Why should the serious professional woman concern herself with
fashion? With so many things of substance on her mind, surely she can
be allowed to don her well-cut classic suit and head to the office or
the public forum, casting no more than a glance at the latest “look”
dreamed up by the fashion industry for the woman who is “born to shop”.
Yet the gap implied between these two stereotypes is not one
that the true professional should accept. Everyone wears clothes and,
like it or not, every woman influences culture through the clothes she
wears. And so, while an obsession with any good thing is dangerous, an
interest in fashion is not necessarily whimsical or frivolous. At this
moment in the history of women it is actually a responsibility.
This responsibility falls on women in the public eye,
professionally or socially, for two reasons. In the first place women’s
fashions are more interesting and complicated than those for men. There
are few fashion magazines for men, and dozens for women. We have more
to work with in terms of colours and variety of styles in which to
The second and more important reason for professional women to
take an interest in today’s fashion is that women’s roles have expanded
in the last fifty years. Since women are more often in prominent
positions in our society, their clothes need to reflect the woman of
the 21st century, and help create who she is to become.
Clothing speaks volumes
In the 1970s there was a popular sentiment among young people
that was expressed something like this: “It doesn’t matter what you
look like. It’s who you are that counts.” While it is true that a
person’s character is much more important than her clothing, it is
inevitable that her character will be assessed according to her
clothes. Shakespeare used the adage, “the apparel makes the man,” and
though these words are given to the stuffy character Polonius, in
Hamlet, they are true. We let the world know much about who we are by
how we present ourselves.
In many instances, people can be classified as to place or
origin, age, marital status, economic level, or even religion by how
they are dressed. We are more familiar with the Indian sari than the
black cap worn by widows in European countries a hundred years ago. The
burkha worn in many Islamic countries is an expression of the religion.
Clothes are a symbolic language and we need to have a working knowledge
of this language so we don’t inadvertently say the wrong thing about
ourselves. Each of us has the opportunity to be a costume designer who
can help to portray her own character in a visual way.
Along with the more amazing developments in technology,
transportation, and globalisation the past century has wrought
unprecedented changes in women’s fashions. A glance at some historical
considerations can help us to see and understand the panorama of
opportunity that lies ahead of us.
Modesty and culture
What is or is not modest in dress is determined by the culture
of a particular society. We all have probably seen National Geographic
photos of primitive tribesmen and women in garments, which show more of
the body than we would be comfortable showing, and yet they are not
immodest in terms of their society.
In western European and American society it is only in the
last hundred years that skirts shorter than floor or ankle length have
been worn. Trousers for women made a few false starts in the nineteenth
century, but only became mainstream for women in the l920s or 30s. We
are now able to choose among skirts and pants of varied lengths, and
most are reasonably modest.
Although the standards shift in terms of yardage and coverage,
we need to know whether our dress has become in any way suggestive. If
we do not pay attention to this, we fall into danger of being admired
more for our bodies than for our intellects. This would be the same in
An age of plenty
It is also enlightening to consider the way we acquire and wear
clothes today compared with the past. Before 1900, clothes were usually
made at home by women in the household or by a dressmaker. Now, few
women sew their own clothes because it is simply not worth the time it
takes. We have much simpler garments, more suited to our increased
mobility, and a world full of sources for fabrics and labour to make
them. We also have methods of cleaning, which, while keeping clothes
fresher, shorten their life. We wear them out and buy new ones as
Until the 1900s, people had very few clothes. Even people of
the middle class would have only one or two sets of clothes (which we
like to call “outfits”) for everyday, and one for Sundays and special
occasions. It is amazing to think our ancestors would leave their two
or three suits of clothing to heirs in their wills.
