Dressing like a girl in the 1990s

by Siân Hunter

cher and dion

Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash in Clueless, 1995 (source)

From knee socks to babydoll dresses, during the 1990s girly items of clothing made a resurgence. However, depending on the subculture to which the wearer belonged, these garments held differing meanings. For kinderwhores and Riot Grrrls, girliness was being reclaimed and subverted through aggressive styling and attitudes, while preppy girls aimed to prove that they could be taken seriously while retaining femininity.

Femininity and feminism


‘Dishevelled kinderwhore’ (source)

The idea of femininity, and especially childlike femininity, has been a point of conflict between feminists — particularly between waves of feminism. Some second wave feminists argued for rejecting feminine fashion in favour of masculine dress (Hollows, 2000). They saw femininity as an obstacle to gender equality due to its associations with subservience and passivity. However, in a postfeminist social order, femininity is celebrated by women and reclaimed with an element of self-conscious fun. Embracing femininity, especially at its most childlike, expresses self-confidence in a woman’s gender identity.

Female musicians celebrated girlhood as a way of creating a female youth subculture, something that had previously been lacking in the male-dominated narrative of youth culture (Wald, 1998). Punk led the way with female inclusion: both genders felt similarly disillusioned with mainstream culture and wanted to express their anger against the status quo. Riot Grrrls took advantage of this increased visibility and created a new image — one of exaggerated girliness, which contrasted with their powerful music that raged against the patriarchy.

The preppy look

vassar student 1950s


The prevalence of girly fashion during the 1990s has been observed by scholars of media and communications including Alice Leppert (2014) — who wrote about the influence of films such as Clueless (1995)). It is important to note how the average teenage girl, as well as musicians and characters on screen, appropriated this trend for girly clothing. Whether it was the Riot Grrrl’s adoption of childlike femininity to critique misogyny or the preppy teens imitating Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher Horowitz in the movie Clueless (see Figure 5), girly fashion was a significant part of female culture in the 1990s (Leppert, 2014). This trend for cuteness, epitomised by Silverstone as Cher (see above): ‘a ditsy, scrambled Beverly Hills dream teen in imitation-Chanel junior-miss plaid suits, thigh socks and high-heeled Mary Janes’ (Schoemer, 1995: p54), was a reaction against the androgyny and drabness of grunge. With this well-defined aesthetic and prescribed set of garments, girls could own their own femininity and sexuality. Easy to imitate, the look swept America as malls began selling the signifiers of girlhood: Macy’s stocked Mary Janes, baby-doll dresses and knee socks, while Bloomingdale’s made Clueless required viewing for the buyers of their juniors department (ibid).


Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless, 1995 (source)

Although the items of clothing that are worn are similar — demure dresses and knee socks, for example — the styling of these garments worn by Riot Grrrls and preppy teenagers means that the messages created by the looks are radically different. Whereas Riot Grrrls adoption of childlike fashion was combined with a non-conformist attitude that was reflected in their music, preppy girls were less political and more aspirational in their dress. Preppy style is traditionally a celebration of intellect and academic achievement and adopting such a look suggests a dedication to success.
Clueless (1995) Directed by Amy Heckerling [Film]. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures

Hollows, J. (2000) Feminism, femininity and popular culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Leppert, A. (2014) ‘Can I please give you some advice? Clueless and the teen makeover’, Cinema Journal, 53 (3), p131-137

Schoemer, K., & Chang, Y. (1995). ‘The cult of cute’. Newsweek, 126(9), p54-57

Wald, G. (1998). ‘Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth’. Signs, 23(3), p585–610


V&A London Couture Study Day

By Lindsay Parker

by Bassano Ltd, half-plate film negative, 19 October 1977

{ Lady Fox, 1977 – Image: National Portrait Gallery }

On Saturday I attended the V&A London Couture study day, a day of lectures and discussion where visitors were invited to “explore the luxurious world of mid twentieth century London couture”. The event was organised to correspond with the release of a V&A published book on the topic and included lectures by several of the contributing authors.

The event addressed a range of the issues associated with London Couture and was opened by Amy de la Haye, who set the scene with an introduction to London’s court dressmakers of the 19th and early 20th century as precursors to the London Couture designers and to the proto-couturiers who began to lead the way for British design as an alternative to the Parisian inspired garments that had until then been the norm.

Edwina Ehram followed seamlessly with a brief history of London Couture from 1923-1975 which gave a succinct overview of the development of designers who promoted British design and the young designers of the 1930s and 40s that began to design for their contemporaries rather than for court dress.

Next on the programme was a more micro-view of the topic delivered by Joyce Fenton-Douglas who discussed the Ancillary trades linked to the couture industry and their roles within leading couture establishments. We were given insights in to the specific makers, techniques and outputs involved in providing the intricate details of couture garments, with stunning accompanying visuals.

The second half of the day began with Beatrice Behlan, introducing us to the clients of couture and their lives. She shared with us her journey of discovery as she traced the purchases of Lady Fox and her appearances in couture fashions in various high profile events, bringing to life the clothing and designers discussed in the previous lectures.

Timothy Long continued the day by discussing the work of Charles James, particular focusing on his “London years” of 1929-1939 with an emphasis on the unique construction of James’s garments. Long highlighted the impact of James’ London years, at the beginning of his couture career, on the development of his future works.

