Women’s struggles to gain control over what they wear have a long history that parallels and is part of women’s rights advocacy in the United States. In Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism, Einav Rabinovitch-Fox uses an expansive framework to trace a century of feminist objections to uncomfortable and impractical clothing. Challenging simplistic views that highlight only feminist criticism of fashion, the author explores the ways in which feminists utilized dress to effectively broadcast the popularity of their movement and to undermine opposition to feminism based on media-fueled stereotypes of activists as unattractive. She also considers women who adopted fashionable styles that were associated with progress and modernity, but who did not necessarily identify as or with feminists. To do so, she draws on a wealth of sources, ranging from magazine and newspaper accounts to memoirs and organizational records, to assay such diverse topics as the nineteenth-century emergence of the woman’s rights and dress reform movements; turn-of-the-century garment workers, popular culture icons such as the Gibson Girl; the clothing of suffragists; flapper fashion; midcentury female fashion professionals; and fashion debates and practices that took place amid the late-1960s and 1970s heyday of the women’s liberation movement. The book is further enriched by the attention Rabinovitch-Fox gives throughout to Black women’s distinct fashion needs and aims as they asserted their public voice and presence and negotiated denigrating tropes perpetuated by dominant social structures as well as discrimination within the feminist movement.

Debate about the role of fashion in advancing women’s rights quickly followed the mid-nineteenth-century call for female suffrage, particularly upon the launch of the “Bloomer costume,” an outfit that did away with the cumbersome layers of petticoats and floor-length hemlines of fashionable attire and maintained modesty by covering the exposed lower limbs with trousers. Although many early woman’s rights advocates welcomed this attempt to create more comfortable clothing, the ridicule and negative attention the bloomer received prompted activists to turn away from linking dress reform with their most important goal, winning women the vote. Nonetheless, for decades the antifeminist press and male authorities depicted suffragists as antifashion, unfeminine, and ugly women seeking to usurp men’s privileged access to trousers as well as political authority.

As Rabinovitch-Fox details, subsequent generations of women responded to disparaging constructions of feminists by self-consciously using fashion to promote feminist aims and by embracing contemporary styles that provided greater mobility and were associated with progress and a new public presence for women. For example, as the suffrage movement expanded at the turn of the century, the image of the Gibson Girl, dressed in shirtwaist and skirt, predominated. The ensemble of separate blouse and skirt was an innovative cross-class phenomenon, worn by striking garment workers, the small but growing number of women attending college, and progressive reformers. When women gained access to bicycles, outfits composed of divided skirts became acceptable, as long as their outward appearance did not betray their bifurcated status. By the 1910s, as suffragists took their cause to the streets by staging parades and marches, they took care to create public events demonstrating that women could be both beautiful and politically responsible. Marchers were asked to wear white dresses accessorized with suffrage sashes in movement colors and participate in parades that were well-organized, orderly processions.

Taking on notions of the post-suffrage generation as apolitical, Rabinovitch-Fox finds that the freedom ascribed to 1920s flapper styles, with their raised hemlines and far fewer layers of undergarments, made them a “visible symbol” (81) that “conveyed liberating, empowering messages” (115). A central debate in feminist analysis of popular culture, and in the field of cultural studies generally, is whether cultural texts and practices are oppressive and uphold status quo hierarchies or express a form of resistance and offer liberatory potential. Culture can also be assessed in terms of how particular definitions of femininity are constructed within and by discourses and performative displays. Though the concept of empowerment focuses attention more on individuals’ sense of self than on collective struggles for social transformation, changes in fashion—such as the less cumbersome clothing of the 1920s and the midcentury rise of sportswear, discussed in her chapter on female fashion designers and other industry professionals—speak to the success of resonant feminist calls for women to have greater comfort, freedom of movement, and choice in their clothing.

Rabinovitch-Fox celebrates the alignment of fashion with feminist aims, asserting that wearing fashionable styles advanced the cause of feminism and that women who wore contemporary clothing were feminist advocates, whether they knew it or not. A fuller discussion of the restrictive aspects of fashion—and the intensive focus on women’s bodies as problems that fashion authorities claimed necessitated shaping garments such as girdles, slimming diets, and other beauty regimens, including cosmetic surgery, to resolve—might have tempered the author’s claims. I would also like to have seen greater critical explication of the concept of “Oriental style” as used by the author. In addition, though Rabinovitch-Fox often characterizes fashionable clothing as expressive of freedom and empowerment, a more specific consideration of what is arguably the most fundamental element of feminist agitation—the fight for equality—might have brought more explicit feminist concerns related to fashion into the book’s analysis. For example, the author’s discussion of the sexual freedom represented by the 1960s miniskirt could have led to consideration of how fashion figured into feminist criticism and activism regarding rape prosecutions in an era when women’s clothing played a central role in the blaming of rape victims for assaults.

In documenting self-identified feminists’ use of fashion in the suffrage and women’s liberation eras, Dressed for Freedom provides new insights about the relationship between feminism and fashionable clothing. The book also exposes the contradictory aspects and shifting meanings of fashion. Feminists understood fashion as an unavoidable focus of women’s lives that required critique and thus solutions, but they also appreciated that what women wore could contribute to a vision and experience of social transformation. Nonetheless, shared understandings of what specific fashions represented remained elusive at times, even among feminists. Black activist Florynce Kennedy, for example, pointed out in 1974 that jeans might be a welcome alternative to the “tailored well-dressed image” for white women, but for Black “women who have had to wear ‘shapeless hand-me-downs’…indulging in feminine fashions [could be] ‘a declaration of independence’” (175).

The contradictions Rabinovitch-Fox highlights and the less obvious aspects of the fashion-industrial complex that she brings into consideration suggest the potential for Dressed for Freedom to spark future studies of the often fraught, yet useful, and certainly multidimensional relationship between fashion and feminism that continues to impact diverse women across the United States today.

Jill Fields