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Of Dresses And Women’s Liberation, A Brief History

The historian and sociologist Georges Vigarello recounts the evolution of the dress, which tells the story of female representation and liberation in society.

'Emphasizing liberty'?
"Emphasizing liberty"?
Julie Rambal

GENEVA — Women were long limited to a kind of immobile beauty, with designs constrained by laws and regulations. French historian Georges Vigarello chronicles this past in his new book of paintings, engravings and historical photographs, La robe : Une histoire culturelle — du Moyen Age à aujourdhui (The Dress: A Cultural History — From the Middle Ages to Today).

The dress "espouses a worldview," Vigarello writes, and the world has long been dominated by men.

For centuries, the feminine silhouette has been cut in two, the waist emphasized by laces and austere underwiring destined to "place the torso on a pedestal," with the legs hidden in voluminous folds of fabric that hindered the slightest movement. Throughout the centuries, the allure of women has been something to be controlled. And when the first bust lacing appeared, in the middle of the 13th century (dresses until then had been shapeless), the new form was considered scandalous: In 1298, one regulation permitted this "frivolity" for married women only.

But the marked waist developed quickly, at the same time as the urban bourgeoisie, the truest fans of fashion. Masculine clothes evolved simultaneously, revealing more leg and "emphasizing liberty."

It is "a cultural issue," writes Vigarello. "Short menswear stood opposite long womenswear, the insensitive difference between man, confronted with work, and woman confronted with decor, one side leaning toward aesthetics and the other toward functionality."

16th-century portrait of Queen Elisabeth I by Marcus Geeraerts— Source: Wikimedia Commons

The feminine bodice stiffened gradually, an "unremitting" structure that turned toward an "artificial anatomy" and corrected, or trained, women. The surgeon Ambroise Paré recounted the autopsy of a woman of the court, "who, for the sake of having a beautiful and slender body, squeezed herself so much that her floating ribs overlapped. This pressed in on her stomach so much that it could not expand to hold meat. After eating and drinking, she was forced to reject the food, so that her body, unfed, grew thin."

Women's bodies were "sculpted" from a very young age. In 1695, the Abbé de Choisy described a pre-adolescent girl: "At 12 years old, her waist was already formed. It's true that she had been constrained since childhood with iron parts to create hips and raise her bosom. It succeeded." But the arrival of the Enlightenment and the invention of natural sciences created a desire for autonomy and an attraction to morphology. Finally, "the groaning of imprisoned bodies' and puffy dresses like "huge cathedral bells' were denounced.

The declaration of rights corresponded to a new liberty of movement, of body.

The development of travel and imports brought over to continental Europe the idea of "made in England" and its "taste for the countryside, fresh air and simplicity," which softened women's clothing. Women were even allowed mobility, with walks for their health, but always in "basket dresses that hid the feet." Nevertheless, says the historian, "the man remains the character of initiative, the woman that of withdrawal. She did not participate in public life, except to focus on appearance."

The first signs of feminine emancipation appear during the French Revolution. During this short period, the female silhouette imitates that of the first Greek democracies: Dresses are fluid, light, marked only with a thin lace under the breasts. "The Declaration of Rights corresponded to a new liberty of movement, of body, just as the divorce law of 1792 became the culmination of a logic of equality."

French playwright Olympe de Gouges proclaimed that women "must be just as eligible for all honors, seats and public offices." But "do these women have the physical and moral force necessary for exercizing these rights?" asked the Convention, which quickly sent women back to the domestic sphere.

A breach opened. Certain audacious women started wearing pants which, "for the first time appeared in a multitude of fashion magazines, cementing the exigency of comfort and freedom." In 1800, another clothing interdiction arose for women, which stated that "all women wanting to dress like men must present themselves at the police department to get authorization to do so." Despite it all, the French novelist George Sand appropriates pants in the name of equality.

In America in the 1850s, Amelia Bloomer became an activist for "equality of access to all jobs for women and suggested a new outfit: a short skirt that would not inhibit walking, with long underpants to protect modesty." It was the advent of Bloomerism and the "young liberated woman."

Is it possible that a woman would cede to fashion by consenting to make herself ugly like this?

At the end of the 19th century, women's slow access to work, public spaces and sports made their clothes more airy. The first female skiers glided around in skirts. The bodice still existed, but associations of "ladies and doctors' were calling for its suppression everywhere.

In 1926, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel launched outfits in supple jersey, previously only used for undergarments. But again, morality rumbled. "Is it possible that a woman would cede to fashion by consenting to make herself ugly like this?" asked former activists in an article in 1920. But this did not stop the acceleration of emancipation, emerging at the same time as the female wage earner.

After the war, dresses' waistlines melted like glaciers, in a symbol of freedom. André Courrèges presents the miniskirt, and the desire to no longer "distinguish the bottom from the top: emancipation no longer only aims for formal equality, but the free disposal of one's body," says Vigarello. And, as always, the interdiction: In 1964, the television presenter Noële Noblecourt is banned from French public TV for having shown her knees on screen.

But women did not want to be dominated any longer. The miniskirt established itself — before the pants, glorified by Yves Saint Laurent. Since 1965, the production of pants has surpassed that of skirts. And now, 72% of women say they wear pants every day. "Has the dress been a sign of constraint for too long?" asked Vigarello, a specialist in the sociology of the body. His research's conclusion is an unencumbered Oui.

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