This book has taken rather longer to write than we anticipated. It has been worked on intensely and it has been set aside, depending on the time and space that we have or have not found. It has been slowed down by the usual things in women's lives: busy jobs, dealing with young children and grownup ones, and coping with illness. Our original aims, written at the beginning of the last decade, seem rather grand now at the start of a new millennium. We planned a broad survey of fashion in Britain between 1890 and 1999, highlighting the relationships between fashion, gender and representation. This ambition came out of our joint perception that fashion was only occasionally addressed comprehensively and rigorously in academic writing. Things have inevitably moved on, and the length of the book's genesis has worked to our advantage. Whereas ten, even five years ago, the books that dealt with fashion and gender in a historical context were few and far between, now many more exist. Not only are there a number of insightful accounts of its histories and meanings, fashion has now become more respected as a subject for study and research. In today's academic world, trivialising the everyday and the popular is intellectually insupportable, as studies in women's history, design history and material culture, and popular culture have given legitimacy to the study of fashion, whereas theoretical debates informed by post-structuralism, Marxism, post-modernism and feminism have helped to shape its intellectual development.
Undoubtedly we are the beneficiaries of these changes, and as a consequence we have sharpened the focus of our research and writing as the broad sweep appeared a less desirable strategy. Instead we have approached the history of twentieth-century fashion in Britain through a number of case studies which have aimed to 'locate' fashion during a specific 'time', between 1890 and 1990, and in a particular 'place', Britain. In adopting this approach, we are responding to the plethora of theories emerging from numerous disciplines, including cultural geography, material and cultural studies and gender studies, which have addressed important questions regarding history, representation, meaning, space and identity. Our aim has been to identify a number of 'historical moments' in Britain in the twentieth century, so as to explore the shifting meanings of fashion, particularly in relation to gender and representation. If we have had a 'guiding light' in this process, it has been without doubt feminism. Feminism has formed the backbone to our intellectual development, providing both method and motivation for our research. Its richness and diversity has engaged, persuaded and occasionally infuriated us. At the same time it has been at the core of our 15 year-old friendship and close working relationship, and it has 'enabled' us to see the political significance of our personal experiences. Working in a large new university, we have witnessed enormous changes which have both curtailed and expanded our opportunities. It is this context which has played a critical role in determining the direction and purpose of our academic activities. During these years, we have taught and managed large numbers of practical design students, particularly those studying fashion, as well as humanities students studying the history of art, design and film, cultural history and women's studies. These students have influenced our intellectual interests as much as our peers as we responded to their unbounded enthusiasm for the history of fashion.
Inevitably we have each brought slightly different emphases to this work, which reflect our particular life experiences and which stem from the range of things that constitute our individual 'historical landscape'.1 This is inevitably influenced by our family and personal backgrounds, the places in which we grew up, studied and now live, and the different academic traditions in which we have worked: Fine Art, English Literature, Art History and Design History. We are individually responsible for separate chapters, each of which build on long-standing research interests. Cheryl, who has contributed Chapters 3 and 4, has worked and published widely on issues of gender, modernism and design in Britain. Her particular interest has been in the inter-war period, and the work that she has done here in fashion builds on her considerable knowledge of this. Hilary has been working and has published on issues of representation and gender in the late nineteenth century, and more recently on contemporary material. The 15 years that we have worked together and our continued interest in feminism have made for similarities as well as differences in approach, which are complementary in the context of the book.
Each chapter is concerned with the multiplicity of cultural and social formations which go towards fashioning the feminine. In Chapter 2, we examine the relationship between femininity, the fashion industry and fashion imagery between 1890 and 1910, and in Chapter 5, which deals with aspects of contemporary fashion, gender and sexuality, we focus on fashion not just as clothing, but as representation, and in particular the 'ideals' of beauty that it helps to construct. Continuing some of these themes, but at the same time highlighting new ones, Chapters 3 and 4 investigate the discontinuities between fashionable ideals found in women's magazines, fashion photography and illustration, and women's experiences. This introductory chapter, which aims to consider a number of theoretical issues arising for those studying the history of fashion, was inevitably written last, thus allowing us to reflect upon the discursive destinations of our chapters, and enabling us to extrapolate from underlying trends and themes. Threading through all the chapters is an interest in the broader themes which shaped women's engagement with fashion and fashion iconographies, such as modernity and post-modernity, and identity, particularly in relation to gender, but also of class and region.
