Women in every industry have been chipping away at the glass ceiling for decades. Do you know who was the first female prime minister? Answer: Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka in 1960. She was followed by a series of other competent women who held high office, such as Indira Gandhi (India-1966) and a slew of other women who you would have never known about unless you googled Women Prime Ministers many of whom are from Asia Pacific countries. Therefore it is quite astonishing that it took decades for the U.S. to elect its first female to hold high office with the election of V.P. Kamala Harris. Perhaps her being a part of the AAPI community is prescient? In any case, finally…the glass ceiling in the U.S. has been broken, proving once again that girls really can run the world!
As we celebrate Woman’s History Month, and because you know how much we love history…UoF is celebrating the origin of Woman’s History Month and some of the most influential female designers who have made significant contributions to the world of fashion. Oh, and did we mention that the fashion industry accounted for 1.5 trillion U.S. dollars in 2020 and is projected to do about 2.25 trillion dollars by 2025? And women helped get them there.
HISTORY OF WOMAN’S HISTORY MONTH
There is much info to be found online about how the celebration of women began. What started out as a one day celebration would later become a month long celebration. According to Britannica.com, “In 1908 a branch of the New York City Social Democratic Women’s Society declared that the last Sunday in February would be celebrated as National Woman’s Day. The observance was first held on February 23, 1909, in New York City. However, the better-known precursor to Women’s History Month was International Women’s Day, which was created in 1910 at the Second International Socialist Women’s Conference and first observed on March 19, 1911. Led by German social democratic activist Clara Zetkin, the women of the conference intended International Women’s Day to focus on the struggles of working women—in contrast to the mainstream feminist movement, which the socialists associated with the bourgeoisie. The March 8 date became official in 1921 when Zetkin, by then a communist, proposed it in honour of a strike led by women workers in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) on March 8 (February 23, Old Style), 1917, that marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution.”
The International Women’s Day (IWD) website states that “International Women’s Day was honoured for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination. However less than a week later on March 25, the tragic ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. This disastrous event drew significant attention to working conditions and labour legislation in the United States that became a focus of subsequent International Women’s Day events. 1911 also saw women’s Bread and Roses campaign.”
“On the eve of World War I campaigning for peace, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on February 23, the last Sunday in February. Following discussions, International Women’s Day was agreed to be marked annually on March 8 that translated in the widely adopted Gregorian calendar from February 23 – and this day has remained the global date for International Women’s Day ever since. In 1914, further women across Europe held rallies to campaign against the war and to express women’s solidarity. For example, in London in the United Kingdom there was a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on March 8, 1914. Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.” On the last Sunday of February, Russian women began a strike for “bread and peace” in response to the death of over 2 million Russian soldiers in World War 1. Opposed by political leaders, the women continued to strike until four days later the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. The date the women’s strike commenced was Sunday February 23 on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia. This day on the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere was March 8.”
Fast forward to 1978 when Women’s History Week was championed by Austrian-born, Gerda Lerner, the single most influential figure in the development of women’s and African American women’s gender history and whose development of an MA program at Sarah Lawrence College further promoted the National Women’s History Alliance. The following year, in 1979, a fifteen-day conference held at Sarah Lawrence College from July 13 – July 29, focused on women’s history. The event, led by Lerner and co-sponsored by Sarah Lawrence College, the Women’s Action Alliance and the Smithsonian Institution. Celebrating Woman’s History Week quickly grew nationwide, although it was not recognized as a national week until 1980.
Then, in February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation declaring the week of March 8, 1980, as National Women’s History Week. The proclamation stated, “From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well. As Dr. Gerda Lerner has noted, ‘Women’s History is Women’s Right.’ It is an essential and indispensable heritage from which we can draw pride, comfort, courage, and long-range vision. I ask my fellow Americans to recognize this heritage with appropriate activities during National Women’s History Week, March 2–8, 1980. I urge libraries, schools, and community organizations to focus their observances on the leaders who struggled for equality –Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and Alice Paul. Understanding the true history of our country will help us to comprehend the need for full equality under the law for all our people. This goal can be achieved by ratifying the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that ‘Equality of Rights under the Law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.'” Carter was referring to the Equal Rights Amendment, which was never ratified as a amendment, but did become the 27th Amendment to the United States Constitution after his presidency.
