that way. I love wearing clothes that are feminine. I think this is the real freedom...to not have to tame my curves or squish them into skinny pants, but show them off with beautiful frocks. For me, part of feminism is to be feminine.

  13. Gertie, I think you should wear whatever fits your taste and you are comfortable in! I think that the actually clothes of the era are not oppressive, as much as it was the social mores and customs of the day... don't blame the wiggle skirt! It's not like the only way to "dress as a feminist" is to burn your bra and whip up a pair of bell bottoms! You can be an empowered woman as long as what you are wearing is what you want to be wearing.

  14. I think it is fantastic when women can embrace and enjoy their innate femininity through fashion. It makes me happy to see women embracing and enjoying their femininity in any way.

    Modern fashions have not been too kind to the womanly figure. That is what spurred me into the wonderful world of vintage fashion. The styles of decades past celebrated the female form. I think we should continue to celebrate it today, remembering that we are no longer oppressed, but lovely, liberated and free.

  15. I wear what I want and what makes me feel good. I *really* don't care what anyone else thinks. Trying to link a clothing style to oppression of women is ridiculous and I reject it completely. I think it's feminist to wear whatever the hell you want.

  16. Living in Los Angeles where we are both incredibly forward-thinking and yet stuck in a beauty based culture I've thought way too much on how clothes & image impact how I see myself and how others see me.

    After having worked in both high-end retail and office settings I've come to the realization that you can't change how others see you. Now, I agree with Molly that certain industries will absolutely talk down to you for wearing skirts and such what not (my best friend is gorgeous and works in a similar industry) so I understand the need for leveling the playing field anyway you can.

    However, in what I do, I've learned that my personal expression of my style hasn't hurt or helped my career. Any sexism that may exist is there if I wear a wiggle skirt or khaki pants.

    I adore 50s clothes as I have a curvy body. Most modern clothes look horrid on me. I adore fashion as a whole, but I have to be incredibly careful when I shop "modern" styles. But the 50s styles make me feel comfortable. At the end of the day, I have learned to go with what makes me happy.

    I think if we were to take these styles and add the layers and layers of restrictive uncomfortable corsets to mold us into the image that we're "supposed" to fit, then yes, we'd be taking ourselves back to that era. But to reinterpret styles that we enjoy, I think that's the ultimate freedom.

  17. Like you, one of the first things I thought of was a question as well:
    What about the fact that the New Look was liberating to many women?

    Take the men out of the equation. After war and rations, women were craving the glamour that Christian Dior brought to them.

    Personally, I dress all in vintage clothing (1930s-50s) or things I've sewn from vintage patterns, and love it. It's the easiest and truest way for me to express myself, but when I wear any of those pieces I am not saying to anyone that I want to bring back the traditional female roles of the 50s. I dress 50s because I grew up listening to the music, watching I Love Lucy, and still enjoy all those things now. In a way, dressing in that way shows I do reject a lot of modern culture, but I can also love the past without wanting some of the grittier parts back.

    I thoroughly enjoy (and exercise) all the rights and choices I am able to make for myself because of my ancestors, and dressing the way I want to and being a tattooed lady are just two of those things. :)

  18. Wasn't the point of the feminist movement to free women from being under the thumb of men, allowing women to do things for themselves rather than because they are told to by society and because 'men' wanted them to??
    I wear girdles, corsets, vintage, clothes, high heels and makeup because I like them.
    There really isn't any other reason anyone, male or female, should do anything. You don't like skinny jeans? Don't wear them! That is the freedom that feminists bought us. Not doing something you like just because it fits the mold of being a women at some era in the past is stupid, and shows stupidity more than any degree of modern thinking.

  19. I have never thought of my clothes as making a statement about feminism or oppression! My first thought was to wonder if we were to all wear suits with huge shoulder pads or big cone bras like Madonna to assert our feminist pride.
    I think as we begin sewing more, we begin to learn what flatters our bodies the most and what we like to wear. Those realizations lead some to lean toward the 50's era clothing due to the fit.
    Plus, today's American patterns are sized horribly. Plus, many of them just aren't cute. So many are fast and easy ones for people who do not know how to sew. Older patterns leave you with a garment that looks professional.
    I think we can take the fun out of things by reading way too much into them! Your clothes look awesome on you and you are doing a great job making them. I love checking in on your daily posts to see what you have accomplished!