The history of fashion is a field of study which overlaps and impinges upon many others. Analysis of fashion, dress and clothing tends to crop up in a number of academic contexts: social and economic historians have used it as a barometer of social change and patterns of consumption; cultural theorists have interpreted it as a site of complex discursive practices; art historians have analysed dress as part of the 'visual' culture of a specific period; and design historians have viewed it as intrinsic to the processes of cultural production and consumption. In 1985, in the then ground-breaking Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Elizabeth Wilson, who ranks along with Angela McRobbie as one of the most significant contributors to the development of the subject in the last 15 years, described fashion as 'a kind of connective tissue of our cultural organism'.2 For Wilson, dress acts as a metaphysical layer which mediates between the body, ostensibly natural, and the social and the cultural. In this work and subsequent texts, including the reader Chic Thrills (co-authored with Juliet Ash), Wilson attempts to interpret the meaning of the multiple layers that constitute fashion.3 Informed by aspects of Marxism, post-modernism and feminism, Wilson consistently refuses the dominant interpretations of fashion: that it is a form of 'mindless' consumption, or the result of social envy; that it reveals psychological neuroses; or that it oppresses women. Instead she has aimed to highlight the subtleties, complexities and contradictions of meanings within fashion. The social, cultural and psychological significance of fashion has attracted the interest of a number of subsequent writers, including Valerie Steele, Christopher Breward, Jennifer Craik and Caroline Evans, all of whom have contributed to the richness of research, although all have come from different starting points.4 In this book we draw on these approaches, but we hope that by foregrounding the issue of gender, these four in-depth case studies will add to the understanding of the meanings of twentieth-century fashion in Britain.
Britain is the place where our research is focused, and we are interested in fashion and the fashionable iconographies that were circulated and accessible in Britain at specific historical points. However, we are wary of a unified notion of 'Britishness' in relation to fashion, in that throughout the twentieth century the dominant language of fashion has been international, and more specifically, Western. Fashion, we argue, constructed and constituted identity, although a sense of national identity was effaced within dress by the very nature of fashion. Due to its symbiotic relationship to capitalism and the modern city, fashion crossed national boundaries, and if, as Wilson suggests 'Fashion is dress in which the key feature is rapid and continual changing of styles', then it has been and remains concentrated in the modern cities of London, New York, Milan, Tokyo and Paris.5
Wider access to fashion across social classes is, however, a characteristic of fashion in Britain in the twentieth century. As this study shows, the greater availability of fashion, and the knowledge required to dress fashionably, was enhanced by a number of factors. Firstly this resulted from new technologies in fabric production, garment construction and fashion promotion. These developed both in the home and at the factory, and were a consequence of the greater availability of the home sewing machine, but also they were due to the introduction of modern industrial methods. These included divisions of labour, which were organised to facilitate mass-production, the use of new machinery for sewing and cutting cloth, and latterly the increasingly sophisticated use of computer technology in the design, manufacturing and marketing of fashion. One direct outcome of this, affecting the fashion industry from the 1920s onwards, was the de-skilling of the tailoring trade, which had been dominated by men, and the introduction of cheaper semi-skilled female labour. Secondly, knowledge of the latest fashions and 'looks' both expanded and speeded up due to the phenomenal influence of magazines, film and television, theatre, music and pop videos. The rapid turnover of fashionable styles was remarked upon as early as the 1930s by retailers anxious to retain some control over an increasingly fickle consumer. As the century progressed, the consumer became better informed and less loyal to particular retailers. Finally, enormous changes in the retailing, marketing and promoting of fashion during the twentieth century have transformed accessibility to fashion. The 'cut and finish' of fashionable clothes may be hugely disparate and crucially dependent on income, lifestyles and patterns of consumption, but the 'look' of new fashionable styles is rapidly assimilated and adapted at all levels of the market. To be 'fashionable' is an option for most people living in Britain today.
