Monday, August 17, 2009

Your Brilliant Thoughts on Vintage Sewing and Feminism

Well, ladies. You really blew me away with your many thoughtful, clever, funny, and poignant comments in response to my post on vintage sewing and gender politics. I couldn't bear to let your amazing points just sit in the comments section, so I decided to do a best of the best round-up.

  • 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? - Frances Baker
  • For those women who [in the 50's] I can totally understand their surprise, and even confusion, that we would want to return to these fashions. - MoederKip
  • 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". - Casey
  • 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. - Molly
  • 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 Versailles, even though we all know that thousands of French peasants suffered as a result of its opulence. - Emma
  • 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! - sarah
  • Modern fashions have not been too kind to the womanly figure. That is what spurred me into the wonderful world of vintage fashion. - Bessie B.
  • 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. - jenna!
  • 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. - reilly
  • 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. - elizabethe
  • The new look of Dior required at least 3 times the amount of fabric than a look from the previous decade required... therefore, you can guess it was reserved to a happy few: my teenage grandmother never wore it till the year 1958... - Carlotta
  • 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!). - 1912 Suffragette
  • 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? - Vireya
  • 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). - Meg
  • I do get provoked when people talk about being "feminine" or "masculine" as a virtue. - JohannaLu
  • 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. - catherine_sr.
  • 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. - EmilyKate
  • The danger in promoting archaic lifestyles and values is that they again become the norm. And we don't want that. Do we? - Anonymous
Brava! I appreciate the time and thought that went into all your comments.

Have anything to add? Please do! And then check back for more posts on vintage fashion and feminism. I think there's more to be discussed here!


  1. Well I missed all the excitement from the original post. Interesting post and comments made. I never mix fashion and politics (lol). I wear what works for my body and personality.

  2. I’m a feminist myself. And this is a really interesting discussion. If we compare the fascination for vintage fashions of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s in the terms of a subculture it becomes even clearer that we don’t need to play by the old rules to enjoy looking in the rear-view mirror. Look at steampunk for instance – it’s a subculture that’s definitely inspired by the past, the Victorian era, but suited to cater for modern taste. High tech, but in disguise. Steampunk fans don’t want the Victorian times to come anew; they just want to take the best plums. The style, the fashion, the arty side. But I’ve never heard of steampunk being criticised for being non-feminist. I guess that’s because we don’t have a lot of people remembering how it was back in those days … which makes it a more obvious subculture.

    The fact is: It is more flattering to wear a full skirt than skinny, low cut jeans (if you’re not shaped like a supermodel, which I’m not). It is nice to look back to an era where hats were essential, not extravagant.

    I would never want for that era to return in full, though. I love the choice I have. A cute polka dot dress one day, with full skirt, gloves and everything and the next I’ll wear jeans, sneakers and a tee. We live in the best of times!

    I might also add, that I’m from Sweden (so bear with me in my English), and we didn’t have the same, strong, housewife ideal here like you guys had in the U.S. Of course we had it too (much inspired by American culture), but not in the same way. And perhaps that might add to me feeling less guilty. ;-)

    Oh gosh. Now I’m rambling. Sorry. I just wanted to say that *I’ve never perceived the fascination of vintage clothing as a full-blown wish to return to that day and age.*

  3. Great idea to compile the comments in a post! :) I'm enjoying reading over them again...

  4. This is a great topic! One of the great advantages of the "mod" revolution of the late 60s and early 70s, was the liberation from a "fixed hemline" (not to mention the freedom to wear slacks, etc. in a work environment). All of a sudden, fashion "allowed" mini, midi, maxi lengths and it was "anything goes" on style. I think this is one of the great legacies of the women's movement of the 70s (general equality being the first, of course). I feel that the freedom to wear the very flattering and beautiful styles of the 40s, 50s, heck, any era, was one of the "wins" of feminism - and all without the cultural, societal restrictions that went with them. Instead of fashion being dictated to women, women can now pretty much pick and choose what they want. Hurrah!!

  5. Feminism, loaded topic. I've worked in the wholesale fashion industry, IT/web integrated CRM biz (back when that was new, heavy construction (lots of explosives), (wow this list looks weird when I type it) but I always looked appropriate, professional and really really feminine because, that's who I am. Nobody ever walked over me because I wouldn't allow that. So the fact that I was in drop dead heels and a great jacket, suit, dress (fill in the blank) wasn't an issue. What I found was that people appreciated that I made an effort.

    I really prefer to dress and dress well, leave the house and then not think about it for the rest of the day. Really don't you think the day is to be experienced not to be spent tugging at my pants that want to slip down my butt. I'm not a child and I don't want to look like one.

  6. Anonymous I like your comment! I agree, it may have taken more effort to get dressed in the morning, but once you were "done" I imagine you would stay that way for the day. I'd love to not have to worry about my jeans falling down and my boobs popping out...I think wearing a corset/girdle would be infinitely preferable to having to be constantly mindful when bending over, sitting down and even just walking around! If you have any curves at all modern fashion is far from comfortable and rarely flattering.