  20. Great topic and great answer Gerite. Here's my 10 cents.

    First off, I'm an academic, and I did one of my PhD fields in US women's history, have taught a couple of classes in Gender studies and women's history and I don't at all fall in line with the comment that the 50's were "oppressive to women." But I'm not going to get into that.

    Here's what I really want to say. Fashions of the 50s and also the 30s and the 40s were were in my mind, very dignified. By that I mean they leant dignity to a woman's body and also to a woman's work -- all the kinds of work a woman did. Housewife, mother, secretary, college student, whatever, clothes reflected self-respect.

    Housewives never said to themselves "well, it's just me and the kids today and some other moms so it's not important what I look like, I'll just throw on some sweats and this ratty t-shirt."

    Single women didn't say, "well, it's the weekend and I'm just running errands and I don't need to dress up for all those sales people and other people I see in stores so I'm going to wear my jeans and flip flops."

    Or the college student didn't say "I'm just going to class this morning so I'll wear my Pajamas or these short shorts with the college name written on it across the butt."

    Or women who work in an office didn't say "I'm just going to the office, I'm going to wear these ugly shapeless khaki pants and my button-up shirt with penguins on it with my matching penguin earrings, and embroidered cardigan, that will be cute and get a laugh." (you know what I'm talking about here.)

    The attitude of bodily self-respect and dignity is what I want to reclaim from the 50s when I turn to 50s style clothes. The attitude of respect and inherent dignity for all the different roles of women as reflected in the clothes they wore, and the respect you show to other people of whatever station in life by dressing nicely around them -- even you if you want to debate the level of "oppression" they lived under in one or another decade.

    Don't get me wrong, I like being comfortable and I am not perfect in terms of dressing, and respectful dressing could probably be toned down for our times, but there's something we as a society and we as women have given up when we ditched the clothes of the 50s.

  21. Personally, I think that wearing styles that make me look good is empowering. In my view, being empowered is a huge part of feminism. If I feel bad about myself in some way, then that is stifiling. In my opinion, following current fashion simply because it is current, rather than because it is what you really like would be more oppressive than simply wearing what you like and what makes you feel good about yourself.

    I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately, given my increasing interest in sewing, knitting, spinning, dyeing, gardening, and baking bread. I have always thought of myself as a feminist, but I am really enjoying very feminine persuits. I am also finding myself more interested in wearing dresses, and shockingly, things with frills and lace, which I would never have done before because they were too "girly". It begs the question of where traditional feminine elements should fall in the kind of world of equality I want to live in.

    In a similar veign, my first fight with my boyfriend was over the "gentlemanly" things he does, like open doors, carry things, walk on the street side of the sidewalk, etc. I was upset because I felt like he was treating me like a weakling, etc. He, on the other hand, said that he knew I was entirely capable, but that he does these things to show respect to me, and to constantly demonstrate that he cares. How can I tell him that I don't want him to show me that he cares? Sure it's rooted in gender roles, but he believes I'm smart, capable and strong, so in the end what would I gain? A man who feels confused about how to express himself, unappreciated and probably unloved.

    I think we have to be able to see things the way they are intended, and not be blinded by resistance to the past.

  22. @reilly: Well, I don't know about the situation in US at the time, but in Paris, Christian Dior's new look was both a victory for the beauty, and a defeat for the reason in 1947... because in France, food had to be rationed till year 1950, so you didn't have the time to think of fabric, whereas the new look of Dior requested at least 3 times the amount of fabric that a look from the preious decade requested... therefore, you can guess it was reserved to a happy few: my teenage grandmother never wore it, till the year 1958... If this was liberating in spirit, it was certainly not in fact, and as a feminist I rather care for facts.

    Yet, I appreciate fifties style, thought being rather thin I happen to wear sixties and seventies style more often (I alsolike skinny jeans by the way!). My only answer to people pointing my love of fashion, th fact I sew or even the mere fact I wear skirts as a contradiction to my feminism is: ''boys can do that too, I wouldn't mind!'' By the way, skirts are so comfortable I really wonder why half the population should live without them!

