Clothing has the ability to alter our perception; of others and of ourselves. The outfit worn can change posture, confidence and mood. Wearing something light, flouncy and feminine will likely change a person’s behaviour when compared to that same person dressed in sturdy boots and tweed. It is generally men’s clothing which is seen as powerful, but surely a suit is no more innately authoritative than a dress? It must simply be our preconceptions which differentiate between power-dressing and ‘submissive’ clothing. In fact the divide between men’s and women’s clothing must be one of the greatest uniforms of all, it changes gradually every generation, but seems never to be lost completely.
I got thinking about all that recently when I did a photo shoot with Stuart Attwood. I had four different outfits which we photographed in one day. As a result I was changing persona’s with great speed. A full 1920’s/30’s three piece tailored wool suit (with a very definite menswear feel), followed by a floral silk ‘floofy’ dress really illustrated to me the power that clothes can have on my psyche. I assume of course that to varying degrees everyone feels this change, an assumption which appears to be backed up by recent studies.
In the past there were some very strong opinions on the importance of each sex wearing clothing appropriate to their sex and why the sexes must stay differentiated. In his book The Importance of Wearing Clothes (1959), Lawrence Langner writes:
…. the differentiation in clothing between men and women arose from the males desire to assert superiority over the female and to hold her to his service. This he accomplished through the ages by means of special clothing which hampered or handicapped the female in her movements... divided garments such as trousers… which permitted free movement for the male, while the female was forced to wear hampering skirts and dresses which impeded her movements. In this way the male covered her and hobbled her at the same time. Later on he handicapped her still further in other ways, such as by dresses with hampering trains, and by high-heeled shoes… (page 53).
Langner, writing in the 1950s would have observed massive changes in his lifetime, however even so, this sounds a very simplistic view of a complex subject. Despite the recent rise of sportswear and leisure wear women continue to wear full dresses and high heels. This is now by choice on the behalf of the wearer, proving that either female fashions of the past were not solely dictated by men, but must – at least for some women – have been worn consentingly and even joyfully, OR, the social interpretations of garments can change. This is a topic discussed at length by Valerie Steele in The corset a Cultural History (which I highly recommend as a cover to cover read), she writes:
Today the corset is almost universally condemned as having been an instrument of women’s oppression… I shall challenge the reductiveness of this picture, which frames the history of the corset in terms of oppression versus liberation, and fashion versus comfort and health. Corsetry was not one monolithic, unchanging experience that all unfortunate women experienced before being liberated by feminism. It was a situated practice that meant different things to different people at different times. Some women did experience the corset as an assault to the body. But the corset also had many positive connotations – of social status, self-discipline, artistry, respectability, beauty, youth, and erotic allure. (Page 1)
Although Valerie Steele has focussed her discussions on the corset, the ideas can be easily translated to other forms of clothing. She continues:
Men were not responsible for forcing women to wear corsets. On the contrary, a number of powerful male authority figures, including many doctors, opposed corsetry. (Page 35)
You will have to forgive me quoting large tracts of text, The Corset A Cultural History is one of my favourite books and I highly recommend it as a cover to cover read. The contrast between Steele’s view point and Langner’s is vast.
One last comment from Steele:
… within the world of fashion, cultural signs, like the corset, have no fixed meaning… Although some women remain ambivalent or hostile to (corsets), for others the look is strong and sexy. (Page 176)
However despite agreeing with Steele on a lot of points, Langner’s opinions are still intriguing; he continues:
…If any man reading this feels I have been unfair to his sex regarding the hampering purpose of women’s dresses, let him essay a little adventure by his own fireside which I tried myself… Experiment with wearing women’s clothes, and see if you do not experience a feeling of embarrassment and restraint. The embarrassment comes from a disdain for the finery, the laces and what not, which give us mere men a feeling of foolishness in wearing such useless fripperies. But try to walk freely in the skirt and you will find that each step forward requires you to move a load of the material with your knees…Your women friends will tell you that they become used to this, but… they will agree that long skirts are not the best garments for working in… A woman wearing male clothes suffers none of the above disadvantages. Male garments may not be ‘pretty’, but they do not hamper free movement… When a woman wears men’s clothes, she also wears that happy feeling of equality with men which gives her a sense of freedom that is bound to have a striking effect on the achievements of women in the future… (Pages 57-59)
And I have to say some of his observations are true! I had a wonderful sense of freedom in this outfit!
But I don’t believe it is quite as simple as all that. He clearly has very strong expectations of what he will experience, and as some modern studies have shown, the human brain is a complex creature and is capable of being tricked into false experiences and conclusions.
…According to a study by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky of Norwestern University… published … in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, observed an interesting phenomenon: wear a white coat you believe belongs to a doctor, and you’ll be more focused. Wear a white coat you believe belongs to a painter, and you won’t see that improvement… (For further reading on that study click here for a summary or here to access the full article.)
Although I believe that there is a huge difference in the feel of wearing a men’s suit versus a ladies full skirted dress of the 1950s, this research suggests that Langner’s feeling of servitude/superiority has as much to do with his mind-set and the social norms of his era as it does the physical clothing.