For the first 60 years of the twentieth century, fashion was the embodiment of modernity, whereas since 1970 it revealed the conditions of late capitalism and exposed the contradictions of post-modernism. From the end of the nineteenth century, fashion was an important cultural site for the manifestation of the 'modern': it was urban and it constituted the type of visual spectacle which characterised the city.6 The relentless cycles of stylistic change, the rapid technological advances, the expansion of markets, and the emergence of new forms of consumption — all features of modernity — were crucial factors in the development of fashion in twentieth-century Britain. The role of women in this was critical. Newly enfranchised with improved access to better types of work, especially from the Great War onwards, more women engaged with fashion than hitherto. Fashion provided a unique opportunity for women to experience modernity, and unusually it was a cultural activity which connected both the domestic and the public spheres. The consumption and display of fashion took place in the drawing room as well as at the theatre, and the whole paraphernalia of choosing, fitting, buying and dressing involved women in a number of sophisticated cultural choices which were in turn shaped by the broader social and cultural preoccupations of the day.
Paradoxically, fashion as the epitome of 'the modern' challenged the rigid dogma of modernism. In its denial of universal values, it operated at a critical distance to the rigours of modernism. The ceaseless changes of fashion, which were intrinsic to it, undermined notions of 'good design' — a key element of modernism. In fact, integral to fashion and borne of its intimate relationship to capitalism was a form of built-in obsolescence which ensured an endless market ready to buy into the very latest and most modern styles. The relative nature of these styles represented a challenge to the hegemony of modernism, although at the same time a handful of fashion designers, such as Coco Chanel, sought to interpret modernism by simplifying fashion and seeking to establish strict codes of design.
The cultural relativity of fashion predisposed it to the challenge of postmodernism. Fashion since 1970 has provided an ideal cultural arena in which to observe the 'complexity and contradiction' which has characterised post-modernity. Indeed some of the strategies deployed early on in the work of pioneer post-modernists Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi in town planning, architecture and writing, which functioned to attack the formal orthodoxy of modernism, have been evident in fashion throughout the century.7 Decoration and pattern, stylistic eclecticism and parody, and an enthusiasm for 'popular' culture can be found in the work of designers as diverse as Paul Poiret in the 1910s, Elsa Schiaparelli in the 1930s, and even Christian Dior in the 1940s and 1950s. Fashion's predilection for change leaves it susceptible and particularly responsive to the experience of post-modernity - to the dislocation, fragmentation and relativism that characterised Western societies and their cultures in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As this study will show, fashion, as a depository of cultural meanings and values, maps out the territories of modernity and post-modernity, and it marks the transition from one to the other most effectively.
Arguably, the social and cultural definitions of gender have been a key site for the delineation of the 'modern' and the 'post-modern'. Clear distinctions between the masculine and the feminine have been blurred in the twentieth century; indeed the meanings of both have been fiercely contested in the contexts of female suffrage, the huge structural changes to the economy which have undermined traditional male roles within the workplace and female roles at home, and more openness about sexuality and sexual orientation. Masculinity and femininity have been highly volatile and elusive concepts which have been negotiated and renegotiated within the context of modernity and post-modernity. Consider the experiences of young women in the 1930s with those today. Feminism has empowered women to make great strides over the last century, but although there have been many changes for the better in women's lives, there are still some surprising similarities. Social distinctions based on income and class, increasingly eroded in the 1930s due to women's access to better-paid work in manufacturing industry, were re-asserted with a vengeance at the end of the twentieth century, as women were concentrated in part-time, low-paid work in the service sector. The economic insecurities of late capitalism, an integral feature of post-modernity, have left a legacy of social exclusion and inequality in which gender roles represent a new set of battle lines.
Uniquely among cultural industries, fashion offers the opportunity for both public and private pleasures. It has been an arena in which women, in particular, have accrued power, although at the same time it has been a source of anxiety. To be 'fashionable' can be simultaneously delightful and cruel, attracting admiration as well as ridicule. The very process of being 'in fashion', ahead of the crowd, but part of it; of possessing a much admired pair of shoes or jacket; of knowing that the cut, fabric and colour of a specific outfit feels just right; and being able to put it all together to create a certain style; these are part of the pleasure and pride of fashion. For us (the authors) it has been a key element in our developing identities, and it has largely been a source of empowerment for both of us: as young women it has been a tool enabling us to represent our independence from family and home; as adult women it has allowed us to define our sense of 'self' in the changing contexts of work, sexuality and reproduction; and now, as we grow older, it is a key visual 'space' in which we negotiate who we are and who we might yet become. Born in the North of England after the Second World War, we have each witnessed the enormous shifts in the production and consumption of clothes, as increased affluence meant that shop-bought fashionable clothes were within the grasp of the lower-middle and working classes. From homemade clothes in childhood, 'mod' and 'ethnic' styles as teenagers, to the one-off luxury of designer garments as working women, our historical landscapes can be charted through the clothes that we have bought and worn, and we can ponder retrospectively the significance of particular styles, looks and items of clothing at the different stages of our lives.