Woman’s History Week was quickly growing in popularity. In 1981, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) co-sponsored the first Joint Congressional Resolution proclaiming a Women’s History Week. Congress passed their resolution as Pub. L. 97-28, which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as Women’s History Week. Schools across the country also began to have their own local celebrations of Women’s History Week and even Women’s History Month. And finally in 1986, fourteen states declared March as Women’s History Month. Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1988, U.S. presidents have issued annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month.
What colors symbolize International Women’s Day?
Purple, green and white are the colors of International Women’s Day. Purple signifies justice and dignity. Green symbolizes hope. White represents purity and the colors originated from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in the UK in 1908.
FEMALE PIONEERS OF FASHION
Long before Woman’s History Month came into existence, female designers were breaking the fashion industry’d glass ceiling. These designing women carved out their own paths toward empowering women through fashion by instilling confidence through dress and by creating jobs so that women could support themselves and their families.
The list is thankfully long and growing, but here’s some of our favs whose groundbreaking creative genius still influences fashion today. We will be covering more female designers in subsequent posts so stay tuned.
Madame Grès was born Germaine Emilie Krebs in Paris France. She took her first pseudonym, Alix Barton, while a milliner. In 1936, she made her mark on couture under the name Alix, and by 1942, she dropped Barton and assumed the surname Grès from her only marriage in 1942.
This creative intellect experimented with fabric and form to achieve perfection. A trained sculptor, Madame Grès used mathematical precision as she draped her pieces to perfection. Madame Grès was known for draping right on a female figure, no flat patterns or muslin for her. She let the fabric help dictate the design and sculpted her dresses on the form using a needle and thread.
“From the beginning…I didn’t have the knowledge. I took the material and worked directly on it. I used the knowledge I had, which was sculpture,” the couturier told WWD in 1963.
Madame Grès is most famous for her 1930s Grecian-influenced column gowns made of silk, rayon and later, polyester jersey. Because the dresses were sculpted and sewn on the body, selvedge to selvedge, no two dresses were alike. And, she used an average of 13 to 23 meters of uncut fabric, which remained weightless. Grès continued to be influenced by multicultural costumes throughout her career.
The designer’s house thrived through the 1950s and 1960s with her couture business. In 1959, Madame Grès introduced her first perfume, Cabochard, to much success. In 1981 the designer created her first ready-to-wear collection, which ultimately limited the house’s growth.
Grès’ approach to her art informed the originality of her genius. But her death, as in life, was shrouded in mystery. In 1994, it was announced to the fashion press that Grès had passed away, but her actual passing was a year earlier. Her death was kept a secret by her daughter.
Appreciation for Grès’ work has permitted her most essential pieces to be preserved by time, allowing her devotion to the couture she loved and her legacy to stay alive.
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was born in Saumur, France on August 19, 1883. This designer had such a passion for her creations that she worked right up until her death in 1971 at the age of 87. The majority of industry insiders consider Coco Chanel to be the greatest fashion force who ever lived, she created a fashion spirit, as well as a look. The late designer not only influenced young designers of her time, but she still has an enduring impact on global fashion today, having created some of the most iconic looks that are still in fashion today: the Chanel suit, the Little Black Dress (LBD), costume jewelry, then trench coat, the quilted leather purse, turtlenecks, pants, the peacoat and her signature fragrance, Chanel No.5.
Her career began around 1912 (though she said it was 1914) with the opening of a small hat shop in Deauville, France. With her fiancé at war, she was looking for something to pass the time. According to WWD, After borrowing a sweater from a jockey at the races one day to fend off the chill, Chanel sparked a sweater trend with all “the smart Deauville ladies” within a week. Provocative and scandalous, Chanel was criticized by many for her romantic ties to a German diplomat during WWII and the years that followed. The designer returned to Paris in 1954 and reopened her couture house. And Chanel’s business boomed, and she became one of the most iconic female designer in history.