    I'm really sorry if my comment hurted English grammar!

  23. I just came back to take a peek at the newer comments, and wanted to say thank you both Gertie for starting this discussion and all the insightful comments! I'm really enjoying reading the viewpoints. I used to love discussing "women's issues" in my various college classes, and miss that interaction quite a bit. ;)

  24. This is a very interesting topic -- I consider myself a feminist and I work in a traditionally male-dominated field, do think that high heels are a form of torture and do not possess any traditionally feminine talents (cooking or sewing). But I love fashion and even though my personal style is modern I adore 50s outfits.
    And I just noticed how a lot of vintage dresses have pockets! (a trend that thankfully has made its appearance recently as well) -- now what can be more practical? (esp when you have to carry a ton of keys/phones for your job)

  25. Many, many good comments here! As a graduate of a women's college, a founder of a women's resource center at that school, and a lover of all things feminine, I have often mulled this dilemma over.

    I agree with the general sentiment here that wearing these fashions does not indicate my willingness to be oppressed! LOL. I definitely don't want to be a 1950's housewife, in any way. I love the fashions from those days, but I certainly don't act like a woman of those times when it comes to my aspirations and my rights.

    I think acting like a bimbo or a sheltered housewife while dressed in vintage fashions *might* invite sexism, but just wearing the clothes doesn't automatically invite it.

    I wrote a blog entry about women's roles as depicted in vintage advertising, and only got a few responses (because I don't have many readers yet). One woman wrote to chew me out that the commenters weren't having a serious enough discussion about the issue (!) People were commenting on the graphics, instead of on the politics. Sigh. There's always going to be someone who takes issue with a lifestyle or a blog post...

  26. I don't think wiggle skirts are at all a symbol of just how unemanicipated women were. A symbol of a womans sexuality yes, but certainly not opression. I think the modern way of dressing for a woman (by this I mean low cut blouses and a short skirt, bear with me) is much more 'oppressive'. Wiggle skirts from the 50s were below the knee, and often very modest - looking through my many patterns & books, there are very few indeed that are anywhere near revealing!

    I will not go into my views on feminism here, as I don't actually think that is the point, if we are using Mad Men as an example of oppression, I think it best to point out that the strongest woman in the show - Joan - frequently wears wiggle dresses, is she oppressed or is she making it in a male dominated work place?

    I don't even get where the idea that such an item of clothing is a symbol of opression al all. A chastity belt perhaps...

  27. Have I ever mentioned how smart you ladies are? Thanks for turning this into a truly amazing discussion. I don't even know where to start! So I'll just thank you all for reading and being so intelligent and savvy. xo

  28. I never equated vintage fashion to oppression of women. I do view it as a kind of art form. I appreciate it for it's beauty, construction and creativity. But I guess, like any art form, others may have a different opinion. And isn't that what it is all about. We may not agree on all points but aren't we lucky to be able to say our opinions.

  29. @Elizabethe: you said what I wanted to say but much more eloquently.

  30. I love what elizabethe said!

    I was just commenting to my husband yesterday how once, mother-daughter matching meant cute gingham dresses or playsuits, or different (appropriate) styles in matched fabrics.

    But today (well, at least yesterday at the grocery store) it apparently means sloppy, skeevy, and age-inappropriate for both mother and daughter.

    And I totally agree -- THAT sort of dressing signifies lack of self-respect to me. Much more so than anything vintage ever possibly could.

  31. I think the 50's was the last decade that women dressed like grown-ups instead of toddlers. If you look at the clothes from the 60's and 70's the clothes are very "youth" oriented (UGH!).

    Even current looks trend toward that "baby-doll" look as if being an adult is something to be avoided.

    I prefer the 40's era overall, but think that the 50's styles are quite stunning as well.

  32. These are all very insightful comments and it is indeed refreshing to be able to discuss such issues. The only thing I can add is a bit of history. First from Queen of Fashion What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, one of the styles seldom associated with MA is the simple white dress she adopted beginning at the Petit Trianon. Her detractors despised it and felt she was essentially thumbing her nose at everything French. Even the peasants wanted to see their monarchy dressed in their finest. But later the simple white dress and muslin scarf emerged as the revolutionaries costume of choice.