The ambiguities of fashion, and the ways in which it can transgress as well as reinforce dominant modes of representation, are the underlying themes of this book. Fashion defines gender, and renders it visible. But without question it is one of the most slippery of terms: it can be used in the sense of 'to fashion', 'fashionable', and to describe an area of design practice concerned with dress and clothing. Our interest in fashion cuts across these usages: we are concerned with fashion as design practice - and given our particular focus on the twentieth century, a period of modernity and post-modernity - we are also interested in the fashionable and the ways in which fashion has been subject to the vagaries of British capitalism over our period. But perhaps most important for this examination of gender and identity is the 'constructive' and 'constitutive' process of 'fashioning'.
Like the notion of 'becoming', 'fashioning' implies an endless process, rarely completed. Fashion can function then as a narrative of an individual life, but it is one usually without closure. Clothes are bought and worn as particular outfits, but these are then 're-constituted' with other clothes. The twentieth-century fashion business may still attempt to 'fix' a particular look through advertising and magazines, but alone of all aspects of design, fashion has the potential endlessly to deny this. In numerous major and minor ways, women can subvert these dominant representations of the 'fashionable', more so since 1900 as fashion information has become more available. Inevitably there have been and remain real constraints to this. Dominant fashionable ideals are projected in magazines, in the cinema and on television, and these are powerful and effective persuaders. An ever-expanding market means that girls as young as eight years old can readily copy the styles and looks of their pop idols, Shania Twain or 'Posh' Spice, Victoria Adams. At the close of the century, there is not one look, but several, and these can be combined in ways which undercut dominant, 'preferred' meanings or readings. The extent to which these are genuinely empowering in the context of post-modern culture is, however, highly questionable.
As this book demonstrates, definitions of femininity have fragmented in the twentieth century, and it is no longer possible to write of them as a single unified concept. The boundaries of gender identities have blurred as female roles have changed beyond recognition from those of our grandmothers and their mothers. As the meanings of femininity have been mediated by class, race, age, national identity and sexuality, we increasingly recognise that gender identities are not fixed but always in the process of making. Informed by psychoanalysis, post-modernism and especially feminism, writers such as
Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler attempt to describe and assess the implications of the transitory nature of 'gendered identity'. Braidotti talks of women as 'nomadic subjects', whereas Butler describes gender as 'performative'.8 Like many contemporary feminists, Braidotti is concerned to recognise the differences between women and the 'politics of their location', so as not to reassert a form of biological essentialism. A 'politics of location' aims to take account of 'the interconnectedness between identity, subjectivity, and power. The self being a sort of network of interrelated points...'9 Her 'nomadic consciousness', which is an essential element in her attempt to articulate a subversive notion of femininity, is a mechanism to enable women to dis-identify with what she sees as the paralysing structures of patriarchy (although she writes specifically about philosophy, her ideas are pertinent to other academic subjects). Using a term from Foucault, she describes the nomadic consciousness as a 'countermemory', which has the capacity 'to enact a rebellion of subjugated knowledges'.10 Like a number of other feminist writers, such as bell hooks in her book Yearning, Sally Alexander in her essay 'Becoming a Woman', and Carolyn Steadman in 'Landscape of a Good Woman', she is concerned to 'situate' femininity, to ground it in time and place so as to move beyond the abstract and the universal in the hope that it might represent the personal and the particular of 'women's lived experiences'.11
Fashion history does not constitute a 'subjugated knowledge', although it is certainly the case that, except in a handful of cases, the detailed relationships between women and fashion have been seriously overlooked. The historiography of fashion is dominated by famous designer names, or those who have claimed genius or have been so described. Such an approach is exacerbated by an industry which thrives on 'stars', whether they be larger-than-life auteur designers or well-known film and pop-star consumers. The styles of the rich and powerful have figured prominently in many accounts of fashion in the twentieth century, as have the activities of innovative retailers, avant-garde photographers, and creative promoters. Until the last 20 years or so, fashion history had not been particularly interested in the intimacies of women's relationships with fashion, although writers including Angela Partington and Angela McRobbie have produced influential essays and books which make important contributions to this.12 Arguably, if there is a subjugated knowledge of fashion, it is women's specific experiences of it. This type of 'knowledge of fashion' should, of necessity, be 'closely connected to one's place of enunciation, that is, where one is actually speaking from'.13 In such a context, fashion takes on huge significance for women if, as Braidotti has argued, the primary site from which women speak is the body, which is 'an interface, a threshold, a field of intersecting forces where multiple codes are inscribed'.14 Fashion effectively functions as the primary language in which the majority of women can converse in a variety of ways;
its codes are visual, and consciously and unconsciously these enunciate aspects of the social and the cultural self in both public and private arenas.
