Most people think of Coco Chanel as the woman who designed the ubiquitous chain-strapped handbag, the instantly recognisable interlocking “C” logo and boxy monochrome suits. But the debt women owe to Chanel actually runs far deeper than tweed or quilting: her clothes marked a sartorial emancipation that women have benefitted from ever since.
Adapting menswear for women’s wardrobes was Chanel’s revolutionary contribution to fashion history, one which she – along with her contemporary Jean Patou – offered up alongside a rejection of the prevailing fashion for corsetry.
Until the early 1900s women’s dress was largely characterised by stiff steel and whale boning in corsetry, binding and cumbersome crinolines. The desire to create a “feminine” S-shaped silhouette overlooked any sort of practicality or comfort in the design of women’s clothes.
Even sportswomen (rare as they were) were forced to wear such limiting garments. The tennis player Betty Ryan once described the metal bars that had been installed in women’s changing rooms purely for the purpose of hanging bloodstained corsets to dry. The skeletons of Victorian women were found to have maligned spines and deformed ribs.
So it’s difficult not to think of Chanel and her predecessors – the likes of dress reformer Amelia Bloomer – who fought so hard to liberate women from the restrictions of dress, turning in their graves at the sight of celebrities like Kim Kardashian squeezing themselves into dresses so tight some 100 years later, that they cause physical pain.
Describing the waist-cinching Thierry Mugler dress she wore at this year’s Met Gala, the reality TV star admitted that she was left with “indentations on [her] back and [her] stomach”, saying “I have never felt pain like that in my life.” Quite an admission coming from a woman who has given birth to two children.
It’s a bizarre choice, then, for Kardashian to be launching her own “shapewear”. Consisting of waist trainers and bodysuits, the controversy-ridden collection uses elastication and padding to morph women into a faux feminine perfume bottle silhouette.
How anyone is supposed to use the bathroom wearing a bodysuit underneath all their clothes is another question. It’s frustrating enough having to queue because there aren’t enough female toilets in many venues, without knowing everyone inside is taking their time getting fully naked while you wait in line.
Underwear brand Spanks famously includes flapped crotches to allow women to relieve themselves easily while being shoved into a garment too tight to take off more than once. Pissing through spandex: chic?
Last October, fashion journalists hit back at designer Hedi Slimane after he debuted his first collection as creative director of French fashion house Celine. Calling the collection “tone deaf” and “a big f*** you to women”, they were angry at the apparent arrogance of a designer who showed a near-identical collection to those he had shown while at the helm of Saint Laurent.
Slimane’s Celine collection (along with the recently removed acute accent) also appeared to reject the hard-earned feminism of the brand. His predecessor Phoebe Philo had cultivated a design house that embodied the female gaze, creating comfortable, practical clothes for women who wanted to actually wear them.
Slimane’s, by contrast – presented on emaciated white models – were miniature in every sense of the word, appearing to chuck out the progressive rulebook in favour of hyper sexualisation.
Women have been taking the seam rippers to their clothes in other ways recently. Following the release of journalist Caroline Criado Perez’ book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, people have taken to Twitter to discuss the absurdity of pockets in womenswear – often purely decorative, compared with the clown-like options offered to men. Erased from fashion in the 1790s, pockets for women were seen to ruin the smooth line of garments. God forbid we can actually fit our ever-growing smartphones into them.
This week, Manolo Blahnik appeared to be out of step with his friend, the classicist Mary Beard, when he described high heels as powerful. She, conversely, described them as “a symbol of women’s oppression”.
Thankfully, long gone are the days when women’s wardrobes were dictated by patriarchal rules. Evident in the items most women choose to wear on a daily basis, comfort is queen. But the power of social media marketing is real, and it’s concerning that images of waspish waists are what young women will see, rather than the pain they are causing underneath the fabric.
It’s positive to hear Kardashian talk about the reality of manipulating her body in this way, let’s just hope her experience will make her think twice about prompting such an aesthetic to her young female fans.
In an age where body positivity has finally reached the mainstream, we should be waving goodbye to clothing that makes playdough of the female form, not promoting it.