Why you're still wearing those ladylike fashions
By Ann Hoevel, CNN
updated 9:40 AM EST, Tue February 11, 2014
(CNN) -- For the last 12 months, runway shows have been inundated with ladylike ensembles.
Last February, the Fall 2013 collections at New York Fashion Week drew from romantic plaids from the 1940s. The resort 2014 collections made ample use of midi pencil skirts and figure-conscious cigarette pants. Spring/Summer 2014 ensembles embraced full-skirted day dresses, pleated skirts and lower heels, all throwbacks to the 1950s. This year, the look lives on at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in the collections of Carolina Herrera, Monique Lhuillier, Lela Rose and Kate Spade.
Decades since its cinched waists, full skirts and fine fabrics emerged -- 40 years, even, since Diane Von Furstenberg debuted the feminine-professional wrap dress -- what's sustaining this style?
After all, it's fallen out of fashion at times. It's not always practical, comfortable or affordable. These days, it's not the only option, and social norms don't demand women wear it.
But long after it was the prescription, many designers and retailers love it and many women love to wear it, calling it the very model of female empowerment and class.
"Certain designers often have a more ladylike sensibility," said Cindy Weber Cleary, the editor of InStyle magazine, "but that's not to say that there aren't seasons or years when ladylike just feels right."
Even if a feminine style surges or recedes in the fast-paced tempo of high fashion, it's a look that's firmly entrenched in American women's mindset, said fashion historian Rebecca Tuite, author of the forthcoming book, "Seven Sisters Style: The All-American Preppy Look."
Certain silhouettes will forever speak to being a lady, Tuite said: A full skirt, a cashmere cardigan, fluffy ballgowns. Relatively tailored button-down shirts, cropped pants and shift dresses of the same era have gained if the same reputation, even if they're less haute couture.
Consider this outfit: A soft, short sleeve sweater paired with a voluminous, long silk skirt, fitted at the waist.
It's a look that was every bit as ladylike -- and wearable -- when Carolina Herrera designed it for her 2013 spring collection as when Christian Dior produced the essential version in 1955.
Dior's work was part of a revolutionary turn in fashion associated with his "New Look" of 1947. The French designer popularized hourglass figures and full, A-line skirts, along with contemporaries Cristobal Ballenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy. The looks were a dramatic reaction to the meager, economic fashions of wartime Europe and America. American designers of the 1950s and '60s had a way of making the extreme silhouettes of French fashion fit an American audience, Tuite said.
More than 50 years later, Herrera's take isn't quite so dramatic, but rather, timeless and elegant, a nod to her own signature look, a crisp shirt and full skirt. She's one of a few American designers known for their ladylike fashions, such as Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta, Cleary said.
"Carolina herself," Cleary said, "is like, the most elegant, ladylike person on the planet."
And those elegant, timeless looks weave their way from the runway to store racks.
"We look for clothes that are timeless because they are ladylike, simple but not contrived, gimmicky or extreme, smart but not faddy, fashionable but not funky -- chic and understated, the hallmarks of good taste," said Nancy Talbot, who founded the venerable women's clothing store Talbots with her husband in 1947.
The quote is now painted on the walls at the chain's headquarters, as requested by Talbots President Lizanne Kindler.
"For American women, (ladylike) never goes away," Kindler said. "They want to be feminine, and thankfully, American women can do whatever they want."
Indeed, designers like Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs and Bottega Veneta regularly push boundaries of what's ladylike, InStyle's Cleary said -- and so do the people that wear them.
"Clothes are (no longer) a reflection of who you are as a person," Cleary said. "One of the most ladylike dressers I can think of is Dita von Teese, and she's a burlesque dancer."
Social norms haven't always allowed women that kind of freedom. Tuite, the historian, said modern women are lucky that dress codes such as Anne Fogarty's rules about what a wife should wear are no longer socially enforced.
"Like anything these days, it's entirely your own rules," Tuite said. When a woman chooses to wear ladylike clothing, either because they enjoy the classic style or because they enjoy pairing ladylike items with unexpected, fashion-forward looks, "you're making your own decisions," she said. "It can be just as empowering as a suit."
Not everybody feels like women's choices have expanded -- or that ladylike styles deserve their place on runways and store racks year after year.
"For the vast majority of women, the so-called ladylike fashion is inappropriate and not even relevant to their lives," said Ms. magazine editor Kathy Spillar.
In the professional world, where women are lawyers, engineers and executives, the silhouettes of feminine fashion diminish their presence and power, she said. Clothing, even suits, that emphasizes the female form are another demonstration of inequality.
"Women do have breasts, they have hips, that is reality. But clothing that is meant to over emphasize that, to make that the identity, there's just no equivalent on the man's side," she said.
As the executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, Spillar often works with executives and elected officials who lament the lack of clothing available for their professions. She'd like to see other, less ladylike alternatives become more widely available.
"I don't think we have an idea of clothing that would be powerful for women," she said. "I'm hoping that there's more and more pushback on all this stuff."
As I was reading through this article, I was half-interested but it caught my attention because I will be wearing a 1950's style dress for my wedding in about a month. While I was looking for the dress, I really started liking the clothing style of the 1950's and the 'ladylike' and 'feminine' feel of the era. I don't think this makes me any weaker or less of a feminist. So when I got to the end of the article I had to fight the urge not to laugh out loud. In my opinion, she gives all women a bad name, whether they consider themselves feminist or not. Why should I hide my curves just so men will take me seriously? I've been taken seriously my entire career despite being curvy and cute and not dressing in a shapeless shift.