Due to this intimacy with the body, fashion is a critical tool for representing femininity. It is highly effective in endlessly constituting but never fixing identities, and it is performative, in that it ceaselessly rehearses and enacts the 'lines' of femininity. In this respect it can be a mechanism of social control and manipulation, but also, as we will see in a number of the case studies in this book, it has the potential for transgression and disruption. Historically it is possible to see that fashion sometimes crosses the boundaries of what is acceptable, to become genuinely subversive. To be glamorous in the 1930s was a parody of accepted feminine styles, whereas the highly casual and 'masculinised' clothes adapted by munition and factory workers during the First World War undercut rigid class and gender identities. At the same time it can function normatively by attempting to 'fix' feminine identities in ways which merely support the status quo. Images in Vogue magazine during the First World War deployed fashion and particular female iconography to evoke class and racial purity through an idealised form of femininity. More recently, images in a magazine such as More can be seen to consolidate dominant femininities in contemporary culture.
This book is based on two key assumptions: one, that historically fashion has functioned in complex and interesting ways to construct feminine identities; and two, that these ways have yet to be fully explored. Our aim has been to offer a number of insights into this process, rather than to come to any final conclusions. The four case studies on which the book is based are obviously 'snapshots' of relatively short historical periods, and, like photographs, although they may resemble reality we know that in fact they give us only part of the picture. Indeed, to depict the full historical picture appears utopian, and perhaps misguided. Like femininity, histories are rarely 'complete'. In fact it seems to us that reinterpreting and reshaping history is one of its disciplinary attractions, and as new research is undertaken and fresh perspectives come into view, the challenge for historians is to add new ways of seeing.
In Chapter 2, which deals with fashion and femininity between 1890 and 1910, we argue that in a number of ways the fashionable ideal of the period pre-empted modernity, and that the commodification of femininity was a key element in the emergence of modernity. New ways of making clothes and the subsequent wider availability of fashionable styles have already been acknowledged as critical to this process, but perhaps just as essential were the techniques and devices which went into 'constructing' the ideal consumer of fashion. These include the expansion of fashion retailing, particularly within the department store; the opening of hairdressing salons and the establishment of beauty consultancies; and the popularisation of cosmetics.
All of these were promoted in the plethora of women's magazines which emerged at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries through an advertising industry which, by deploying the latest illustrative and photographic processes in an increasingly sophisticated manner, aimed to widen the fashion market by drawing the middle classes into the privileged world of high fashion.
