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  • Writer's pictureMarsaili Mainz

The Art of Being A Woman: Feminism, Fashion and Consumption.


This paper explores why - the exponential rise in mass production and mass consumption dating back to the mid 19th Century. The purpose is to contribute to knowledge exchange through theoretical frameworks on feminism, fashion, and consumption ethics. (McRobbie, 1997). To better understand changing attitudes and ideologies around the complex notions of gender representation in media culture and the impact on consumption habits. It focuses on the female construction of self-identity and the multiple trends and stereotypes that have fashioned the catwalks, magazines, and social media since the mid-19th Century. The focus is on the understanding that much work is still to be done to override the current consumption and production epidemic. Alongside worsening working environments, the nexus of the fashion industry is the namesake of profiteering at the expense of exploiting consumers and garment workers globally.

Fashion History:

By the mid 19th Century, the industrial revolution created the rise of the modern city alongside a rising middle class. During this time, distinct differences emerged between men's and women's fashionable styles. There are many theories on why women's fashion styles became feminine and subordinate. Women were viewed as 'chief ornaments' expressed through ornamental Dress for the chattels of male power and dominance (Hollander, 1975). Women began to be viewed as commodities and objects to showcase the bourgeoisie's rising wealth (Wilson, 2003). Women became even more condemned as status symbols to express wealth through fashion and were encouraged to stay home. Women's duties of beauty and keeping home were imperative to their social status and economic security (Wilson, 2003).

Within these social constraints was the emergence of the grand cocottes in Paris, where these women had no name, family, or class, and their success depended entirely on personality and looks. Giving rise to elaborate styles to attract attention and advertise themselves to potential suitors. In doing so, the extravagant styles expressed the wealth of the men who supported them, in which beauty became the 'passport to social mobility' (Wilson, 2003, p. 33). Meaning appearance began to replace reality, perhaps where the phrase 'fake it till you make it 'originates.

On the flip side, working women where work was essential to their survival rather than a promising marriage prospect. Sadly, work options were minimal, where working in cloth factories was an alternative to employment in dreaded domestic service. Alternatively, there was prostitution, particularly when their bodies had been ravaged due to the back-breaking work of slave labour in the clothing factories (Engels, 1973).

The Art of Being a Women:

With the rise of the bourgeoisie came the surge of taste and overarching moral values. Consequently, resulting in women's dress code becoming ever more feminine. With fashion magazines, the zenith in teaching 'the art of being a woman' (Wilson, 2003). Encouraging women to ask themselves what type of women they are, but equally expected to retain a concise identity. Traces of this expressed ideology are as valid today as in the 1850s. Arguably an impossible task to be like everyone else but also be appropriately different to stand out and find a suiter amongst the competition of your sisterhood, equally in the business of finding a suitable husband as an effective option to ensure economic security and social status (Wilson, 2003).

From 1900 - 1920s, the art of being a woman was expressed through the emergence and popularity of department stores. It also raises moral questions about the ubiquity of middle-class women's newfound freedom through shopping and seeing and being seen. In addition to the newly liberated working-class women as a salesperson (Wilson, 2003).

By the 1920s, there was a huge shift in style, notably Coco Chanel's agile simplified lines that enabled movement in the spirit of modernity. Although Cecil Beaton called it nihilistic and an anti-fashion movement. However, this began a movement towards mass manufacturing, merging class distinction with a more uniform look. A look that expressed female empowerment by liberating women from the constricts of the corset.

Moreover, the art of being a woman had developed further with the Los Angles department store, Bullocks encouraging women to categorise themselves into six different personalities being, The Romantic; The Statuesque; The Artistic; The Picturesque; The Modern and The Conventional (Wilson, 2003, p. 124).

By the 1940s, the continued pressure over fashion, gender, and identity resulted in an American self-help manual to help women' Dress to type', each inspired by a film star. The six major types were (Wilson, 2003, p. 124):

  1. The Exotic Women – Ilona Massey

  2. The Outdoor Women – Katherine Hepburn

  3. The Sophisticate – Merle Oberon

  4. The Womanly Woman - Greer Garson

  5. The Aristocrat – Joan Fontaine

  6. The Gamine – Betty Hutton

Additionally, during the war years, there was a belief promoted by Vogue towards an emphasises on being feminine for our war heroes where "beauty was our duty" (Vogue, 1941).

During the late 1950s, the art of being a woman evolved to four succinct characters. All have the same pattern of asking women to define themselves while asserting their individualism. In 1958, Vogue's September issue advised women, "Dress to your type is one of the basic fashion maxims. We present four types, one of which must be you". (Wilson, 2003, p.125).

The four types based on looks and taste were, The Sporty; The Clotheshorse; The Ultra Glamourous and The Pretty (Wilson, 2003, p. 125).

Alternatively, by the 1980s, Vogue expressed a different ideology, encouraging women to 'change characters and how many fashions can you play? (Vogue, 1984, p.264). Arguably giving more freedom to ask; Who Am I Today? Moreover, the 'I Shop Therefore I am' philosophy (Kruger, 1987). Consequently, the 1980s sported multiple looks to choose from and identify from the rise of punk to the Dress for Success, a career woman's image of power dressing, notably big shoulder pads and suits. Alongside the popularity of the aerobics' look representing further mobility, leisure activity and freedom of time out with the home.

The Meaning of Clothing:

Clothes are so much a part of our living selves that represent our daily lives. Our dressed bodies pass through time and space, and when clothes are discarded or hung up in museums, they become 'souls in limbo' waiting for time to move again (Wilson, 2003). Therefore, Dress is unquestionably meaningful. The power of fashion to communicate in consumer society through conspicuous consumption or anti-consumption is always in constant motion, representative of popular culture.

