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Freedom Lies in Fashion and Identity


People may wonder, was it the clothing that brought more freedom for women, or were it the events that were happening that led to this newfound sense of independence; it was both. During the 1920’s, women wanted more freedom and equality, which is something women are still fighting for today. Women began to break free from social constraints and disrupt order. This disruption of order gave more focus to the individual. Post WWI was a prosperous era, with changing roles in society. It was a time of revolution and women began to gain more freedom than ever before. The rise of women’s independence affected the way women formed their identities, their personal style, and attitude, which was expressed through major shifts in fashion. These changes lead to the formation of the modern woman and are still prevalent in postmodern and contemporary fashion and culture.

Events in culture shift the boundaries of fashion and in our own search for identity; style becomes a key way of communicating who we are. We form our identities through what we wear and what we surround ourselves with; our aesthetic of life. How we fashion ourselves is how we represent ourselves to the rest of the world. “Through appearance style (personal interpretations of, and resistances to, fashion), individuals announce who they are and who they hope to become” (Susan B. Kaiser). We form our identities through our culture, events that influence us, and things that we aspire to be. What we wear not only says who we are at the moment, but who we want to be in the future. Our style is eternal; it is our soul speaking. Fashion is of the time, it reflects what is going on in history, and it influences us, but style has no time. We form our identities through the development of our personal style. Our identities are layered and complex; they contradict themselves. It is difficult to describe our style with words because often it is so complex that it cannot be defined. How we present ourselves as individuals not only says something about who we are at the moment, but it speaks about our potential. “From a cultural studies perspective, identities have not only histories but also futures: They come from somewhere, they are complex and contradictory, and they enable us to express who we might become” (Susan B. Kaiser). In a world that is constantly looking to the future and making new discoveries, we see within our selves’ infinite possibilities. This is where freedom lies: in the hope of our dreams, to not be held back by the constraints of society and culture, but to flourish and become our ideal selves.

The beauty of identity is that it is unrepeatable. Everything that is contemporary is a nonpareil mash up of everything before its time. “The universe is simply a sealed, twisting kaleidoscope… Each baby, then, is a unique collision – a cocktail, a remix – of all that has come before: made from molecules of Napoleon and stardust and comets and whale tooth; colloidal mercury and Cleopatra’s breath: and with the same darkness that is between the stars between, and inside, our own atoms… Finding a person you love is like galaxies colliding. We are all peculiar, unrepeatable, perambulating micro-universes – we have never been before and we will never be again” (Caitlin Moran). We are all a unique combination of energy and particles. We all start as one thing and as we grow we realize that we are something more. Within us lies everything that has come before us and everything that lies ahead.

Women during the 1920’s were able to take the leap towards their independence and the formation of authentic identities. They steered fast and far from the Victorian style that existed before them, where women were confined by society and what was deemed proper. “They replaced corsets and conservative layers with loose-fitting dresses that matched their carefree spirit…women adopted a more feminine style with plunging necklines, accentuated waists, knee length skirts and pumps. Advancements in clothing manufacturing increased the selections available to all classes, and from there, women were able to define themselves through individual style” (Rosanne Tomyn, Demand Media). Through this transition of dress, women embraced their femininity, without compromising their strength. They disrupted the order with poise. The ability to express one’s individuality in fashion was accessible to all women, which is why this movement caught like fire; it stemmed from the passion and drive within them that they no longer had to repress. The word feminine is often associated with weakness, but women during the 1920’s proved to be far from it. Because of WWI, women no longer stayed in the home and took on jobs that were previously recognized as strictly for men. They showed that women were capable of everything that men could do. Poet, Ansel Elkins, says in her poem Autobiography of Eve “Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. I leapt to freedom.” This excerpt exemplifies the strength embodied by women. During a time of conflict, they rose to their potential. They took a risk for themselves in order to realize themselves in rebellion and imagination. The leap from Victorian style to the shifting way of dress in the 1920’s could appear to some as a fall from grace. However, in reality women were choosing to leave behind the past and move forward to find a sense of freedom in a world that constricted them. They were no longer weak and helpless and they were strong in making choices for themselves. Often women were associated with being delicate, quiet, graceful, and in history, they would often do as they were told and let men run their lives, but as time progressed women decided that they deserved equal rights as men and took action.

With time, women became more open about their sexuality and some adopted the flapper lifestyle, which entailed “drinking, smoking and free-spirited dancing. They drove fast cars and frequented bars and dance halls. They also openly mingled with men without supervision and were educated about sex” (Rosanne Tomyn, Demand Media). These women lived in the moment and satisfied their desires. This lifestyle, which was more so collectively accepted for men, began to be more common among women. Women started to let loose, feel free, and expressed themselves through dance, and new style of dressing.

Changes in morals and manners manifested in the way that women clothed themselves. “Her fashions were hoydenish and naughty. Her dresses hung straight from the shoulders and free from her body. If there was a belt, it circled loosely around her hips. To heighten the boyish look, she wore a sturdy cotton “flattener” brassiere. Her arms were bared, and as the 1920s progressed, hemlines gradually crept up to the knee and higher” (Jailer Chamberlain). Women began to show more skin and also instigated play with the contrast of masculinity and femininity. They were not afraid to hide the body, nor show it off. They dressed in a boyish chic way and added feminine details such as a lengthy pearl necklace, or a bracelet on the bare upper arm. The style was a new type of elegant and it was sensual in its approach. It pushed the boundaries of fashion that were previously established. Though it was body revealing, it still maintained its class.

