Fifty years ago, over a hundred women gathered on the boardwalk of Atlantic City to protest the Miss America Pageant. The demonstration, which was organized by the feminist group New York Radical Women (NYRW), protested the exploitative and racist nature of the pageant (black women were not allowed to participate at the time) that turned women into sexual objects only meant to please men. Carrying signs that compared women’s bodies to cattle, the protesters staged a guerrilla theater skit in which they crowned a live sheep as “Miss America,” and threw girdles, high heels, hair curlers, bras, playboy magazines and other “instruments of female torture” into a “Freedom Trash Can.” In a well-prepared 10-point statement they gave reporters, NYRW explained their agenda against the “Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol” and the “Consumer Con-Game” that enslaved women through ludicrous beauty standards which they were conditioned to take seriously.
The “No More Miss America” protest received great notice from the media and brought women’s liberation to the forefront of public attention. Yet, media coverage of the protest also consolidated the image of “the feminist” for generations to come. Instead of focusing on the activists’ message, the media mainly commented on their appearance and tactics. Although no actual bras were burnt in the event (protesters wanted to keep it peaceful and avoid arrests), and many of the participants wore skirts, heels, makeup, and other fashionable feminine accessories, the media portrayed these feminists as “Bra Burners,” masculine-looking, anti-fashionable radicals, making their appearance synonymous with their politics.
To be sure, this was not the first time that feminists were portrayed in this way. In fact, ever since the mid-nineteenth century, when women began demanding their rights, the media had derided their appearance. When in the 1850s prominent woman’s rights advocates adopted the “Bloomer Costume,” a combination of a short skirt reaching mid-calf worn over baggy “Turkish” trousers, the press depicted them as ugly, unfashionable, and masculine creatures. Wearing pants in public marked these activists as radicals, not only in terms of their sartorial choices but also in their political agenda. Since trousers were associated with masculinity, woman’s rights advocates’ demands for gender equality were framed as an attempt to reverse gender hierarchies and thus the entire social order on which society was built. Using their appearance as a weapon to discredit their feminist agenda, the attacks from the press caused these activists to eventually abandon the bloomer and adopt less controversial styles.
Hence the association of feminism with non-fashionability was created. Things did not improve much in the early twentieth century. Although suffragists, like the feminists of the NYRW, did not eschew their feminine attributes and made creative use of mainstream prevalent fashions, the media continued to perpetuate the “bloomer” image, portraying suffragists as crazy amazons who would reverse gender roles if they gained the vote. Fearing another backlash to their cause, suffragists enforced a rigid policy that put only young, feminine-looking activists at the forefront of the campaign in the hopes of winning not only minds but also the fashion front.
Thus, knowingly or not, when women’s liberationists marched in the “No More Miss America” protest they continued a long legacy of utilizing fashion in feminist protests. Intentionally or not, their protest also joined a long history that positioned fashion and feminism as two opposing forces, perpetuating the idea that a commitment to women’s freedom and rights could not go together with adornment practices and adherence to fashion. Indeed, while feminists saw women’s appearance, their right to comfort and health, as well as questions of power and gender expectations as crucial to their political demands for gender and economic equality, the critical approach they often took with regards to clothes provided the media with an easy trope to use against them. As Veblen noted, fashion is a currency. By deeming feminists as anti-fashionable, the media could deprive them of this currency and the privileges of (white) femininity that went along with it. As it ridiculed their appearance, the media was able to undermine feminists’ claims, a tactic long used against working class women and women of color.
The media’s construction of “the feminist” as anti-fashionable obscured the fact that although women’s liberationists did not spare the fashion and beauty industries from criticism, they did not renounce the idea that fashion could be enjoyable and even empowering. “Our purpose was not to put down Miss America but to attack the male chauvinism, commercialization of beauty, racism, and oppression of women symbolized by the pageant,” argued Judith Duffett, one of the organizers. Radical feminist critique, which was grounded in Marxist theory and came from the New Left, targeted its arguments against consumer capitalism and its effects on women, not on fashion styles. “People like to look nice for other people. It’s just not true that we want to look like ugly freaks,” argued the feminist Pan Kearon. Feminists like Kearon took pleasure in fashion. They also saw it as a political tool. Feminists explicitly connected fashion and self-presentation to the politics of gender and sought to create a style that would express these politics. They called women to design and create their own clothes as a way to show their independence and freedom, both from the fashion industry and from patriarchy. “The clothes I wear help me know my own power,” argued feminist Liza Cowan. For her and her fellow activists, fashion was liberating.
If feminists sought to create their own fashion, they disagreed on the question of what a feminist should look like. Some feminists, many of whom identified as lesbian, did reject feminine styles, opting instead for what they referred to as “dyke fashions” — jeans, button-down shirts, and work boots. Other feminists celebrated their sexual freedom by wearing miniskirts and “á la Gloria Steinem” haircuts. And while Rita Mae Brown was the face of the “Lavender Menace,” it was Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer who were the “Saucy Feminists That Even Men Like.” Ironically, no matter if one chose to adopt gender-bending appearance, “dyke fashion,” or miniskirts, all of these styles became mainstream by the 1970s. The Unisex trend popularized turtle-necks, jeans, and pants for women, while the no-bra fad celebrated the counter-culture hippie styles. In 1970, women went out to the streets to protest the midi skirt, arguing for their right to keep the mini. Indeed, it seems that at least on the fashionable front, feminists could claim a victory.
Yet while “feminist fashions” entered the mainstream, feminists did not. An opinion poll from 1970 showed that while only 12% associated the term “women’s liberation” with a “bunch of frustrated, insecure, angry, hysterical, masculine-type women group,” 60% believed that women who picketed and participated in protests were setting a bad example for children. The image of “bra burners” and “ugly feminists” was the one stereotype feminists could not get rid of. And it was this image that eventually gave conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly the ammunition to fight, and eventually defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. Far more successful than attacking their political message, the focus on feminists’ appearance proved beneficial for conservative efforts to thwart the movement’s goals and achievements.
Indeed, although 91% percent of the 1970 poll responders thought that a woman can have both a career and remain feminine, they did not associate that statement with the radical feminists who protested Miss America. Carol Hanisch, the feminist who initiated the idea to protest the pageant, confessed: “Miss America and all beautiful women came off as our enemy instead of as our sisters.” Rather than uniting women against discrimination and around the fight for their rights, the anti-fashionable image of the protesters deterred women from joining the movement.
The complex relationship feminists had with fashion continued to shape the movement’s politics and memory long after NYRW disbanded and ERA failed to be ratified. While many of the styles that feminists paraded that September day in Atlantic City eventually turned mainstream, they no longer carried with them feminist associations. As a new generation of feminists appeared on the national stage in the 1990s, they resisted the myth that feminism cannot be fashionable which had haunted their predecessors. In their search for a style that expressed their politics, these activists — some of whom called themselves “lipstick feminists” — sought to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable gap. As we are now seeing the rise of another resurgence of feminist activism (and another backlash to it), the question remains whether it will be able to carve a new path with regards to fashion. Perhaps today’s feminists will not only be able to claim power and pleasure in fashion, but also convince others that fashion was part of the feminist tradition all along.
Einav Rabinovitch-Fox specializes in modern American history and women’s and gender history. She is now working on her book, Dressed for Freedom: American Feminism and the Politics of Women’s Fashion , which explores women’s political uses of clothing and appearance as a means of negotiating new liberties and modern gender identities.