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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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