- Only group members can vote in this poll.
- 0% - Yes, I consider myself a feminist but I wouldn't wear these clothes. The woman from Ms. Magazine is right.
- 51% - Yes, I consider myself a feminist but I also like to dress in a more "ladylike" manner.
- 0% - No, I'm not a feminist, but I agree with the lady from Ms. Magazine
- 23% - No I'm not a feminist and I love the fashion described here
- 22% - Other (of course.)
What a load of shit. I'm pretty, I'm in good shape, I wear tight pants, high heels and red lipstick. Do the men i work with notice? Sure...so do the women. They also notice that i'm smart, i know my shit better than anyone else here, i bust my ass, and my staff respects me.
What does she want us to wear? Battle armor?
Being a feminist means being able to make your own choices. I love skirts and dresses and don't get me started on my high heels. My wardrobe is extremely varied. I wear jeans and blouses to work. I avoid low cut ones because a) it's impractical and b) it's distracting.
At home during cold days you'll see me in yoga pants and tees. On warmer days sun dresses. Being a feminist does not mean I have to dress like a guy. I dress appropriately.
I'm one of those feminists that believe that if I want to drop the engine of my car wearing a mini skirt and stilettos then that's what I'm going to do.
I am a feminist and I love fancy, girly clothing.
Sadly, I live in the middle of Iowa and don't have a pencil skirt and jacket kind of life.
So, I wear my pretty dresses when we go to weddings and wear t-shirts and various kinds of pants when I'm out and about here.
Oh, and I get to wear nice, swirly cotton skirts in summer.
I never, ever wear heels though, bad ankle makes them not an option.
Being a feminist is wanting women to be recognized as whole people in their own right and wanting to be treated with respect. Respect for their bodies, respect for their work, respect for the roles they choose.
I like skirts and dresses. I would wear them a lot more if it wasn't so hard to find nice ones made for tall women lol. Fuck a bunch if high heels, though. A) ouch and B) I'm tall enough as it is.
They're really almost anti feminist with that attitude. The attitude that a woman can't or won't be taken seriously unless they tone down their, not sexuality, but their sex. The characteristics that identify them as female.
Then there's her assertion that there's no equivalent in men's fashion to over emphasize male characteristics. Has she never seen a suit? Large shoulders, tapered in to the waist and narrower hips.
I thought all feminist wear flannels, trucker belt buckles, short, short hair and an extra 20 to 40 lbs?
Come on, lol.... I don't consider my self a "feminist" but I'm not some mousy type of subservient woman either. I love feminine clothing, shoes, hair, make up, perfume, and all that jazz. Simply put, I like being a girl and I don't harbor much anger towards "the man" (society) or the opposite sex and I don't feel like I am inferior or superior to men or other women. I don't have anything to prove because I am very secure with in my self and therefore I don't feel the issue of feeling held down for being a woman.
All that being said, I see nothing wrong with the feminist view point if a woman feels so inclined to embrace it and become active in it, and I know for a fact that many feminist enjoy feminine clothing and appearance so I find the notion of all feminist dressing down for the sake of being taken seriously very silly.
We are curvy and beautiful and sexy. Deal with it. I'm glad there are differences and hiding them or oppressing them will do nothing to improve things for women that feel they are not on equal ground with men because of it. Self acceptance is and confidence in the reality of your self is the way to empowerment and contentment. It's kind of funny too because, really, isn't seeing a pair of hard, spikey nipples bouncing freely under a woman's thin T-shirt one of the sexiest things ever? You know that's why any men go to those meeting and rallies, that and in the hopes of finding out if the never shaving rumors are true. It's not to hear about how women want to crush their balls with their superior mind power and ability to endure.
So many female leaders and rulers in all areas and specialties that are feminist wear beautiful and feminine clothing. At home, at the office, anywhere they may go doing whatever. This woman is out of touch, IMO, about what being a woman is all about. How does going out of your way to hide your physical femininity serve you in any way, as a woman or anyone?
When I think of the ideal and ultimate feminist, only IMO, I think of Cleopatra. I would say that she was a feminist. She understood how much power and greatness women have and are capable of and she lived back in a time when men really did run the world, but she did not try to play down her femininity in order to get ahead with the big boys. She used her brains and her body to her advantage, together, not pitting one against the other. They can and do exist in tandum. Some of the things she did were evil, under handed or tricky, but she never made the mistake of allowing her gender to be a handicap. Not in her own mind or her opponents, in the end. She did not run from what her gender is and I don't understand why anyone from the modern day feminists would choose to do so either.
1st wave - likely to wear stereotypical modest feminine clothing - demands = votes for women
2nd wave - likely to not wear stereotypical modest feminine clothing - demands = votes for women, and a right to do any job a man can do, for equal pay, if that individual woman can do that job as well as the man could
3nd wave - likely to wear anything she wants to - demands = votes for women, and a right to do any job a man can do, for equal pay, if that individual woman can do that job as well as the man could, and a right not to be pidgeonholed by stereotypes into having to work or having to not work, having to dress modestly or having to dress not modestly, having to appear stereotypically feminine or having to not appear stereotypically feminine
4th wave - fictional version of feminisim promoted by 4chan
men-hating feminazis - fictional version of feminism promoted by the Republican party
I should add that I prefer working with women that don't look and act like men. Having some male traits is necessary in my field. But you don't need to do the Tootsie routine either. We had a woman interview last week that showed up in a purple skirt suit. I am kind of hoping she gets the job. Kudos to her for not showing up in a black pinstripe pantsuit.