  7. I like that you've put these all together. Great idea!
    I was talking about this today, in class, actually...I think anything else I could say has already been said. Fashion is a choice, just as any other, and should not be dictated by anyone, in my opinion. I get a bit fired up when anyone automatically makes presumptions about someone because of the clothes they wear. I remember watching an episode of Parkinson where he interviewed Dolly Parton and asked her what she thought of certain people perhaps thinking her image was demeaning to women and I was just astonished, really. It had never crossed my mind that anyone could think that of her because she's such a strong woman who has never compromised who she is.
    I agree with Midvale Cottage's comment about how great it is we can choose whatever we want to wear, now, even though many women still follow trends for no other reason than they have been told by magazines that it is what they should be wearing, which is why I feel liberated knowing that I am happy within myself by not paying attention to 'what's hot'.
    -Andi x

  8. I'm new to your blog, I actually followed a link on Casey's blog beacuse it seemed like a very interesting topic. So many wise women have spoken before me, and first I'd like say Horay! that you breeched the subject.
    I feel there's a point to that everybody has the right to wear what they like wearing, but at the same time, when invoking a bygone fashion one has to be aware of what that fashion signified. I don't feel the need to wear it on my sleeve everyday, but at least I know where I stand, which is necessairy as I play around with clothes from different centuries.
    Of course we should wear what we like, but one small question if I may? Why is it that the majority seems to prefer the 50s to the 40s? Why is it that we like so much better the intricate gowns of the 15th and 16th century than we do the viking age? Why are most women drawn to impracitcal clothing from eras that were the hardest on the women at that time? Are we really basing this on our own individual taste, or are we like the parent who claims not have influenced the child but "she just likes pink and dolls and he just likes blue and cars, I haven't influenced them at all, thay were born that way"?
    Why we like one fashion is not as easy as individual taste, we are all part of a society. I'm not saying we shouldn't wear our lovely vintage dresses, but perhaps we have to be a bit clearer about our feminism than the ceo in her modern suit.
    I noticed a comment from a swedish girl earlier, and as a Swede myself I'd like to adress that: we can not sit back and think equal rights are a given fact, or even achieved! Same as for women all over the world, it's an ongoing process. Vintage and historical clothing can be a part of that process, but only if one is aware of being part of it!

    Thank you for a wonderful blog, it's already in my favorites and I'll be back =)

  9. Gosh - I guess starting my sewing during the 50's and seeing what women could do then and what you all can do today - is remarkable. I think great progress has been made - it's not perfect, but there's been a lot of progress.

    I also think of how restrictive and binding and confining all those clothes were....a darted, tight bodice, into a nothing waist, with billows and billows of fabric in the skirt and a petticoat to match, with a girdle, stockings (that had to be attached via stocking clips), braziers that were almost akin to the armor of the Middle Ages (OK, not quite so bad, but almost). Then you got all the accessories: shoes to match handbags - everything didn't have to tone or blend, it had to match exactly, white cotton gloves for certain events, kids gloves for other events, white shoes, black shoes, white bags, black bags and let's not even talk about sanitary napkins.

    Believe me, when you start getting into all that gear, it's very confining and hard not only to get into but out of!

    If nothing else we've come a long way in clothing.

  10. Erika said: "we can not sit back and think equal rights are a given fact, or even achieved! Same as for women all over the world, it's an ongoing process. Vintage and historical clothing can be a part of that process, but only if one is aware of being part of it!"

    Yes, I'm all with you on that! :-)

  11. I totally agree that bringing back a fashion style doesn't mean that you have to bring back the whole lifestyle of the period. I really like Gertie's comments about using 50s fashion esthetics, but making them work for her like lowering the bust darts to a human level, enlarging the waist so she can eat lunch etc. As an old 70s feminist, I'd add that she should put pockets in everything, because to me female pockets are THE contribution of late-20th-century feminism to fashion :-).

    I'd also like to point out that while women are all different, in mind and in body, previous fashions used to be so uniform that large numbers of women were forced to wear stuff that didn't suit them at all. Personally, I think it's great that you can now study fashion of the time periods/country where your body type was most fashionable, and have a good source of inspiration for stuff that will suit you better than most of what you find currently. Yet you can still manage to look fairly contemporary at it if that's your aim.

    I'm also an engineer. I have no doubt that I could impose myself while wearing a pouffy dress if I tried hard enough. But why should I put myself through that unnecessary ordeal? The fact is I wouldn't have been a poofy girl in the 50s either. There are much better models to emulate than the dichotomy of housewife/Dita Van Teese. Shall I just mention Simone de Beauvoir, Francoise Sagan, Diane di Prima, Nina Simone, Katherine Hepburn? There are strong women everywhere you look..

  12. I like the look of 1950s clothes because the fitted style looks good on my body. My personality likes the clean lines and interesting details. I think I am more aware of oppression on all fronts, but I know what fashions work for me.

  13. I know I'm so late to the party but no one seems to have mentioned that the women who were supposedly restricted in the 50's loved dressing up, and looking beautiful in the range of 'new' fashions. And a lot enjoyed the thrill of making their girgeous new outfits. They were beautiful styles which helped the women look and feel beautiful. The women had the opportunity to dress up and go to somewhere special far more often than most 30 yrs do in this time of freedom.


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

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