“Modern clothing is only valid if it works…and going into history for gimmicky ideas is not modern,” Bonnie Cashin told WWD in 1968.
According to the Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry:
Bonnie Cashin – “Born in California in 1908, Cashin began her career as an apprentice in her mother’s dressmaking shops. From there she went onto work as a Hollywood costume designer and during 1943 to 1949, she was costumer for more than 60 Hollywood films. Cashin did not devote herself to ready-to-wear until the early 1950s. It was fashion editor Carmel Snow who encouraged Cashin to go to New York’s Seventh Avenue to design for the company Adler & Adler. Cashin, who developed an interest in clothing styles from various cultures, built her collections based on timeless favorites such as ponchos, tunics, and kimonos. Additionally, Cashin was commissioned to design World War II civilian-defense uniforms which would later be the inspiration for her concept of lifestyle dressing; combining ease of dress without compromising look. Cashin developed the layering system of dress that played a key role in setting the tone for American fashion. In 1953, Cashin designed leather clothing for the company Philip Sills and brought the use of leather into the world of serious fashion. In 1962, she became the first designer for Coach and pioneered the use of the brass toggle on her handbag carriers, which she later used on clothing. Her carriers fit perfectly into the Coach philosophy; the bags packed flat, were utilitarian, and maintained a timeless sense of style.”
Cashin continued to run her design studio until the mid-’80s and passed away in 2000, having largely kept her distance from the grips of fashion’s standards. “I didn’t want to be boxed in by any one company or any one design problem,” she once said.
Anne Klein was born August 3, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York, as Hannah Golofski. The Anne Klein label is synonymous with American sportswear. The company she created in 1968, Anne Klein & Co., grew out of a concept; chic, comfortable, uncomplicated fashion that fits well and is wearable from season to season. “No fads,” the designer once declared to WWD. By the mid-1970s, she changed the concept of American sportswear into what is known as ‘designer ready-to-wear’.
Even today, many of the pieces in our wardrobe can be attributed to Anne Klein. She steadily introduced new silhouettes to women at the right time. A few Anne Klein signature pieces include the button front A-line dress, the leather midi skirt, the long sweater vest cardigan and pants that fit perfectly. These and many more were a part of what WWD called Anne’s “separate into togetherness” concept. While women had long been buying sets, Klein introduced coordinated separates that would allow women to mix and match their wardrobe, a concept that was met with great success throughout department stores.
Anne Klein was such an influential force in the American fashion world that she was the only woman from the American fashion industry invited to participate in the Battle of Versailles extravaganza. In 1968, she introduced the concept of group design when she launched Anne Klein Studios. The studio mentored and helped catapult the careers of many Seventh Avenue designers, such as Donna Karan. Klein died from cancer in 1974, but her legacy lives on.
Liz Claiborne was not only a successful designer, but a savvy businesswoman as well. Launching her namesake label at the age of 47, Claiborne ‘s groundbreaking success was certainly connected to how she wanted to live in her own clothing.
Anne “Liz” Claiborne was born in Brussels to American parents who came from a prominent Louisiana family. She began her career working as a design assistant and model. Her concept for creating effortlessly chic clothes for working women came from her own experience. As a working mother, she knew that time was precious and that fussing over a wardrobe you couldn’t afford was pointless. So, in 1976, Claiborne, along with her husband Art Ortenberg, Leonard Boxer and Jerome Chazen, founded her namesake brand, Liz Claiborne Inc. While her partners focused on sales and operations, Claiborne focused on design.
Claiborne bypassed trends and fads and instead followed her gut on what she liked and wanted to wear to fit her lifestyle. Her instincts were spot on, as she attracted a consumer, much like herself, who wanted to fill the void in their work wardrobes. She built a brand that leaned into comfort, with a focus on quality, style, and value. Claiborne was also commitment to interacting with her consumer, which naturally drove the brand’s success.