    The "New Look" of the 50's as we know it was basically the creation of Dior. And although there was lots of corsetting the look was considered to be unresticted. At the same time others designers like Balenciaga and Chanel focused on simplicity of from and freedom of movement. But ultimately,it was Dior that ruled the day because... his designs were the choice of the women. This info is from The Golden Age of Couture.

    Apparently these women didn't associate their fashion choices with social oppression but chose their wardrobes based on what they liked and wanted to wear.

  33. Gertie, Thank you for opening up this discussion. I do need to clarify something. I was not suggesting that women should not wear these styles if they want to. Merely that sometimes it is worthwhile to stop and think about the symbolism of what we wear. This is no different to deciding whether to bare your midriff, show cleavage or lots of leg, or give your daughter a Bratz doll. My personal choice is not wear 50s fashion. This doesn't mean that I don't celebrate the feminine. I joined your blog for just that reason.

  34. Of course, Gail! I thought your point was a good one, that's why I wanted to discuss. I liked what you had to say, and I understand where you're coming from. Definitely good to think about the symbolism behind what we wear. I hope you didn't feel I was "calling you out" or anything like that! I just wanted an opportunity to think out loud about it and hear what others thought. Again, I owe you one for bringing such an interesting discussion to the blog! :)

  35. Elizabethe: I join with Sarah and Knitosaurus to say "Bravo!" to your comment. Very well put. I am having such an inspiring time reading these comments! Thanks, Gertie, for opening up this discussion.

  36. Maybe I'm living in the past, or have missed the latest news, but I don't see that women are terribly "emancipated" today. Why are women so rare in board rooms? Why are women rare as heads of state? Why are female newsreaders young and beautiful while the men can keep working while they go grey and wrinkly?

    Why is the office air-conditioning set at a level which keeps the men in their suits and ties comfortable, but which means the women in summer dresses have to put on extra layers or freeze?

    When the Sartorialist was recently in Australia, he criticised the women from my city because they tended to wear flatter shoes, and found Sydney women more elegant because they wore higher shoes. So it seems that women's feet should be forced into unnatural shapes, permanently injuring them, to conform to at least his idea of attractiveness. Is this just a less extreme version of Chinese foot-binding?

    Why not wear 50's clothes? I don't think that that was a much more oppressive time than this. Maybe in another 100 years there will be more equality.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking blog post!

  37. I don't have much to add except that I spend a lot of time in the rockabilly scene and if anyone came to a show and started making oppressive comments towards the women, that person would be quickly "escorted" off the premises by men and women. For us it's about the fashion, the music, and the craftsmanship, not about glorifying gender roles.

  38. The previous comment about the Sartorialist got me thinking that may be we are approaching this question from the wrong angle. The premise of the argument seems to be that because the 50s were before women’s lib (if we ignore the Suffragettes) the fashions at the time are tainted in a way that modern fashions are not; wiggle skirts are a sign of oppression but skinny jeans and vertiginous heels are not. However, it seems to me that slavishly following the contemporary fashions of any era is an oppression we are in danger of opposing on our selves (the reasons for which would provoke an interesting discussion on its own).

    The Sartorialist’s complaint that women’s heels weren’t high enough in a particular city in 2009 seems just as oppressive as being ‘forced’ to wear a girdle to achieve the fashionable shape in the 50s.

    The choice of women in the 21st century to wear the 50s’ silhouette therefore takes on a different meaning for me. Most of the people you see wearing these clothes seem to be part of an alt. scene (even if that scene is just being too ‘big boned’ to look at all attractive in the current fashions). They are choosing these clothes because they are an expression of themselves and as part of a rebellion against the main-stream; for me, being able to do this is part of their emancipation from the oppression of fashion.

    The clothes have lost their oppressive meaning by the very nature of them being worn now, in this culture.