Women began to wear things that permitted them to live their newfound active lifestyles. Post war fashion consisted of sportswear, allowing women to be more comfortable in order to get work done more efficiently, while still fashionable. “Fashion magazines concurred, contending that the public nature of modern women’s lives meant that they demanded comfort and practicality” (Rachel Anne Standish). The scene in Paris in the 1920s had a strong influence on the freedom of women. The bohemian lifestyle attracted many to flee to Paris because it was a center for art, music, literature, and total expression. The bohemians voiced their freedom and love for life through dress. They were free-spirited and unconventional. To them, the future was bright and glowed with beauty, like Paris at night.

Not only did women rebel with fashion, but also with their makeup and hairstyles. Women cut their hair short into “the bob,” which redefined femininity in beauty and was associated with the flapper style. In cutting one’s hair short, a woman defied the common conceptions of what it meant to be an attractive woman and in doing so showed confidence. It was a symbol of transformation for women. The bob was for women who were bold, and were not afraid to take risks, to shock everyone. Makeup was bold in nature as well. In the book Fashioning the Feminine, Cheryl Buckley and Hilary Fawcett say, “It was as if women were being forced to make their own mask to face the strange new masculine world they were invading.” Women started to wear more makeup and created an “artificial face,” with red lips, heavy face powder, thin brows, and thick mascara. Many women had to compete with men for employment, so they used makeup to their advantage to look their best.

Designers such as Coco Chanel and her rival, Elsa Schiaparelli, were true visionaries and made lasting impacts on fashion. Both designers brought forward the movement that was happening among women and they helped to curate the modern heroine. Chanel “introduced clothing for women eager to do everything men could do” (Jailer Chamberlain). Chanel was one of the first designers to use masculinity in her approach. She took from menswear and popularized trousers for women as well as the suit. She believed that women were just as strong as men and she believed in good taste. This powerful woman thought for herself and voiced her beliefs. She surrounded herself with creatives who influenced her, such as Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. Chanel was known for her androgynous, simple, timeless and elegant designs, the original “chic.” Her designs were the embodiment of her personality and were a representation of her own personal style. She knew what women truly wanted to wear and she brought it to the forefront. She focused on making good quality and well constructed garments. Coco said, “Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” She knew that fashion is everything. Her rival, Elsa Schiaparelli, was different in her approach. Elsa Schiaparelli’s designs were dreamy and influenced by her surrealist friends, such as Salvador Dali and René Magritte. To Elsa, fashion was art. Her clothes were shocking at the time and were unlike anything anyone had seen before. She said, “good design is always on a tightrope of bad taste.” Her work was bizarre and questioned ideals of beauty. She was a wild child who loved the outrageous. Her designs on the runway were accompanied by music and art. She is known for her famous shade of pink, which she described as “bright, impossible, impudent, becoming, life-giving, like all the light and the birds and the fish in the world but together, a colour of China and Peru but not of the West – a shocking colour, pure and undiluted.” Her clothing was created with a sense of pure, divine inspiration.

The 1920’s produced a new kind of woman and a rare view of beauty, which was much different from previous Victorian standards. Fashion is not just something that was worn, it played a much more significant role. Fashion is an outlet of our deepest thoughts and desires. It resisted previous ideas and was a key contributor to the social movements of the time and the formation of women’s identities. “In a time of political conservatism, fashion was a reasonable channel through which to funnel unconventional ideas; it expressed a progressive message through a traditional, and thus disarming, medium” (Rachel Anne Standish). Clothing was the messenger for ideas that were seen as eccentric and not readily accepted by society and the masses. Fashion was an outlet for the Avant Garde. It eased the transition of modernity and allowed for these ideas to be expressed subtly, yet in a powerful way. Soon, the style was something that every woman embraced and it was undeniable that this change would have a lasting impact on the life of the woman.

This pattern is seen time and time again – the resistance of the old and the progression of the new. Movements prior to the postmodern were essential to establishing the foundation for freedom of expression. They gave birth to the aptitude for people to deny what they were told and speak for themselves from their personal truths. So, I spent this entire essay discussing how the 1920’s helped to define the modern woman, but from a postmodern viewpoint I am here to say that neither woman, nor man, can be collectively defined. The world is in perpetual motion and change is constant. We look for authenticity in what sometimes can seem to be a false world. With the rapid advancement of technology, the postmodern world struggles to define what is real. This confusion “stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality” (PBS). Within each person, there lies another world of infinite possibilities. The postmodern world denies universal principles because it is understood that “reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually” (PBS). This understanding is key to the formation of identity. There is nothing set in stone, and neither our culture, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, race, age, or social class can truly define us as people because people are a unique mix of contradictions. Each person is on a journey to understand their purpose on earth and to manifest their inner reality and beliefs. Every being’s interpretation of the universe is different and our interpretations stem from experience. There are no limits to what humans are capable of and there is no true way to define or categorize an individual because each person lives in their own reality.


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