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Essay: Feminism in the fashion industry (introduction)

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  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English “Movement for recognition of the claims of women for rights (legal, political, etc) equal to those possessed by men” [1]
  • English Oxford Living Dictionaries Online “The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes” [2]
  • English Oxford Living Dictionaries Online “The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” [3]

There is no singular definition of the word ‘feminism’ which manages to capture the vast range of interpretations and approaches to gender equality and women’s rights which have been formed through time. As the aims, actions, and views of the movement have shifted with changing political, economic, cultural, and social environments, so have the boundaries that confine the movement and, in turn, the main, individual strands of feminist thought and theory –most commonly shortlisted as “liberal, Marxist, radical, psychoanalytic, socialist, existentialist, or postmodern” perspectives- have been academically defined, redefined, and shaped. [4]

The history and progression of the feminist movement, generally regarding Western cultures, is often categorised into separate, objective eras known as the ‘Waves’ of feminism, each with definitive start and end points. While this is the most academically accepted view of feminism, this theory has its limitations when analysing a narrow area of feminist impact through time, as it can cover over the actions of individuals outside of the mass movement campaigns of each of the waves. [5]

The timeline set for the progression of the modern movement for women’s rights and gender quality, now known as feminism, begins in the 19th Century- with the term ‘feminism’ itself appearing in writing in 1841 [3] and gaining popular use in everyday language during the late 1880s- and continues into current society, with the waves separating the periods between 19th Century to early 20th Century, the late 1950s to the 1980s, and the 1990s; some versions include a ‘fourth wave’ of feminism affected by the current advancements in technology and social media. [6]

This dissertation will follow the outline for the time period between the 19th Century and the current technological age because this is the section of history most appropriate in regards to feminism as it is seen today, but, although there will be recognition of the differences in the objectives of and the objections to each separate ‘wave’ of feminism, there will be limited adherence to that way of sectioning the movement; instead, this will focus on key, large and individual, actions that affected the progress of feminism inside and outside of the mass-bodied flow of feminist drive in regards to fashion dressing and the industry.

In order to avoid misconceptions about what is meant by ‘feminism’ or the ‘feminist movement’, the definition followed in this dissertation will be the ideas or actions of groups or individuals striving for gender equality in society. While feminism started as mostly women’s rights movements, such as women’s suffrage, the term is now used to describe progress for both sexes on the grounds of political social and economic equality.

I have decided to focus on feminism in the fashion industry not only because of my interest in the area but also because of the impact fashion has on people’s everyday lives and self-expression.

Fashion and clothing has always been large part of society, culture, politics, and entertainment, making it an area of life which is, perhaps, too often overlooked and discarded as trivial by people who have not understood its significance in their lives. Fashion is a subject which is very commonly and easily linked to femininity but much more rarely to feminism, despite the influence that many of fashion’s  trends had on the emancipation of women and the equality of expression for the sexes in modern days.

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