    Similarly I find the comment that Joan is the strongest character in Mad Men intriguing and I think is supports my argument. We have imbued her character with some of the feelings we have when we wear these clothes. We see her as the sexy, independent wiggle silhouette to Betty’s impractical and dependent fluffy girly-ness. However, leaving aside the fact that all the characters are floored (one of the really appealing things about the show), if you really study the plot and characters it is Peggy Olson who’s really pushing the boundaries of the woman's place in the work-place, moving from secretary to copy writer, despite debilitating set-backs. And I’ve noticed that she’s someone who doesn’t get discussed a great deal on fashion blogs because her clothes don’t float our boat. I wonder what that say’s about us! Is she not a strong woman because she’s slightly dowdier?

    This has been a really interesting discussion.

    Meg x

  39. I grew up with a bunch of women that didn't listen to the convention of their day and was raised to do the same.

    I don't consider myself a "feminist" because I don't need a group of women validating my being a woman. I do consider myself to be a strong and independent woman.

    I thought the purpose of the whole movement was to give women the right to choose what they saw fit, for themselves, not fit into a stereotype of what other women consider that to be. If you want to stay at home and take care of a house, go to work, be single and never have kids...all of this is what being a "feminist" is, and correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this what was fought so hard for?

    I choose to wear clothing *I* want to wear. *I* choose to look like I stepped out of the 50s...or not. My choices. That's the key thing here.

    I had a group of women in my family I admired who were "opressed" in their 50s wiggle dresses and fashions of the time. All of them had jobs, a couple even had rewarding careers, they made money and the lived their life as they saw fit...doing it with grace and style. To me, I never have seen these fashions as being oppressive, or unemancipated to women, because they weren't. They were strong and independent women who looked good doing what they damn well wanted to do. The men were just along for the ride.

  40. Being someone who is both in a male dominated industry and a passionate sewist/knitter/baker, with a love of vintage I haven't been able to indulge much in just yet... I have thought about this. But in a modern context. While Canada doesn't tend to have the Ultra Right Wing Conservative population that's been pretty loud in our neighbours to the south, the pouffy-dress/apron wearing/sewing woman has a connotation attached to her that's stereotypical and not well rounded. I still shock my colleagues when they find out I knit, let alone the rest of it. And those who I've met through knitting are shocked I do research in the physical sciences.

    I don't see vintage clothes as symbols of oppression. I do see that others reflect stereotypes on you depending on what you wear, how you look, and what you do. So I have to choose these things carefully in important situations - when starting at a new job, when travelling for work, when presenting a new pattern for my line ;). Once people have made my measure, have slotted me into their hierarchy, then I start stretching the boundaries and making them think twice. I become the Researcher who can bake/sew/knit, rather than "oh, isn't it cute that girl can write code?".

    Having gotten a little older, I no longer conform to the expected stereotypes of wherever I am or whatever I'm doing in order to earn some respect - I expect the respect. I also know that some situations call for a certain presentation and don't flaunt the limits too badly. But once I'm well ensconced in a workplace, there's no reason I can't wear cute skirts and my own designs while I'm pounding on the keyboard for 6 hours, so I do. Because I'm more comfortable, and I happen to like it. If I get a few grey haired men to stop linking appearance and productivity, bonus!

  41. This debate has been raging in the comment sections in the Swedish vintage blogs too. Most of those young bloggers, in "done" hair, high heels and fitted dresses, labels themselves as staunch feminists, and for them it's all about reclaiming and freedom of choice. I find these girls really cool and intriguing.

    Although I do get provoked when people talk about being "feminine" or "masculine" as a virtue. For me, as a feminist born in the early 70's, I see this as a potential minefield. I think gender stereotypes is the cause of many problems when it comes to equal rights and opportunities for both sexes

    As for myself I do feel restricted in those original vintage garments, they make me more self conscious about how I look, move and feel. Basically I feel less free as a person. So I alter these patterns too and usually turn tapered dresses into slightly a-line.

    As for spending a lot of time on grooming, it's again not for me. But I don't see why a girl who spends a lot of time trying to perfect a 40's coif should be criticized for being image obsessed when I'm sure punks spend at least the same amount of time on their mohawks!

  42. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  43. Ooh, Meg, love your point about Joan on Mad Men. Especially when you consider her story line in the last season--she became very oppressed in both her career and her relationship. But I think one of the reasons women gravitate towards her as a character is the confidence with which she carries her body. It's such an anomaly on today's tv.