As well-established houses such as Redfern and Creed were joined in the 1890s and 1900s by newcomers Lucile and Reville and Rossiter, haute couturiers in Britain began to compete with the dominant French houses Paquin, Callot-Soeurs and Worth. The close relationship between the English upper classes and haute couture was challenged by the popularity of a number of independent, though mainly married, women in the 1900s, some of whom were actresses. The 'stars' of their day, these women were dressed for their theatrical performances as well as for their glamorous social lives by couturiers such as Lucile, who, in fact, adopted theatrical devices for her fashion shows. Glamour, eroticism and spectacle were essential elements of her designs, which suggested in dress the world of romance which her sister Elinor Glyn described in her novels. Sexual licence and social independence, within certain patriarchal constraints, accompanied the lifestyles of those who wore such designs, and women such as Lily Langtry and Daisy Warwick exercised an autonomy in their sexual conduct which was a world apart from women outside their specific social milieu. Fashion designers responded to this sexually mature femininity, and although the period was characterised by anxieties about the nature of female sexuality, these were contained by patriarchy, as these glamorous older women conducted their affairs strictly within the confines of their marriages. Typically more statuesque, curvaceous and weighty, this 'ideal' represented the contradictory forces operating at the time with regard to femininity. In some ways highly incongruous in an era of modernity, this highly decorative, sumptuous image nevertheless demonstrates how fashion and its associated ephemera mediated the contradictions inherent in women's shifting social, political and sexual identities at the time.
In identifying the First World War as 'the breakdown of the (western) civilisation of the nineteenth century', Eric Hobsbawn reinforces a trend evident in the work of a number of historians by viewing the war as the point at which the twentieth century began.15 In fact the First World War speeded up a period of transformation which was evident by the end of the nineteenth century, and which saw social and economic change precipitated by the increasingly effective labour and feminist movements, and by strong economic competition from powerful trading rivals. Discussing the significance of visual images in representing these transformations, Deborah Cherry and Jane Beckett argue that these 'did particular ideological work in the representation of masculinity, femininity, class and race'.16 Chapter 3 considers the ways in which visual images, particularly those produced in fashion and its related media, mediated those changes for women. To sustain the expanding clothing industry, and supported by cheaper women's magazines such as Home Chat, women were targeted as consumers of fashion as never before. The fashionable female body was not, however, merely a passive surface on which the dominant feminine ideal could be mapped out. Due to the profound experience of war and war work, many more women were empowered to take a hand in their aesthetic and cultural identities as well as their social ones. The female body during wartime literally became a battle site, as women's magazines, fashion designers and photographers attempted to come to terms with the enormous social, cultural and economic changes wrought by the impact of war. Openly wearing masculinised forms of dress, as well as more informal, casual clothes which equipped them for work previously done by men outside the home, women's appearance on the streets of British towns and cities was an affront to patriarchy. Dressing fashionably, eating out alone, and managing significantly increased wages represented a challenge to the patriarchal order which was noted by social commentators and newspaper editors alike.
Fashion, however, was inherently modern, and it offered a transformative space in which women could attempt to mark out their personal sense of modernity, one which was as much to do with the private body as with the public world. It remained, however, a crucially significant 'feminine' space, and this was underscored in lower-middle-class magazines such as Home Chat and in the upmarket Vogue. Addressing a wider audience, Home Chat attempted to track its readers' interests, and in doing so reflected and encouraged women's changing roles alongside a consistent concern for the traditional accoutrements of femininity, including fashion. Largely immune to the war, except in a superficial way, Vogue, although highly modern in style and design, maintained a commitment to a very specific form of class and gender identity which attempted to ignore the social transformations produced by wartime. Fashionable women were typically child-like in appearance, passively representing a racially pure feminine 'ideal' at a time when the British empire was threatened by Germany and its colonies. Paradoxically, the fashionable styles of dress, with their linear, simplified cut, bold colour and pattern - which were illustrated in both Home Chat and Vogue, and were influenced by the pre-war couturier Paul Poiret - epitomised a feeling for modernity clearly at odds with the values of the established, patriarchal order which had led Britain into war. Empowered by their wartime experiences, some women were able to respond to this feeling for modernity and to use the language of fashion to represent this.
Increasingly intolerant of their elders, fashion became a powerful tool in challenging patriarchy (albeit sometimes unconsciously) for some women in the inter-war years. As we argue in Chapter 4, it both symbolised the changes which women had experienced and provided an exciting visual medium in which women could begin to represent themselves as feminine at a time when gender identity was being renegotiated. Single women with a degree of disposable income, including some from the working class as well as the middle class, were the primary market for the latest fashionable styles, although better-off married women made ideal consumers as a result of the new selling techniques of credit and mail order deployed by large department stores.
