Women have been berated for many things throughout history, and their clothing choices are no exception. Whether considered too mannish, too risqué, or downright rude, society-at-large has not always been kind to the personal style preferences we’ve traded in over the years, writing many women off by the simple fact of their wardrobes. We’ve certainly come a long way since then, many thanks to those so-called bad girls who put on a brave face and wore what they wanted to anyway—outside opinions be damned. So, who are these kick-ass ladies who paved the way? We’ve covered them all for you, below.
In the late Victorian era, society started fretting over what they deemed “the New Woman”—ladies who privileged their personal development above all else, striving for a great education rather than the life of a family-serving homemaker. They replaced the usual skirts and dresses with mannish bloomers and boots and often took up bicycling—a hobby associated strictly with men.
The flappers appearance on the scene represented an even sharper move away from Victorian and Edwardian tastes. With their sleek, short haircuts, shapeless shift dresses that emphasized a flat chest, and knee-length stockings, they were considered to be very risqué. A penchant for baring more skin than normal (arms, calves, and ankles), paired with their kohl-rimmed eyes, only contributed to their perception as silly and man-snaring.
Initial anxieties about the flapper eventually resurfaced surrounding the so-called Good-Time Girls of post–Second World War America. With much of their corruption blamed on the rise of cinema, their preference for makeup and Hollywood glamour was associated with being sexually unhinged and immoral. The look—a flurry of fur coats, form-fitting separates, high heels and flashy jewelry—was considered excessive for the time, and their promotion of the bikini (introduced in 1946) sent the mainstream population over the edge.
The beats (known as the Existentialists in much of Europe) are often associated with men like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, but the movement had its fair share of female supporters, too. With a preference for literature and jazz, this group was largely dissatisfied with their material-driven society. As such, beatnik women set themselves apart by wearing all-black oversize, chunky sweaters (often with cowl collars) over slim-fitting slacks or pencil skirts. They also popularized the French pleat hairstyle and were responsible for the earliest rendition of the beehive.
Britain’s Dolly Birds and Chelsea Girls are often lumped together as the mod movement, but there are differences worth nothing. While both groups were fueled by the rise of jazz and rock 'n' roll clubs, the suburban Dolly Birds were considered a tinge more innocent. However, in their Mary Quant miniskirts, babydoll dresses, and knee-high boots, they were still seen as hysterical creatures who had fallen prey to Beatlemania. The city-living Chelsea Girls—who dressed similarly but with a higher price tag—were older and more savvy but deemed even more risqué for their freedom from parental authority and bold displays of feminism (like reading Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl).
Japan’s sukeban crews were the original girl bosses (in fact, that’s the exact translation of the word). These rebel girls made it their mission to prove that women, too, could be strong—that girlhood itself could and should be a powerful force. Inspired by male gangs—or yankii—who refused to allow female members, the sukeban ladies turned their restrictive school uniforms into a symbol of protest by wearing unusually long skirts, cropped sailor-blouses, and Converse sneakers. Pairing these outfits with little makeup, super-thin eyebrows, and unknotted neck scarves, the look was a blatant denouncement of the Japanese ideal: a prim, traditional school girl.
The anarchic punk movement first emerged in mid-1970s London, as a large swath of urban young people revolting against mainstream fashion and culture. To represent this, they cut up old clothes from thrift shops, refashioning their outfits in a manner considered to be crude and unruly. Destroying fabric by fraying it or defacing the patterns was totally new at the time and stood out all the more. Women paired these looks with netted tights, heavy Doc Martens, body jewelry, and tattoos that were a deliberate attempt to offend convention.
The punk movement gave way to the Goths, who had an even gloomier wardrobe inspired by UK post-punk bands like Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Revolting against the flirtatious disco looks of the '70s, these bands (and their subsequent followers) wore layers of black leather, torn fishnets, army boots, and blood-red lipstick. Paired with deep black hair and whitened complexions, the look was vampiric-meets-Victorian, as they often added on flowing capes and ruffled cuffs inspired by the earlier era.
The term Riot Grrrl was coined by Jen Smith, a member of the '90s band Bratmobile, who would later collaborate with other faces of the movement like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill to create a zine of the same name. Emphasizing female solidarity, these women focused on hidden issues like domestic violence and rape in an effort to overturn what they saw as male domination. Their look co-opted various elements from past subcultures, often pairing a typically girly dress with combat boots, and rocking “unfeminine” hairstyles like dreadlocks, a shaved head, or a mohawk. Hanna was especially known for wearing so-called slutty clothing embellished with demeaning words in an effort, she has said, to drain them of their negative connotations.
The Kinderwhore look arose in the late '90s from the same musical scene as Riot Grrrl, but was less aggressive and more suggestive on the surface. The twisted Lolita aesthetic paired delicate, childlike clothing with bold displays of sexuality, be it displaying of lots of leg or an emphasis on a woman’s breasts. Courtney Love is considered to have popularized this style, which also relied on messy hair with bangs, Mary Jone shoes, hair ribbons and bows, charm bracelets, and chipped pink fingernails to achieve the not-so-innocent look.
In the early 2000s, young women’s desire to imitate pop musicians like the Spice Girls and Britney Spears resulted in a self-objectifying style of wearing skimpy bustier tops and midriff-revealing halters with tight jeans or mini skirts. As trends like pole-dancing classes, the increased fascination with celebrity, and a rise in plastic surgery cropped up, women began wearing more figure-hugging and revealing clothing that critics worried would destroy any efforts toward female empowerment. Shades of pink, padded bras, high heels and minidresses were also central to this look that had some people declaring the near-death of feminism as society had come to know it.
Do you think women still receive negative attention for wearing certain styles today? Sound off in the comments!