In all societies, the public body is presented dressed, which plays symbolic, communicative, and aesthetic roles, with clothing choices acting as 'maps of meanings' (Derrida, 1976). Therefore, clothing is a language of unintentional non-verbal communication (Lurie, 1981). Furthermore, Dress is a widespread human desire in the art of visual expression to fulfil social aesthetic and psychological functions with the earliest forms of clothing, such as adornment through body painting, scarring, masks or constricted waist and neck bands. Additionally, fashion means change, and in modern consumer society, no one can escape fashion (Wilson, 2003).

Furthermore, fashion, particularly in urban landscapes, can be a way to intellectualise visually individuals, desires, and social aspirations. This makes it difficult to explain the double-edged phenomenon of what fashion is within the infinite 'mirror of meanings' (Wilson, 2003). Fashion serves to protect us from the inevitable decline of our decaying bodies. It becomes a 'mirror to mask the shaky boundaries of our psychological selves' (Wilson, 2003, p.60). Fashion can transform and freeze the certainty of the self-image, just like the power of a photograph to capture reality, creating illusive memories of fashioned discourses in time and space (Sontag, 1997).

Moreover, Wilson argues that fashion is not just a game dressed in feminine frivolity but an art form and a symbolic social system (Wilson, 2003, p.245). Fashion discourse is in all the "tabooed, fantastic, possible and impossible, dreams, that can be explored in blueprint" (Bernice, 1981, p.245). In contrast to the elitist radicals of the Frankfurt School or some feminists who believed consumer culture theory was a false consciousness. Urban neon lights offer an empty landscape devoid of meaning (Lasch, 1979).

Fashion, Photography, and Film:

Journalism, advertising, and photography have served as the thread to join popular consciousness and culture through marketing images of desire. Since the late 19th Century, word and image have populated style, where the image is constantly in circulation. The expression of the latest fashion from the Gibson blouse in the 1900s to the 1920s shimmer Dress, the mini shift dress in the 1960s, the chic boho look in the 70s, to a myriad of looks in the 80's punk, sporty, power dressing and so on, have served as a symbol of emancipation, glamour and success. Fashion is a magical system, where the excitement of the look lures us in from glossy magazines, which have moved from dictation to the hallucinatory. And from print to being all consuming through social media.

Furthermore, what originally started as informative became a 'mirage of a way of being" (Wilson, 2003, p.157), which shifted from inspired copying towards self-construction of identification. With the camera, the promise of telling the truth, however, the camera only further created an illusion of truth, enhancing the magical fantasy of fashion.

As illustrated throughout the text, fashion resembles photography. It acts as a vehicle to a trip to the light fantastic, where the meaning of clothing is embodied in the meanings of the social self, along with the belief that when we change our clothes, we change ourselves. The photographer Cindy Sherman and the queen of self-portraits illustrate the power of transformation and appearance through Dress, during her career, exceptionally, well. Dress expresses the 'theatre of life' as incredibly important where no culture has escaped fashion's fluidity and changing nature. (Wilson, 2003). However, how we dress, the cultural meanings and how we consume clothing has changed dramatically, where the rise of the bourgeoisie and the emergence of consumer society created an unfathomable taste for the expansion of fashion.

Film also played a significant role in influencing consumers, with celebrities from the beginning having a continued influence on fashion. Celebrities served as clothes horses, with the connection of fashion, films and consumption being inescapable as a profitable business model. Ultimately, the popularity of "movie mania" was exploited as a medium to market clothes to consumers. Today it remains as big a business as ever through product placement and celebrity endorsement. (Wilson, 2003).


With the never-ending fashion cycles, such ideologies lead to questioning what contributions and impact this has on gender representation, and human wellbeing. Particularly with the cultural phenomena of micro-trends creating a kaleidoscope of weekly, almost daily fashions that leave consumers in an endless consumption trap, resulting in the overarching issue of overconsumption and production.

Moreover, the art of being a woman and the ongoing changing roles of gender and identity through the lens of fashion is directly related to capitalism, and consumption, which has been in motion since the mid-nineteenth Century, reaching a zenith in creating a snowball effect. Fast fashion's role and responsibility in promoting multiple characters and identities has collapsed into the abyss. In the 21st Century, we are left with an acute identity crisis, with the demands to keep up with the 'catwalk of consumption' (Ekstrom, 2015). Never satisfying our needs, wants and desires, with the opportunity and temptation to change characters and wear multiple fashions has increased tenfold.


Bernice. M. (1981) "A Sociology of Contemporary Cultural Change", Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Derrida, J. (1976). Of Grammatology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Engels. F (1973) "The Condition of The Working Class in England", Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp.245–6 (originally published in 1844).

Hollander. A (1975) "Seeing Through Clothes", New York, Avon Books

Kruger. B (1987) 'Untitled, I Shop Therefore I Am' Art Print.

Lasch. C. (1979) "The Culture of Narcissism", New York: Warner Books.

Lurie. A (1981). "The Language of Clothes'. London, Heinemann.

McRobbie. A (1997). "Bridging the Gap: Feminism, Fashion and Consumption"

Feminist Review, Consuming Cultures, 55 pp.73-89 Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.

Sontag. S (1978) “On Photography” Penguin Random House, Latest Edition, 2019

Wilson, E. (2003). "Adorned in Dreams". First published in 1985 by Virago Press Ltd. New Edition published in 2003.


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