    Johanna, thanks for your point of view. I just deleted your double comment, fyi! That little message looks so ominous. :)

  44. Gertie, I clicked on this link last night from Ambika's blog (into-thefray.com) and thought of this discussion:


  45. I don't consider myself a feminist, but I don't consider myself a lot of things because I don't like labelling myself. That's irrelevant, really. I started thinking about if it's justifiable to wear fashions from a time that was, in many ways, oppressive to women but, I realised, if I don't wear the things that make me happy just because I think they may offend someone else's sensibilities, then I'm just oppressing myself! And by wearing fashion which isn't mainstream, I have more freedom than many girls of my age who feel the need to follow trends. Plus, the fashions I wear look better on girls who have curves, yet many fashions from eras when women were liberated (I'm think the '20s and '60s) are only really flattering to women who have the shape of boys! (There's nothing wrong with that if it so happens to suit you but I just look terrible in those clothes!!)
    What annoys me is that people might look at me and assume that, because I choose to wear clothes I like, feel comfortable in and find flattering - which just so happen to be the fashions of the 40s and 50s - that I must subscribe to the political and social ideas of the time, too!
    I could say so much more but it wouldn't be well thought through, at all!
    This is a really great post.
    -Andi x

  46. I just found your blog today and have really enjoyed it. I agree with most people's comments about we woment can wear what we want. I live in skirts. I love them. Coincidentally, I posted about a vintage pencil skirt pattern on my blog Monday and how I had made it and could hardly walk in it. I didn't know they were called wiggle skirts, but I remember having to use a lot of hip swing to get around in it. Is that where the name comes from?

  47. I'm glad to see this post, as it's certainly something that I've thought of from time to time when I slip into one of my 1950s dresses. For me, the issue is compounded by the fact that I'm Asian American. When many of my treasured dresses were made, Asian Americans faced an amazing amount of prejudice and were marginalized in ways that's hard for us to wrap our heads around now. "Mad Men" notes this with the "Oriental family in Pete's office" prank and the waitress in the Japanese restaurant. Whenever I flip through an vintage Sears catalog or old issue of Life magazine for inspiration, I keep this in mind (especially when I stumble upon articles that refer to "Orientals" as "moon-faced" and "inscrutable." Sigh.).

    One of the reasons that I started wearing vintage clothing, however, was that I simply did not feel comfortable in a lot of modern clothing, which are sewn to standard sizing that seems to ignore my own curvy measurements and are often too revealing for my taste. Frankly, I feel a lot more comfortable in a wiggle dress (provided that it's not too tight) than a pair of skinny jeans. Aesthetically and emotionally, vintage styles just feel right to me.

    I guess the upshot is: I wear vintage clothing with joy, but it is also a daily reminder that I am extremely lucky to live in these times, when attitudes toward women and minorities are a good deal more enlightened (though they still have a long way to go!).

  48. I wanted to add that a lot of the comments have brought up the very good point that, in their time, a lot of vintage styles were seen as quite revolutionary and liberating for women. One of the reasons I love vintage clothing is that it gives me the chance to trace women's history in a very concrete way.

  49. wearing a 50's dress doesn't mean you wish you lived in the 50's! i don't see why reviving vintage styles has anything to do with gender politics. if wearing something makes you feel more sexy or confident then i think that's making a feminist statement!

  50. This is such a fascinating blog and such thoughtful comments from your readers.

    This was a repressive time, but as history goes, it was less repressive than the 40's which was less repressive than the 30's, which was less repressive than the 20's.

    The fortunate thing is that with each generation we seem to make more progress.

  51. REALLY interesting discussion. I wanted to say that in general I have found that gals who most embrace the retro-50's aesthetic in their personal style tend to be MORE rather than less aware of the history of female emancipation, and are more rather than less independent, freethinking, questioning types. Or it may be that I just tend to meet/be exposed to gals who are of a generalised feminist outlook because that's what I am too... but no, there seem to be too many smart, sassy, accomplished and thoughtful gals bopping around in their fifties-inspired finery for this to be a coincidence! Proof of this is the very considered responses you have received here. I particularly enjoyed reading elizabethe's thoughts on the concept of bodily respect. In a fashion climate that seems to be asking us to expose more and more actual flesh to be considered attractive, I think a swing-back to more refined and dignified may be overdue.