Fashion offered more women than previously the possibility of wearing smart clothes which bore the stylistic imprint of haute couture, even if they were the product of home dressmaking, or the improved mass-production processes found in the new clothing factories emerging in the 1930s. Indeed women's complex relationship to fashion was conditioned by modernity, and at the same time was a sign of it. Women were consumers of the fashionable styles available in the new multiple stores, and illustrated in women's and film magazines; they were producers of clothes at home or in the factory; and they were saleswomen and buyers of fashion in the large department stores.
The greater availability of information about fashion, particularly in women's magazines but increasingly through Hollywood cinema and film magazines, provided women with the means to follow fashion as never before. Glamour, Hollywood-style, gave women a visual vocabulary based on the notion that looks were made rather than born. Beauty and style could be seen to come in many guises, and some of these were deliberately provocative in relation to gender. The knowledgeable young consumer of fashion could emulate the arch femininity of Jean Harlow, the girl-next-door looks of Jean Arthur or, conversely, interpret the casual masculinity of Katherine Hepburn or the gender ambiguities with which both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich toyed in their respective ways. Becoming a woman was exposed as a role to be played, and the notion that femininity was somehow fixed, an essential element of being born female, was revealed as a fiction. Fashion was in many ways a metaphor for the social, political and cultural changes shaping women's lives and, along with many other experiences, it undermined patriarchal values. Only a privileged few fitted the stereotype of 'gay young thing', however, it is clear through the analysis of fashion illustrations, photographs and particular fashionable looks that many women were influenced, sometimes in small ways, by the notion that different femininities could be constructed. Fashion provided an arena in which women could imagine themselves differently and, even if only for short periods of their lives, this was highly significant because of its intimacy with the female body.
An intense focus on sexuality has characterised the relationship between fashion and the female body since the 1960s. By looking at the experience of young women as consumers of fashion in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1999, Chapter 5 explores the complex ways in which femininity, feminism and sexual identity coalesce in the marketplace for contemporary fashion and visual identities, particularly as seen in contemporary women's magazines. Looking back over the last 15 years - a period of de-industrialisation in Northeast England, with attempted renewal, but at a price - sexual identity has been a highly contentious arena for both men and women. At the same time, sustained attacks on second-wave feminism, the emergence of post-feminism, and a general shift to the political right, has left a vacuum in which female sexuality is defined and redefined in ways which are highly problematic. The challenging visual identities which emerged for women in the 1970s in the context of punk fashion and imagery have been replaced by essentially patriarchal definitions of female sexuality best summed up by the image of pop icon Madonna. Hailed as a liberator of women by vociferous academic and popular writers, Madonna has been responsible for articulating female desire as active, but by drawing on a visual language that is essentially patriarchal. Theoretical inertia and accusations of puritanism have rendered feminist opposition largely ineffective, and left today's young women without a political voice. As this study shows, Newcastle's two principal party areas, the Bigg Market and the Quayside, are permeated with a masculinised drinking culture in which young women attempt to participate as men's equals. This strategy essentially re-works the 'equal but different' thinking of some inter-war feminists, as gender difference is aggressively marked out by dress codes which mimic a glittery, glamorous 'babe' ideal. In an area in which job prospects and life opportunities are limited, this highly eroticised femininity can be read as a representation of powerlessness rather than power. In this context, fashion operates to render women's powerlessness visible, rather than to provide a new language for female empowerment.
Writing in 1976 in his revised edition of On Human Finery, Quentin Bell speculated on whether 'fashion is on its way out?' Bell conceived of fashion primarily as a vehicle for the maintenance of status, yet 25 years later we can see that it is arguably more pervasive than at any other time, and in the twentieth century in particular it has functioned in increasingly subtle and complex ways. It has been a key cultural site in which the feminine has been constituted; it has provided women with a visual language which has mainly enriched their everyday lives; and, importantly for feminists, it has exposed the body as a socio-cultural artefact rather than a biological essence. In this book we show how fashion can be transgressive and disruptive of dominant representational codes, yet at the same time reinforcing them, and operate as a device which placates women within patriarchy. Fashion's inherent instability within the contexts of modernity, post-modernity and shifting gender relations in twentieth-century Britain is its chief disciplinary appeal both at the personal and academic levels. From a personal perspective, it has provided a means of making visible our changing sense of identity at the different stages of our lives, whereas on the academic front, as the four case studies show, it is the key cultural site for fashioning the feminine.
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