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The chase of beauty Are women empowered or trapped by the fashion industry?
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The chase of beauty

Are women empowered or trapped by the fashion industry?
Photo by: Steve Johnson/CC by 2.0
Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Fashion has always played a significant role in human life as an instrument of society, a manifestation of social and economic structures. It is a language that has the most recognizable sound; crafted on the bone and decorated on the skin – mostly on women.


Fashion in History

French critic Charles Baudelaire wrote in his analysis The Painter of Modern Life: “The women who wore these costumes were themselves more or less like one or the other type, according to the degree of poetry or vulgarity with which they were stamped.” He described the trend of fashion and the criteria of beauty as “a profound harmony [which] controls all the components of history.”

History has been written, not just on paper with ink, but with clothes on human bodies, especially female bodies.

La mécanique des dessous, an exposition held in 2013 at Musee Les Arts des Decoratif in Paris has perhaps shed some light into this. More than two-hundred pieces of underwear collected across nations (mainly France and the UK) from the 14th century to the present day were exhibited during the show. It aimed to illustrate how the undergarments shaped the silhouette of the human body in time and space. 

History has been written, not just on paper with ink, but with clothes on human bodies, especially female bodies.

Here, fashion has created a narrative about subjective objectification in history through reforming the silhouette of the female body. In doing so it constructs notions of femininity within the political and economic sphere.

For instance, after the French Revolution, when Napoleon’s government began ruling France, fashion shifted from wearing Maria Antoinette’s extravagant corset, rich embroidered silk dresses and dramatic tall hairstyles to a much more simplistic and naturalistic approach. On the one hand, the new French Empress Josephine’s admiration of neoclassical style dresses promoted a contrary image of the new government to Bourbon’s empire; on the other hand, reducing the cost of clothing helped her husband’s government calm public anger during the post-revolution period.

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China: Threads of Beauty

Chinese history also offers insights into how fashion has been used as a political weapon and economical catalyst, in which gender is central. During the Han Dynasty, China began expanding its economy by trading silk to the West.

In that time, women’s beauty was deeply attached to clothes and fabrics. This was not only about appearance, but one’s ability and capacity to produce, sew and embroider, which were regarded as social virtues. The social structure of Han Dynasty was rooted in Confucianism, in which one of the main concepts is:“ men till the farm and women weave, men focus on the public and women focus on the private,” which fundamentally excluded women from the public sphere and locked them in the house.

The problem is not trading or sewing itself but when making and inventing beautiful, commodities such as fabrics and embroideries, becomes a definition of ‘beauty’ itself. An invisible, seamless and endless trap is formed through the act of ‘beauty’, the chase of ‘beauty’ and the reproduction of ‘beauty’.

The English feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft criticised this approach when she wrote in The Vindication of the Rights of Women: “Taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its Gilt Cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”


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Fashion Today – Moving Towards the East

After the first and second wave of feminist movements, women’s space and role in the public sphere has broadened, though many critique women’s representation in contemporary society.

The authors of the book Fashioning the Feminine have claimed that western middle-class women perceive fashion as a way to show the world they are at the top of their games; that they are able to handle a professional career while maintaining the ‘perfect’ figure and be the ideal wife. In the East, the phenomena is not exclusive to women with middle-class backgrounds but also among the economically privileged.

Magazines like Vogue China and Talter Hong Kong promote the idea of the ‘new woman’ – described as women entrepreneurs or the most stylish ladies who dare to challenge the traditional cultural values, while dressing up in the princess-style gowns and million dollar priced fine jewelry. This provokes an image that being beautiful and presentable requires having a luxury lifestyle, wearing fashionable clothes and running a successful career, all of which create an image of ‘perfect’ woman.

A group of contemporary cultural theorists (such as Angela McRobbie, Rosalind Gill, Naomi Wolf) have suggested that the practice of the “perfect” as an ideal of female beauty can lead to anxiety and depression among young women. Professor McRobbie has noted that youth suicide and other mental health issues are part of “the apparatus of the perfect”. In her paper Notes On The Perfect, she explains that mental health issues are a result of female self-regulation under male dominance in the post-industrial society.

Female self-regulation is functioned via ‘never feeling good enough about oneself’, because women can hardly ever meet their own expectations, as a consequence of seeing such images on popular media. Thus, the feeling of being ‘not good enough’ leads to competition among young women, not just with other young women, but within oneself.

Behind the Facade

Although legal restrictions on women’s bodies and property have been removed in many countries, waves of a new definition of beauty are coming from the fashion industry and popular media.

Today, the global fashion industry is valued at around $385.7 billion and is expanding, worth 4% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. 90% of my childhood female friends have had cosmetic surgery on more than one part of their bodies or are considering doing so. The chase of beauty prevails.

The ideology of women’s empowerment in contemporary society creates a paradoxical cultural hegemony. On the one hand, it creates false hope and seduces young women with the possibility to be equal to their male counterparts with entrepreneurship and female success, on the other hand, the empowering state of mind itself becomes a cage that traps women in a stable set of criteria of their own bodies.

On the surface, it may seem that female liberation has been achieved, but what is really going on underneath the skin of the business of fashion is worth re-exploring and reconsidering.


Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Lin Zhang

Originally from China, Linn is currently a London based writer, poet and a Gender, Sexuality and Society MSc student at Birkbeck, University of London. She has a Bachelor in Fashion from École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode Paris and a Master in Creative&Cultural Entrepreneurship from Goldsmith, University of London. Having stud-ied and worked in the fashion & media sector, Linn discovered that popular media plays a key role in the landscape of contemporary cheap labour market, gender inequality and mental&physical environment damage. She is now focusing on doing research concerning globalization and subjectivity and writing reflections about her multicultural experiences. Linn seeks to contribute to advance gender equality and humanity and raises voice from the East through her writing.
    4 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    21 March 2019 at 2:35 pm
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    It’s very interesting and I love how you put together the impact of fashion in women of different cultures! Congrats!

  • Avatar
    4 April 2019 at 2:04 am
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    Really nice article. It is so true of what you are saying! Get out of the shell! I believe in sharing positive energy.

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    Patricia Robinson
    10 October 2019 at 10:17 pm
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    Amazing article! Really enjoying reading. Very thoughtful and well written. Congratulations for your wonderful work here 😉

  • Avatar
    louise jones
    19 October 2019 at 3:55 pm
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    Fantastic article , This is very well written & has interesting content ,Well done Lin 😉

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