Coco Chanel and Fighting Gender Inequality in Clothing

“To be irreplaceable one must always be different.” — Coco Chanel

The power suit. We have all worn it. Admired it. Spoken about it. It’s a fashion necessity. But how did it come to be?

It was after the Spanish Flu pandemic and the First World War. The economy was booming. Women had gotten the right to vote after a decades-long struggle.

Across the pond, Coco Chanel was revolutionizing women’s fashion. She created category after category of women’s clothing that today her name is almost synonymous with fashion. The twenties was a time when women were trying to shed their Victorian corsets and liberate themselves.

Coco Chanel made women’s fashion functional. She liberated women through her work. Now and then someone comes along and creates such an impact through their product that they cause a ripple effect in society.

Today I don’t want to talk too much about Chanel fashion. The LBD, the jersey girl, the Chanel suit and more have been spoken about and analyzed for decades. I want to talk about Coco Chanel addressing a social issue and wicked problem through her work.

The wicked problem she addressed? Inequality. A 100 years ago women faced many inequalities some of them are prevalent today. One of the biggest inequalities back then was what women were expected to wear. She took masculine wear and made it fashionable women’s wear. In doing so she liberated women. She changed our image and how we were portrayed. She also androgynized fashion.

Source — Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Today we take for granted our ability to wear pants. Walking into the boardroom wearing a business suit is synonymous with power and authority.

Inequality takes many forms. Rights, privilege, power, authority wealth, status. None of us really think of clothes when we think of inequality, do we? And yet clothes have always been an outward representation of inequality.

As a history buff, I always like to go back in time.

In Ancient Rome slaves used to wear tunics with holes for arms held up with a belt, the ones working in the galleys generally wear loincloths.

Cut to slavery in America, the male slaves wore shirts made of osnaburg and women wore jackets that closed in front with fitted bodices. The idea is when you look at them you know they are slaves. The clothes they wear speak volumes. They are not even seen as a person. A human being. It was clothing that was designed to strip away an individual’s rights without them having to utter a word.

Remember that scene from the Titanic, when Jack comes for dinner and Rose’s fiancee comments that he can barely recognize him. “You can almost pass for a gentleman,” he said. He was referring to Jack’s clothes.

Today we see how clothing has set a different bar for inequality. Take women’s lingerie, for example, it's designed mostly to be visually appealing to men. Not to be worn comfortably by women. The actual consumer is supposed to be the man, not the person wearing it. How unfair is that?

In the Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf makes an excellent point. Beauty or the ideology of power holds higher sway over us women than even our most feminist ideals. Here’s a quote from her book:

The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary: Strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility, and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.

The problem is the more we subscribe to the ideals of beauty, let it have power over us, the more patriarchy rules and the more inequality we face. It's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is why women like Coco Chanel are celebrated and have such an impact. She strived to change the ideals of beauty and what was viewed as beautiful. Women with tiny waists squeezed into corsets were the ultimate ideal at the time. She changed that image.

But as long as women are seen as objects of desire inequality will thrive. Sex trafficking will exist. Sexual harassment will be par for the course. For women to truly achieve equality, objectification has to stop. But it's not just about the men. It's about us women too. We need to stop valuing our self-worth based on how we look or how much our clothes cost.

It's a pipe dream at best.

I hope to explore this particular issue in upcoming posts.

Impact-Driven Category Designer | Working group member Wicked 7