There appear to have been multiple studies conducted along similar lines, some of which can be easily translated to gender and fashion and are discussed by Natasha Walter in Living Dolls, the Return of Sexism (2010):
… when people are aware of what they are being asked to do and can control their responses, they live up to the stereotypes about how men and women should behave. But when reactions are being observed that are less controllable or when the subjects are not sure what is being assessed, men and women are much more variable… we try, maybe without even consciously knowing we are doing so, to conform to social norms. (Page 172).
I grew up loving skirts and dresses; but kiwi society had no issues if I ever chose to wear shorts, trousers, t-shirts and all other manner of items which only a couple of generations ago would have been respectable for men only, and even then perhaps only within the home as casual wear. The question of why some clothing is ‘men’s’ and why some is ‘women’s’ and how these rules came about and in some cases continue to be enforced is very hard to answer.
Quite how far back the differentiation goes may never truly be known, but one of the earliest examples appears to be ….the Spanish Levant rock paintings dating from about 10,000 BC reveal prehistoric male hunters wearing short trousers and women wearing long skirts … (Langner, Lawrence, The importance of wearing clothes (page 54)
This began to give me an understanding of the massive battle which feminists past have fought in order for me to be allowed morally and legally to prance around dressed in a three piece suit, an experience which I must admit to loving! I made this suit (of course) and am immensely pleased with the result. I had studied traditional tailoring while in England under the tutelage of a Saville Row tailor. While I cannot profess to have become a master tailor in those four months, I have definitely developed an understanding of the importance of working with wool, and delicately hand stitching layers of felt and horsehair canvas to create a sculptured garment. The fit is at the heart of a perfectly tailored suit, the simplicity of design belies the effort required to attain a perfect silhouette.
If I were to make another suit for myself there are definite tweaks I would make to the pattern, and through practice I am sure my hand stitching and tailoring techniques would also improve. However, that I completed the patternmaking and hand tailoring within one week (while also working 40 hours at my day job) I think is a testament to the wonderful teaching I received while abroad.
As with so many of my sewing stories so far, this one begins with Napier Art Deco… One week before heading to my first Winter Deco in 2015 I happened to be at Spotlight buying some things for my day job when I spotted a bolt of wool mix herringbone in the discount section for $8 a metre. Sometimes I have slightly over ambitious ideas, but I couldn’t resist the challenge of making a three piece suit in seven days. I started by redrafting my Peach Beach Pyjama trousers, adding pockets and slightly reducing the leg width.
I’ve made a few trousers, so these got thrown together pretty quickly, the only sticking point being figuring out how to sew a side button placket in conjunction with an angle pocket. Luckily I was able to borrow an existing pair of original ’20s breeches from Susie which had the same detail – so I was able to copy the construction.
Next came the Jacket, I started with a commercial pattern, Vogue 8333, which I had made up before and thus knew the basic fit was close to correct and should be simple enough to perfect. The pattern features a total of 10 separate panels (5 per side) which I reduced down to the more traditional 6 (3 per side). I also removed the seriously complicated pleated pockets and reduced the oversized lapels. One of my favourite details when tailoring is making the traditional pockets, so I added a breast pocket and two welt pockets with flaps.
By the end of my alterations, the only pattern pieces still original were the sleeves.
But that was to change after my first fitting! As soon as it was assembled I could tell that the back was not sitting quite right, of course it is impossible for me to fit it myself so I took it to work, where luckily one of my fellow students from Uni was also employed!
See the fit alterations were to the back of sleeves, mid back panel seams and removal of excess from back of neck.
The interior support at the front of the jacket is provided, not by fusible interfacing, but by hand herringbone stitched breastplates. These are made from one layer of horsehair canvas and one layer of felt.
The whole front panel is then also stitched by hand to another layer of horsehair canvas before the breast plates are attached. The lapels are sewn to the horsehair canvas with a curl in them, as you can see in this next photo – note the shape here is created by the herringbone stitch – no iron has been used!
The collar I made from a dark brown cotton velveteen which you may be familiar with if you’ve read my post on the Jodhpurs or Breeches (this was actually the old curtains from my lounge).
The jacket was eventually finished in Napier – I had to bring my sewing machine! Despite the last minute rush of it all, I’m pretty happy with the result. Perhaps if I were to make it again I would use slightly smaller shoulder pads, reshape the hem of the jacket a little in the front, and cut my breastplate and horsehair interfacing a little smaller (they seem wider than my chest). But these are mere details, and overall I think the effect is quite marvellous! I never did even get the waistcoat cut out in time for Deco – but finished it afterwards.
SO, here we are back to the original reason for this post – to show off the fabulous images taken by Stuart Attwood at the Glenbrook Vintage railway. This was my favourite outfit of the day, and as such has produced my favourite images. I felt incredible in this outfit; suave, confident and powerful – and that was despite wearing a wool suit in the summer heat!
I think (and I hope you agree) that these images capture how I was feeling at the time. There is certainly a difference in my stance when compared to the 1925 day dress which I posed in shortly afterwards.
I still have a great deal I want to discuss regarding gender differences in fashion history and how this related to female emancipation. But I feel this post is getting out of hand – so expect some more posts with a similar flavour sometime in the distant future. I must at this point give a shout out to the Emma-bear, she’s the one who first made me think about feminism and put up with my arguments and ignorance!
From now on though, the flavour of this blog is about to change – expect far less sewing and far more travel updates!