Strong feminist icons with style have regularly defied social expectations, breaking fashion rules in the process. From Virginia Woolf to Angelina Jolie, women’s rights activists have transformed our world, as well as our wardrobes.
Leaders in the feminist movement not only paved the way for equal rights between the sexes, they did so with a courage and originality reflected in their sartorial choices.
Pioneers in feminist fashion
Virginia Woolf was a great believer in unveiling a women’s full potential. One of the original feminist style icons of the early 20th century, she was part of the bohemian collection of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury set. Woolf was not afraid to experiment, and that goes for her fashion as well as her witty writing. The modernist novelist’s eclectic dress sense – often criticised at the time – was celebrated in 2002 film The Hours with actress Nicole Kidman in chintzy floral dresses and a muted colour palette.
A key figure of the suffragette feminist movement, Emmeline Pankhurst led women to win the full right to vote in 1928. She dedicated her life to fighting for gender equality, through demonstrations and hunger strikes. Fashion also played its part in her political quest. Instead of opting for masculine clothes, activists such as Pankhurst adopted a feminine style, choosing womanliness as their weapon. The smartly dressed suffragette squad even had their own colour scheme: dark overcoats accessorised with purple, white and green.
20th-century American poet and satirist Dorothy Parker was another influential feminist who defended civil rights. No stranger to a smart dress code, she founded the Algonquin Round Table lunch club, where writers would meet to discuss the issues of the day at the New York hotel of the same name. Her early career included positions at fashion publications, including Vogue and Vanity Fair.
A reinterpretation of feminist style
Fashion has often played a part in questioning social norms. Hollywood star Katharine Hepburn donned trousers in the 1930s when it was taboo for women to wear them. The Oscar winner – and daughter of a feminist campaigner – was known for her independent attitude, which manifested itself in her androgynous style. Whispers of the actor’s iconic look was seen in AW16 Stella McCartney blazers. Methodically cut jackets, loose-fitting slacks and wide-collared shirts featured heavily in Hepburn’s repertoire.
The mid-20th century writings of the French existentialist thinker Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, had a significant effect on the way society viewed women. Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel SS15 runway show, themed as a street protest, drew upon the history, or rather her-story, of feminism. Models brandished banners denouncing gender inequality while wearing contemporary takes on Chanel vintage suits. One of the stand-out ensembles was model Caroline de Maigret’s navy pinstripe trouser and jacket with white panels on the shoulders, accented by a magnificent pair of gold and black brogues.
Challenging ideas of feminine beauty
Mexican feminist fashion icon and artist Frida Kahlo is as renowned for pulling off a strong monobrow as she is for her striking self-portraits. Brightly coloured clothing inspired by her home nation and a disregard for standard beauty ideals became her trademarks.
The artist’s aesthetic and rebellious spirit have a direct influence on fashion today. Dolce & Gabbana’s SS15 show featured a troop of Kahlo lookalikes in lavishly embellished high-waisted red shorts and flower crowns. Bold Frida-esque blooms also run through the current collection of Dolce & Gabbana scarves.
The third wave of feminism crashed onto the 1990s’ shores with the arrival of Naomi Wolf’s best-selling book The Beauty Myth. This tome called into question society’s obsession with thinness. It highlighted her belief that women should feel empowered to make their own choices regarding their faces and bodies rather than conforming to unattainable ideals.
The modern faces of feminism
Politician and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi has spent her life fighting for equality in Myanmar. As well as for her extraordinary humanitarian work, the state councillor is admired for her graceful feminine style. Clean and simple lines are combined with traditional Burmese elements such as long, intricately woven wraps and fresh flowers for her hair. Elements of this aesthetic were visible in the loosely striped maxi skirts on show at Missoni SS16.
As UN goodwill ambassador, Angelina Jolie is an influential feminist whose effortless style shines through – whether she’s delivering a speech or appearing at the premiere of her latest film. Her decision to go against the grain at the 2014 BAFTA Awards piqued an interest. Instead of a dress, she appeared in a custom-fitted Saint Laurent tuxedo with cropped sleeves with a casually undone bowtie.
Madonna is arguably the most notable of music’s feminist style icons. As the campaign face of fearless brands such as Versace, the Vogue singer has never been afraid to express herself through fashion. Who could forget the debut of Jean Paul Gaultier’s conical bra during her 1990 Blond Ambition tour? There have also been hints of Kahlo’s colourful ruffles in her 2016 tour looks, such as the Rebel Heart costumes designed by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele.
Feminism has been supported by fashion over the decades, as a physical interpretation of independence and freedom of choice. As the fight for equal rights continues, the style of feminist icons evolves – but always with the unapologetic essence of individuality at its core.