Our image of the clothes of the past often come from painted
and photographic portraits, which lead us to believe that clothes could
be made of costly fabrics with lots of expensive embellishments. These
are not a fair sample of what people wore, because they were dressing
in their very best clothes for the special occasion of having their
likeness taken. The costly fabrics of the Renaissance were often
literally worth a fortune—whether as part of a bride’s dowry, or as a
gift from the husband’s family. There were “sumptuary laws” from around
the 1300s well into the 1600s to regulate the wearing of clothing that
was considered luxurious. One reason was to reduce the senseless
spending on something that could be conceived as an occasion for
Another reason was to limit the rising middle classes. As a
person’s social status was read in the cost of their clothing, a
wealthy middle-class person could appear to be of the aristocracy. The
upper classes wanted to save for themselves certain distinctions of
In the late 19th century the rise of the fashion plate —
engravings of fashions which were printed and widely circulated — gave
birth to the idea of frequent alterations in detail. Women could see
what was worn in Paris, and could alter their dresses or at least the
trim on their hats to update the style. The availability of information
led to a swifter change in what was fashionable. The market was eager
to see something new. Finally the concept of new clothes for each new
season, or at least spring and fall, developed. Obviously, those with
more financial means could afford to be more up-to-date, then as now.
In our more democratic times, most people can afford to wear
silk or velvet, once marks of nobility. Fabrics are plentiful, and much
less expensive in relation to other things. But with the advantages of
simpler, less expensive clothing, comes a danger. We can be careless
about the contents of our closets in relation to our needs, which can
lead to a lot of wasted time and money.
Aside from the question of modesty, we have an opportunity to
analyse and define what is appropriate. We dress in a more casual
fashion than ever before. The old rules no longer apply, and we don’t
really have new ones to replace them. Even in the early twentieth
century, Emily Post in her Book of Etiquette laid down the law on when
to wear a black tie, a white tie, or a tea dress. There was also a time
when older women simply did not wear clothes that were considered
fashionable for young women. Now, on many occasions, anything goes.
This is liberating, but we should remember that we are still making a
We all like to be comfortable. The days of wearing white gloves
while travelling are gone, but what do we say about ourselves if we go
to Paris dressed in shorts and running shoes? We might well let the
French think we consider their capital city a kind of Disneyland,
rather than a real place. When we have a casual Friday at work, we have
the challenge of finding clothes that show respect for our colleagues
and clients, and yet are more comfortable and less formal than our
normal workday attire.
We no longer have to look like older women when we hit 50.
Along with our ability to keep away the grey hairs, we can wear
youthful colours and styles. But again, to try to look 20 when one is
60 is going to make us look silly.
Good news and opportunities
Some current designers and catalogues are featuring older models
and catering to a variety of figure types, so we need not feel bad if
we do not look like Barbie. With the turn of the millennium, there
seems to be a shift towards a new elegance, bringing back some of the
best of the old, while continuing to search for the right fashion
statement for the women of the present. We have abandoned the unisex
pantsuit characteristic of the 70s, and can wear trousers with the
elegance of the 30s. Fashion has revived every older style until now
even the 90s (yes, the 1990s) can be referenced as historical. This
gives us the freedom to wear many styles that could be becoming to us
as individuals without being out of fashion because they are “vintage”.
There is no need to be dowdy to be modest or feminine. We can
simply choose the most becoming styles, and those that we feel best
represent the dignity of women as professionals and forces in society.
Women are the main consumers of fashion, and professional women
in particular spend more on clothes. They have an impact through what
they buy and wear, and can use their knowledge and sensitivity to the
fashion statement to become the driving force behind the fashion
industry. Each one can take advantage of the options provided by the
variety of lengths, fabrics and historical references, to design a
wardrobe suited to the part she plays in the continuing drama of the
twenty-first century woman.
Sarah Phelps Smith is an art historian and critic who has
taught at the University of Delaware and Swarthmore College. She lives
in Ohio with family of eight children.
This is a slightly edited version of her paper on the
theme of Women, Beauty, and Image at the Murray Hill Institute’s 2005
conference held in New York last month. The institute’s mission is to
promote the dignity of work and help women transform culture through