WARNING: Contains nudity
Part I of this series noted how women’s fashion over the last few millennia has acted as a barometer of the extent to which sex-negative, anti-nudity patriarchal attitudes with their corresponding sense of shame around all matters related to sexuality have shaped society.
Part I started with the pro-female, pre-patriarchal societies depicted in the earliest known artworks. It went through to the 17th Century—the Elizabethan era in England and the Safavid dynasty in the Middle East. During this period women’s clothes became significantly more restrictive, often leaving only the face exposed. While this trend continued—in the West at least—for another two centuries, depictions of the female body changed.
The repressed desire to see the female body that erupted so tragically during the Inquisition found a healthier expression in art. Francisco Goya’s ‘The Nude Maja’ is among the earliest depictions of natural nudity (i.e. where the sitter is simply herself, not a stand-in for some absent divinity). The Prime Minister of Spain—who had a secret room reserved for nude paintings—is thought to have commissioned the work.
Goya later painted a complementary work, ‘The Clothed Maja’. This did not prevent him from being summoned before the Inquisition in 1808 to explain the scandalous indecency of the naked version. Goya’s answer is unknown. However, by this time, the power of the inquisitors was on the wane. The taboo-busting Spanish painter walked free.
Following in Goya’s tradition, French Impressionist Édouard Manet broke nude paintings out of private rooms and into the artistic mainstream with ‘Luncheon on the Grass’, exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés. Genteel Parisians thronged by the thousand to be shocked by the nude’s impudent stare and to tut-tut at the fleshy free-for-all implied by her insouciant pose. Manet, however, had an insurance policy. The foreground composition was closely modelled on Raimondi’s 1515 engraving, ‘The Judgment of Paris’. Manet was faulted for his morality, but his classically trained artistic sensibilities couldn’t be denied.
While the Impressionists were getting bolder with their strokes, women’s fashion in general continued the regressive trend of recent centuries. In Victorian times, ankles in particular were considered to be blushingly risqué and disappeared under diaphanous coverings. This embarrassment at all things leg-shaped applied as much to tables as to women.
With the 20th Century and the rise of feminism, a fundamental shift towards more revealing clothes swept the Western world. Partly it stemmed from gains in female empowerment in World War I, where the notion that women couldn’t do men’s jobs was soundly disproven. The ‘flapper’ style of the 1920s featured bare arms and just-below-the-knee hemlines. They wouldn’t stop there.
World War II provided more impetus for the movement towards modern fashion. While thousands of women gained empowerment through work in the armaments industry, the absent menfolk—particularly American—decorated their warplanes with images in the ‘pin-up’ style of scantily-clad women in alluring poses, a style recently appropriated by the ‘Suicide Girls’ movement.
The upward march of the hemline seen in the 1920s continued to its logical conclusion—the classic Mary Quant miniskirt of the 1960s. Hemlines have been entrenched at the miniskirt’s just-below-the-crotch level for the past 50 years.
With the miniskirt generally accepted in Western cultures, women turned their attention to the brassiere. The late 1960s witnessed a wave of protests that briefly threatened to return women’s fashion to the Minoan style of four thousand years earlier. ‘Burning the bra’ was as much a protest against authoritarian attitudes and entrenched sexual shame as against the brassiere itself.
The high water mark for women’s fashion liberation in the 20th Century came at the 1969 Woodstock music festival in upstate New York. As well as three days of music from iconic artists including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Who, there was widepsread public nudity among concertgoers. For a brief moment during the ‘summer of love’ patriarchal restrictions on women’s fashion tottered and almost collapsed.
As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the liberating flame of the previous decade guttered and died. The on-going war in Vietnam, the 1972 Watergate scandal and the 1973 OPEC oil crisis set the tone for a regressive decade. As a result, women’s fashion regressed. Out went thigh-baring miniskirts and in came full-length, heavily flared ‘bell-bottom’ pants.
In terms of women’s fashion—and the defeat of patriarchy—the last two decades of the 20th Century witnessed steady gains in women’s right to self-determination. Public nudity and breastfeeding remained largely taboo. Nonetheless, a gradual yet distinct shift towards full fashion emancipation was under way.
In the early 21st Century, feminism is a powerful force shaping public discourse on issues that have long been taboo. Young women, increasingly mobilised and leveraging technology, reclaimed the right to display their bodies through public ‘slut walks’ in many Western cities.
The rise of social media has created new opportunities and forums for women to reclaim the rights to their own bodies. Twitter campaigns such as #underboob and #freethenipple have taken nude protesting into the mainstream. It’s important to remember that this progress comes more from women liberating themselves from their own, historically inherited sense of shame than from changes to external attitudes and institutions.
The protest group Femen uses the waning shock value of female nudity to draw attention to its cause. Where a pair of naked breasts might once have caused a stir, full frontal nudity is now de rigeur for the committed protester. With the potential for protest videos to go viral on social media networks, the ability of patriarchal regimes to shut down such protests is increasingly limited.
The history of women’s fashion is the history of patriarchy. It is a history that now stands on the brink of a major milestone—the genuine right of women to dress as they please without fear of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Will progress stall, or will the next few years see the final strides in this six-millennia old battle? How long before Twitter is deluged with #liberatethelabia selfies?