The Revolutions That Made Our Wardrobes

By Stephanie Watson

Fashion isn’t something that just happens, it’s something that evolves alongside society. Bit by bit, moment by moment. Our style evolves as our lives change, and as our morals, ethics, and confidence changes with time.

The freedom of choice when it comes to what we wear today, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for generations of social reform. Centuries of feminist protesting, womanist marches, and queer uprisings have shaped the way we dress. And for the better. We can now empower ourselves with style, rather than let it pigeonhole and suppress us. Who knows, if not for our progressive ancestors who fought back against corsets, we may not be sitting here in our comfy t-shirts, sultry bralets, or mini skirts today.

So, which social revolutions do we have to thank for what’s in our wardrobes right now?

The American Revolution period dress

1775 -1783 clothing and lifestyle

When colonial North America rebelled against British rule between 1765 and 1783, fashion rebelled too. American style became immensely inspired by French fashions of the period, in an attempt to become stylistically independent from British trends. Previously, women had been sporting wide hoop skirts called Panniers - sometimes around a meter in width - with Rococo inspired colors and patterns. Mid and post revolution, the petticoat came into fashion, a much smaller and daintier hoop skirt. Though as a society we strayed away from huge ballooning skirts, we're still a fan of slip skirts, albeit modernized. So the revolution is still within our souls somewhere.

The Women's Rights Movement activists

1848 -1960s clothing and lifestyle

Probably the most famous revolution for many: suffrage was the fight for women’s ability to vote, and work. Since women were discouraged from much physical activity (they were seen as too weak and delicate for anything other than sitting and sewing), their outfits were not made for practicality, but for pure aesthetics. The fashion change of the time focused more on comfort than style, as before then women were seen as pretty objects to decorate a room. This change in mindset began the Rational Dress reform, and a desire for more free-flowing garments began. One item of clothing that came into fashion was the Pantaloon Skirt, a very boxy wide legged hybrid of a skirt and pair of trousers. From afar they looked like a maxi skirt, but each leg had its separate section; keeping out the draft.

The reform also led to skirts getting shorter, and fabrics becoming looser. Though we may look back and think about how conservative our suffragette ancestors dressed, it was actually pretty frowned upon by anti-feminists at the time. Showing even a hint of ankle was classed as obscene. Sadly it was really only white middle class cisgender women who got the chance to vote and dress how they liked at that time. Which is especially disheartening considering how much of the women’s rights movement was actually carried by women of color such as Sarah Remond, Sojourner Truth, and Ida B. Wells.

The Civil Rights Movement protest and woman in hat

1940s - 1980 Black Panther Movement activists

You’ve probably heard a very white-washed and sugar coated version of it in high school, but the civil rights movement during the 50s and 60s was nothing to underestimate. Civil rights advocates fought for an end to racist discrimination against Black Americans, racial segregation, as well as the right to vote. The movement had a big impact on style, from promoting loving your natural hair, to investing in authentic African fabrics and textiles. Kente cloth, Akwete, Adire, Barkcloth; tons of different fabrics and the most colorfully bright dyes. Dashikis and caftans were a popular choice as they were loose, cooling, and flowing, and could also showcase those famous African patterns.

The iconic vision of the Black Panthers was also a vibe that still sticks with us today; leather, military berets, turtle necks, particularly with progressive artists like Beyoncé who are known to make political statements with their art. Civil rights activists were also fans of pins, patches, and printed t-shirts that shared the message of racial equality, as well as promoting the Black Panthers. Many stuck pins to their berets, bags, and jackets, adorning themselves with various African flags, slogans such as "We shall overcome," "Power to the People," and "Black power."

The Queer Rights Movement drag queens

1960s - 1980 Queer Rights Movement activist

Trans women of color built the foundations for the queer rights movement, known back then as the gay rights movement or gay liberation, starting with a protest known as the Stonewall Riots in 1969. This is when progressive fashion really lost all of its inhibitions, and became the wild, beautiful, sparkling force we know of today. If there’s one way to say “I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere,” while expressing your gender, sexuality, and personality, then it was putting on the most beautifully loud outfit possible. Glitter, sequins, fishnets, rainbow everything: nothing was out of bounds, and nothing could make you over or underdressed. Ballroom culture had a huge impact on not only fashion in general, but fashion circles within the LGBQIAP+ community. Gay men of color in particular were the frontrunners for ballroom style in the 80s, showing that femininity was nothing to be afraid of, but celebrated. Drag queens were known to wear prom dresses to dancing events, also wearing exaggerated makeup, costume jewelry, huge shoulder pads, and other extravagant accessories.

Black Lives Matter protest and man in t-shirt 2013 - Present Black Lives Matter and Antiracism clothing

Though justice for the black community has been an ongoing issue for centuries, the movement we know as Black Lives Matter began in 2013 after the murder of Trayvon Martin by police officer George Zimmerman. The fight against institutionalized racism and police brutality is yet again proving timely in 2020. Since we’re still in the middle of this revolution, you may not have noticed a huge shift in fashion yet, but it’s happening. From simple activist slogan tees, to a resurgence of afrofuturist styles, black communities everywhere are re-embracing the African fashions that bring empowerment, self love, and black innovation. Movies such as Black Panther, and musicians such as Janelle Monáe (both having strong pro-black messages) have adopted the style of afro-futurism to show the world that black is beautiful, and that white supremacy is an archaic system that will not win. BLM is also showing the fashion industry that inclusivity should be the norm, and slowly but surely brands are showing their support for the revolution. Be sure to check out our UNITY necklace, of which 100% of proceeds will go to BLM funds.

Let us know in the comments how these revolutions impacted the life you lead now, and your wardrobe! Oh, and have you read our BLM resource blog yet?


Stephanie Watson is a freelance journalist and copywriter from the UK, who specializes in psychology, sociology, and the beauty industry. She's a budding novelist on the side, and hopes to one day make it her full time career.