Dress as Metaphor – British Female Fashion and Social Change in the 20th Century

by Katarzyna Kociolek (Author)
©2020 Monographs 214 Pages


This book traces the interconnectedness of women’s sartorial practices and social change in 20th-century Britain. Based on a wide range of cultural texts, which include literary works, magazines, posters, advertisements and political cartoons, this study endeavours to prove that due to the metaphorical function of clothing, womenswear imparted significant information about women’s positions in society during transformative historical moments.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Theories of Fashion
  • 1.1 Fashion as Communication
  • 1.2 Identity Formation Through Fashion: Gender, Class, Subculture, Age
  • 2 The Metaphors we live in – Dress as a Metaphor
  • 2.1 Conceptual Metaphor Theory and Fashion
  • 2.2 Seeing Through Clothes – Fashion as Metaphor in Visual Culture
  • 3 Sartorial Practices and Metaphors in the Representations of the British Suffragettes and the Flappers
  • 3.1 Fashionable Suffragettes
  • 3.2 The Flappers and Their (Mis)representation in the British Media
  • 4 The Uniformed Feminity of the Wartime Fashions
  • 4.1 Civilians in Uniforms – Sartorial Representations of Female Identity During the WWI
  • 4.2 Utility Fashion and Military Women of WWII
  • 5 The Post-War Subcultural Rebellion and Women’s Fashion of the Teddy Girls, Mods and Punks
  • 5.1 The Teds
  • 5.2 The Mods
  • 5.3 The Punks
  • 6 Anti-Fashion of the Second Wave Feminism
  • 6.1 British Second-Wave Feminism, Spare Rib, and Fashion
  • 6.2 Feminist Fashion in Anti-feminist Cartoons
  • 7 Political Leadership and Female Fashion in the 1990s
  • 7.1 British Political Institutions and Their Dress Codes as Metaphors
  • 7.2 British Women in Politics: Betty Boothroyd’s Style as a Metaphor of Tradition
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series Index

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The 20th century saw major transformations in identity discourses in Great Britain. The social and political upheavals caused by both world wars affected the trajectory of Britain’s course through history, leaving it stripped not only of its colonial possessions but also of its imperial identity. The events of the early 1900s foreshadowed these turbulences, with the women’s rights movement gaining momentum. The unyielding suffragettes ensured that their cause would not only be heard in Parliament but most importantly seen in the streets. By literally invading the public space, the Votes for Women campaigners challenged the neat division between gender roles and their assigned spaces. The First World War (WWI), which created an unprecedented opportunity for many women to engage in non-domestic activities and undertake paid employment, further eroded the wobbly notions of femininity and masculinity, already heavily tested by the suffrage movement. Women’s gradual move to empowerment became a fact of life following the Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928, which paved the way for the feminists of the second wave. Already during the Second World War (WWII), however, the National Service Act of 1941 seemed to have pushed British society even further towards gender equality by offering provision for the conscription of women, so the uniformed female soldiers appeared to challenge the last bastion of masculinity based on the trope of a warrior-hero. Unsurprisingly, in 1944 the defence of traditional male identity surfaced in a Parliamentary debate on Utility Clothing Scheme suits. These war-time disruptions of identity narratives were soon followed by an onslaught on the cherished and seemingly immovable concept of Britishness, as the 1947 arrival of immigrants from the West Indies marked Britain’s transition to a multi-ethnic state. Indeed, the increased ethnic diversity of British society resulted in the reformulation of identities that would have long constituted Britishness. The post-war decades also witnessed the emergence of distinctive youth cultures which further questioned the status quo by challenging gender identities and social class divisions. The Teds, the Mods and the Punks, their comportment and ways of dressing cut across normative discourses, overturning the value system of mainstream British society. All these changes seemed to pave the way for women’s political empowerment, which towards the end of the 20th century surfaced not only in the political agenda of the second-wave feminists but also in the careers of such female politicians as Margaret Thatcher or Betty Boothroyd. The sartorial negotiation of identities, which is evident in the representation of ←11 | 12→female political activists and female politicians, deserves critical attention, for according to Diana Crane “Women’s fashion is always a statement about women’s roles and how they are or should be performed” (Crane 61).

Erving Goffman in his sociological study The Representation of Self in Everyday Life University of Edinburgh (1956) applies a theoretical framework of theatrical performance to identity formation, arguing that in ordinary life-situations individuals not only present themselves to others but also actively shape the way they are perceived by their recipients. In the very preface to the study, Goffman resorts to a sartorial metaphor wherein he states that “the part one individual plays is tailored (emphasis mine) to the parts played by the others present” thereby as if accentuating the importance of dress and costume both in social life and on stage. Interestingly by referring to Simone de Beauvoir, Goffman also implies a centrality of the theatrical framework in the process of performing femininity. He notes the existence of an analogy between the concept of a social backstage where social actors prepare to perform their role in public and de Beauvoir’s notion of a backstage, relaxed way of being a woman in front of other women, where “with other women, a woman is behind the scenes; she is polishing her equipment, but not in battle; she is getting her costume together, preparing her make-up, laying out her tactics; she is lingering in dressing-gown and slippers in the wings before making her entrance on the stage” (qtd. in Goffman 70). That dress and costume demarcate the line between the public and private space; or what Goffman terms “the front or back region of a performance” (77) is also accentuated by another fragment in which he notes that “in working-class quartires in Paris in the early morning, women feel they have a right to extend the backstage to their circle of neighbouring shops, and they patter down for milk and fresh bread, waring bedroom slippers, bathrobe, hairnet, and no make-up” (emphasis original, Goffman 77).