This concept worked so well for Liz Claiborne that she went from one to more than 10 successful brands. In 1981 the company went public and by 1989 Claiborne and her partners turned the better-priced sportswear market into a multibillion-dollar industry.
Shortly after Claiborne and her husband retired from Seventh Avenue to focus on humanitarian efforts and travel, they left behind, in just under two decades, a portfolio of 40 labels including Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, Juicy Couture and Kate Spade, among others. According to WWD, Liz Claiborne was an award-winning designer and the first female CEO and chairwoman of a Fortune 500 company. She passed away from cancer in 2007 at the age of 78.
TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE
In honor of Women’s History Month why not take our short quiz to test your knowledge of how women helped make the fashion industry what it is today:
1. Who is considered the first known fashion designer and the couturier to Queen Marie
a. Joséphine Chantrell
b. Marie Cremon
c. Rose Bertin
2. Male designers throughout history often engaged a female ‘muse’ for inspiration,
beginning with Marie Augustine Vernet, wife of designer Charles Frederick Worth. Do you
know who was Yves Saint Laurent’s muse? She also went on to create her own brand.
a. Loulou de la Falaise
b. Ava Gabor
c. Ariana Rockefeller
3. Which French couturier began her career as head seamstress at Maison Callot Souers?
a. Jeanne Lavin
b. Madeleine Vionnet
c. Jeanne Paquin
4. Which French designer is known as the “Sculptor of Couture”?
a. Madame Grès
b. Madame Agnès
c. Nina Ricci
5. French designer Paul Poiret is often credited for freeing women from the corset, but it was
actually this female designer who showed her first collection of lingerie-inspired pieces while
working at Maison Doucet.
a. Jeanne Paquin
b. Madeleine Vionnet
c. Coco Chanel
6. Claire McCardle is known as the pioneer of the “American Look”. In the 1940s she created
the pop-over dress and the concept philosophy of “5 easy pieces”. Her wrap and tie dress was later popularized by this designer.
a. Donna Karan
b. Diane von Furstenberg
c. Donatella Versace
7. This designer was the first to make the Little Black Dress (LBD) famous.
a. Hanae Mori
b. Elsa Schiaparelli
c. Coco Chanel
8. This American designer began her career as a Hollywood costume designer. She went on to
design for Coach where she created her famous metal turnkey closure that she later added to
a. Vera Maxwell
b. Tina Lesser
c. Bonnie Cashin
9. This designer is considered the inventor of the miniskirt.
a. Hattie Carnegie
b. Mary Quant
10. This American designer patented her own pleating technique in 1975, based on a pleating
technique known as Marii.
a. Mary McFadden
b. Donna Karan
c. Norma Kamali
11. This designer was the first to use shoulder pads, animal and trompe l’oeil prints and known
for her whimsical “tongue-in-cheek” approach to fashion.
a. Coco Chanel
b. Elsa Schiaparelli
c. Jeanne Paquin
12. Which designer is known for her fashion innovation known as the “three sleeve-hole”?
a. Adeline André
b. Liz Claiborne
c. Anne Klein
13. Who created the original push-up bra called the Wonderbra in 1964?
a. Diane von Furstenberg
b. Louise Poirier
c. Donatella Versace
14. Who is credited with creating the robe de style, a dress silhouette that flatters all body types.
a. Jeanne Lanvin
b. Madame Gres
15. Who is considered the first female African-American designer in the U.S.?
a. Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes
b. Elizabeth Keckley
c. Ruby Bailey
ANSWERS TO OUR QUIZZ
1) Rose Bertin, 2) Loulou de la Falaise, 3) Madeleine Vionnet, 4) Madame Grès, 5)
Madeleine Vionnet, 6) Diane von Furstenberg, 7) Coco Chanel, 8) Bonnie Cashin, 9) Mary
Quant, 10) Mary McFadden, 11) Elsa Schiaparelli, 12) Adeline André, 13) Louise Poirier, 14)
Jeanne Lanvin, 15) Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes
For more on fashion history read Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry c0-authored by our founder Francesca Sterlacci