  52. Hi all. I'm enjoying flicking through the blog and just wanted to chime in on this discussion which I think raises some important points.

    To be honest, sometimes it scares me to see young women devouring aesthetics from bygone times so hungrily they appear to actually be trying to promote an archaic lifestyle.

    Ain't nothing wrong with wearing a well-fitting, flattering skirt of whatever cut, and enjoying it. I like 50s styles especially because I find them flattering - and there's room for creativity when making one's own clothes.

    But when some women get into the 50s housewife, or pinup, or 60s stripper ('burlesque' they're calling it) styles with with a lot of 'tee hee, look at me, isn't this fun?' and no display of critical analysis, one can't help but feel this is regressive and shows a lack of respect for the struggles women have endured to get where we are today.

    Gertie states this is not where she's coming from, but I think there are a lot who are probably quite clueless when it comes to the past. They may claim they're appreciating a style with a pinch of irony, but in actual fact, they just want to look pretty. And the net result is they're just promoting archaic values.

    Granted, it's a fine line - but Dita Von Teese, for example, is way over it. And anyone who watches Mad Men and is considering getting a wiggle skirt so they can look like a sexy secretary should at least be aware of their motivations.

    The danger in promoting archaic lifestyles and values is that they again become the norm. And we don't want that. Do we?

  53. My mother was a young woman during the 1950's and that era more than any other captivated her creativity and style. Once the 1960's set in, she gave up trying to be in fashion. Once the rules were tossed away (matching purse and shoes, no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day...etc...) she considered modern fashions to be just chaos.

    Collectively, we as a society forgot how to look appropriate for special occasions. We became a casual, disposable, and sloppy people.

    For some of us, it has nothing to do with gender politics and everything to do with celebrating an era when clothing was not made of cheap materials in a crowded sweatshop in the third world. An era when tailoring and fit were important.

  54. I have not read all 53 comments but here are my 2 cents. In my very humble post-feminist-era opinion, feminism is about choice. It's about women being able to choose anything from lifestyle to clothes to whatever. So, when I hear someone say "you are so not a feminist because you do x, y or z" it really grinds my gears. If I CHOOSE to be submissive to my husband (which I am not, just to clarify) then it is MY choice and hence an act of feminism. If I CHOOSE to wear girdles (again, I do not) then it is MY CHOICE and another act of feminism.

    Just because some women choose to live like those 50s housewives does not mean they are not feminists, it just means they are exercising their right to choose and that is all feminism is about.

    Off my soapbox now.

  55. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  56. Stellar post! I must agree with you...the stylings of the 50s were indeed more flattering, but the fact that women today have a choice means we are not oppressed. We wear these fashions with confidence. Love your blog!

  57. Love this post and some good comments.

    A point to make is how restrictive it was to look good and slim in the type of dress Ms. Draper wears.

    Women resorted to actually starving to fit into the tiny waisted fashions (yes, Dior did win out in popular preference - by women - note a male designer designed how a woman should appear body wise).

    A tiny corseted cinched in waist maintained with a typical breakfast of toast/grapefruit half/black coffee - this is what women had to hinder themselves.

    A corset can help with posture, but mainly it was restrictive - restricted circulation, movement, eating and breathing.

    It was also interesting how women followed and fawned over the latest fashions. Such snobbery over wearing 'out of date' (last years') clothing. This made women have to financially fork over (or be very good home seamstresses) to look presentable.

    Also don't forget the clothing care work that went into a wardrobe - ironing, washing the collars and cuffs separately, hand washing delicates, etc...

    Yes, it looked elegant and everyone was presentable at all times - but good to know now we can all schlep on our low-care comfortable sweats and yoga pants and sneakers and clogs and show up anywhere and still be let through the front door!

    Do not forget women were not allowed into dining establishments if they were wearing pants in the fifties and very early sixties - talk about sexist.

    Ladies who lose weight now refer to their jean size as a measure of progress. Used to be the waistline measurement - I think that is definitely progress.