Though the passage may seem incredibly dated, being rooted as it is in obsoletely rigid class divisions, when viewed in its historical context, it might be regarded as a valuable source of information on attitudes to the formation and consolidation of gender identities. In fact, it seems that a more recent study “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” by Judith Butler (1988) echoes some of the tenets introduced by Goffman. Although Butler herself does not refer to Goffman’s work, the similarities between their approaches becomes apparent when like Goffman Butler uses theatrical framework to theorise the performative nature of gender identities. When arguing that “gender reality is performative (…) it is real only to the extent that it is performed” (527), Butler readily deploys theatre vocabulary observing that

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Actors are always ready on the stage, within the terms of the performance. Just as a script may be enacted in various ways, and just as the play requires both text and interpretation, so the gendered body acts in part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives. (Butler 526)

Neither Goffman nor Butler, however, devote sufficient attention to the role of costumes and sartorial practices for the formation and reinforcement of identities. The current study’s aim is to address that omission and to trace the connection between clothing and social change, particularly in relation to the changing concept of femininity.

The first chapter presents an overview of fashion theories which regard clothing as a form of communication, or even as some sort of a language. In the examined texts, fashion is frequently referred to as a system of signs or codes, through which the wearers communicate their identities: gender, class, ethnicity, and age, with individual garments or complete outfits cutting across these categories. As argued by such scholars as Fred Davies or Malcolm Barnard, dress is always context specific, and so the meanings attached to specific garments are based on culture-specific connotations. In this way fashion resembles metaphorical utterances, which are also heavily context-dependent. The second chapter, therefore, establishes a link between fashion and Conceptual Metaphor Theory, arguing that the concept of metaphor as theorised by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and the Conceptual Blending Theory by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002) shed light on the way fashion communicates meaning. Interestingly, as noted in the chapter, while the application of both theories have long exceeded the domain of linguistics; and they have been widely used in the analysis of material culture, so far there has been no study applying metaphor theory to fashion. Further, the chapter presents an analogy between the tenets of metaphor theory and the conceptualisation of dress and fashion in art provided by Anne Hollander’s seminal work entitled Seeing Through Clothes (1975). Hollander’s study of clothing in visual culture accentuates the role of connotative meanings as well as the role of a specific socio-cultural context for the possible reading of meanings produced by individual garments. She also stresses the importance of rich repository of images in the form of portrait paintings and photography (in which fashion plays central role) for any vestimentary constructions of identities. Because prominent public figures, who are often publically represented, according to Hollander, can be credited with invention and dissemination of trends, the current study examines the styles of several female public figures in 20th century Britain to argue that their sartorial choices corresponded to or shaped the established notions of femininity.

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In the chapter SARTORIAL PRACTICES AND METAPHORS IN THE REPRESENTATIONS OF THE BRITISH SUFFRAGETTES AND THE FLAPPERS the evolving notion of femininity is discussed on the basis of the visual and textual representations of the British suffrage movement and the Flappers. Although the suffragettes’ militant campaigns for voting rights are commonly dissociated from fashion, in fact the visual display of carefully selected items of clothing (the Women’s Social and Political Union [WSPU] colour scheme and accessories – badges and sashes) was widely used by Emmeline Pankhurst and her fellow activists to gain visibility and increase public support for the suffrage movement. Because, as commented by Katrina Rolley (1990), the suffragettes were frequently confronted with unfavourable representations of themselves in the press (as is exemplified through the analysis of selected political cartoons by W.K. Haselden), they retaliated by increasing their public visibility and creating what Lisa Tickner terms as “the spectacle of women” (1989). Based on an analysis of Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography, the chapter argues that the leader of the WSPU found sartorial practices a key representational site for the construction of the politically conscious femininity. Also, the examination of the contents of the WSPU magazine Votes for Women points to the inseparability of the visual from the textual construction of the suffragettes’ identity. The Flappers, who unlike the suffragettes, are frequently dissociated from the realm of politics, are seen as having been entangled in political debates about women’s enfranchisement (Bingham 2002), with their derogatory representation in the press being aimed at discrediting young, ambitious and liberated women. As demonstrated by an analysis of the sartorial metaphors in the selected cartoons, while Flappers were overtly attacked for their ignorance, negligence and indulgence, the Flapper’s style was deployed by the cartoonists in order to police women into adopting more conventional and traditional feminine identity. As argued in this chapter, the use of Flapper’s dress as a metaphor of deviant and deficient femininity as well as unfavourable representation of Flappers in popular writing reflected the interwar policies, which after the disruptive period of WWI strongly advised the retreat of women into the domestic space. In fact, in the turbulent years preceding the Second World War (WWII) the concept of the ideal woman, hinged on the notion of maternity, saw devoted mothers as being pivotal in the process of strengthening the already faltering imperial project.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Identity gender social class subcultures literature visual culture popular culture
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 214 pp., 13 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Katarzyna Kociolek (Author)

Katarzyna Agnieszka Kociołek is an assistant professor at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. Her doctoral dissertation (2009) examined the representations of ethnic identities in the British visual arts discourse of the 1980s and 1990s. Her research interests include the representation of identities and the visual culture, which incorporates fashion, film and visual arts


Title: Dress as Metaphor – British Female Fashion and Social Change in the 20th Century