  58. I don't think that wearing clothing styles from the 1950's or 1940's is a contridiction for femminism,as there have surely been worse times for women in history. Yes, those styles are from around the time when womens voting was first accepted, and before the time when a womans hourly working rate was equal to a mans, but (I'm not saying that this era was not important, it is the most symbolic) surely the most important era of womens rights was the first world war, when a shortage men forced society to accept women as valued and able members of the workforce and to accept women as more than a household commodity to look pretty in extremely restrictive garments. Do not forget that the 1920's enjoyed its own rise in femminism, during which women abandoned the corset for the bust-flattening camisole, which was less restrictive (though still held the figure according to fashion)
    In ancient Eqypt, women were, not considered completely equal to men. People may argue that there were powerful Eqyption queens, such as Cleopatra, Nefetiti and Nefetari, but they forget that the only gained their place on their throne because all male heirs were unable to take the throne, and they were controled by a large number of male advisors and priests, like many 'rulers' of a country, they were not the ones with real power, instead only acting as a face for that power.
    In the medieval period, women were not just seen as objects to be sold off to another family, but were villified by the church, that often claimed that they were the devil in earthly form, set in place to tempt man. Do women reject medieval inspired fashions that come around decade after decade because of this? No, they don't. Eqyption styles were embraced in the 1920's femminist revolution rather than reviled.
    We may CHOOSE to wear these styles because we like them. the important thing here is choice. At the time 1940's and 50's fashions may have been started by male fashion designers in order to make women look more appealing to men, but in this decade the resurgance in those fashions has occured in a rare way, it is been started and driven by the female publics choice first, as an anti-fashion, against the (still) predominantly male fashion industry that has demanded that we be stick thin and androginous. This is very similar to the dispute that happened between fashion designers coco chanel and yves saint laurent, one side for female control over dress and the other for pleasing male fashion designers, all that has happened is that the aesthetics in such a dispute have traded places.
    For this reason I do not think that using vintage fashions are anti-feminist.
    My personal opinion is that so long as women feel empowered in what they wear, femminism triumphs.

  59. did I write yvs saint laurent? It might have been Christian Dior instead. regardless, both fashions were embraced by women.

  60. Just to add my 2 cents to this topic, I really think women must avoid falling into the trap of thinking that the fashion of yesteryear symbolises oppression and today's trends are for the free woman. When it comes to the pressure on women to present a perfect representation of whatever fashion-houses have decided is the feminine ideal, really nothing at all has changed since the 50's. They had girdles and wiggle dresses, we have platform 6-inch heels and bodycon. Realistically all a woman can do is be true to herself and only endorse the trappings and clothes she finds empowering and gets pleasure from wearing.

  61. Wow! What a powder keg of fantastic ideas. There are a few that I wanted to add my two cents to. Molly, I hear you loud and clear. I work in economic development and spend a lot of time at the big boys table, as far as we think women have come, I would love for some of these academics to spend a few days in the pumps of a woman working in a seriously male dominated field. That being said, I wear skirts and dresses every day. I'm not a feminist, I'm a humanist and a caraleeist, I feel most confident in a dress with a flattering silouette and if I plan to make my mark, I know that I won't be comfortable doing it in kahkis. Chin up and hemline no more than two inches above the knee for a business meeting (advice from my grandma).

    One thing that I think that is most important when looking at the history of fashion is the actual evolution of fashion. Today I hear a lot about the opressiveness of certain eras, but I jst don't see it. Fashion has always evolved from the minority and marginilized members of society, stolen and adapted to fit the population as a whole. I don't see cloches from the 20's that women adorned with secret codes to signify their relationship status or a woman in the 50's taking pride in her outward presentation oppressive, I see it just as liberating as ripping down the crtains of Tara to make a ballgown.

    Vintage inspired fashion isn't paying homage to the oppression of women, it is celebrating the voices that they created for themselves with the resources they had.

  62. I actually refuse to wear jeans because I find them extremely oppressively uncomfortable, both physically and also emotionally; because I feel 'expected' to wear them due to their incomprehensible ubuiquitousness in our society nowadays. Don't get me wrong, denim's a great, hardwearing fabric but jeans, ugh!


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

© Gertie's Blog For Better Sewing. Powered by Cake