The final talk of the day was from Jonathon Faiers, who introduced a more sombre note by reflecting on the reporting of London couture from the 1940s-60s and the problems with the focus on the “timelessness” of London Couture as reported by the press. This ultimately led us to the decline of the couture industry in Britain and brought us to the end of the event.

Overall the event was informative and varied, with exploration of a range of themes which gave an insight into the development, structure, designers, workers and clients of the golden age of London Couture.

Shoes at the V&A: Take Two

A second take on the popular Shoes exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

By Hiroko Oriyama

shoes exhib 2

{Image  – V&A}

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, displays around 200 pairs of both women’s and men’s shoes from different countries around the world. The exhibition is curated by Helen Persson of the V&A’s Asia Department, and includes shoes from ancient Egypt to contemporary exclusive designer shoes. The purpose of the exhibition is to show us not a history of shoes, but power of shoes throughout history. It is organised thematically and divided into five sections: Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation, and Obsession. Various types of shoes were selected for each section by considering what stories these shoes are telling us.

The exhibition shows that shoes are a representation of the wearer’s status or identity. Some shoes are extremely unpractical, not everyday shoes for everyday life. As a Japanese person, I highly recommend seeing the extremely high-heeled shoes worn by Japanese high-class prostitutes. You can see how they wore and walked in these shoes in the film ‘Yoshiwara enjo’ (directed by Hideo Gosha, 1987), screened on the ground floor of the exhibition. However, overall there is not enough visual imagery showing how the shoes were worn. Even though each pair of shoes has a written explanation of when, where or what types of shoes they are, it is not enough to understand how these are worn if the audience does not have specific knowledge. If they had included more paintings or photographs, it would have been more interesting, and helped the audience to understand more. Shoes themselves do not have power: they give the wearer power. So I would say, there should have been more concern about the wearer.

Of course, there are spatial limitations, and we can imagine how some shoes are worn. But it is necessary for others; for example, shoes for bound feet in China have an image next to them. But the photograph is not clear enough to understand how such extremely tiny shoes could have actually been worn. There are some paintings, photographs and films but I would say they are not enough for the purpose of the exhibition. Hence, considering the spatial limitations, I could say that there might be too many shoes for this exhibition.

shoes exhib 1

{Image – V&A}

Many shoes are selected from the contemporary period, and are from very exclusive and luxury brands such as Christian Louboutin. These shoes are a representation of contemporary women’s status. However, the display of too many exclusive designers shoes reminded me of the shoe section of department stores such as Selfridges. Though it is not a historical exhibition, it should display a more balanced selection of periods since the curators think that shoes have had great impact throughout history.

Overall, this exhibition has had success and attracted audiences by displaying many unique shoes. However, the purpose of this exhibition is not to entertain us but to encourage us to see the power of shoes. When it comes to this point, this exhibition should have been more concerned about their display methods, and a balance of historical periods.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A is on until 31 January 2016. Click here for more information and booking.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A

By Jessica Harpley

vam shoes.jpg

{image – V&A}

Shoes: few items in our wardrobes provoke such frenzied desire and fervent collection. Fewer still can lay claim to our hearts, and money, in spite of questionable practicality and comfort. The V&A Museum’s latest fashion exhibition explores our 3,000 year-old relationship with shoes, using “extremes of footwear” to demonstrate their cultural significance, transformative capacity and construction. The exhibition’s title, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, encapsulates the duality of footwear in being objects of both beauty and discomfort, simultaneously empowering and restraining. Neon lights spell out the title upon arrival, bolstering the kinky notion of fetish implied by ‘pleasure and pain.’ This sensual theme extends throughout the lower, entry level of the two-tier exhibition; here, the dark environment creates a sense of the boudoir.

The exhibition is divided into five sections: ‘Transformation’, ‘Status’, and ‘Seduction’ on the lower-level present a cornucopia of footwear, using examples across time and space to demonstrate the ways in which people interact with footwear; ‘Creation’ and ‘Obsession’ on the upper-level concentrates on the manufacture and technology of footwear, and tells the stories of prolific shoe collectors. Here, the space is lighter and airy, feeling somewhat disconnected from the space below.

Undoubtedly, the lower-level is the main attraction with its creative display of ostentatious, and occasionally more humble, shoes. Avoiding the usual approach of a chronological or geographic narrative, the displays are admirable in their mixing of old and new, challenging the view that outlandish footwear is exclusive to modern fashions. The size and innate sculptural quality of shoes lend themselves well to display, allowing for a range of imaginative vignettes. Despite the abundance of footwear exhibited, the displays never feel cluttered, with each pair retaining prominence.

Displays contain one personal story, photograph or depiction in art pertaining to a particular pair of shoes; however more could have been done to put the shoes into bodily context. The exhibition struggles in acknowledging the reality of these shoes being worn; some were visually so far removed from what we would consider footwear it is difficult to envisage a person occupying them, or their overall affect within a complete ensemble.

The range of footwear exhibited is overwhelmingly female orientated, reminding us that the most ergonomically challenging, “extreme” footwear is reserved for women, who may have the luxury of seemingly limitless choice, but have to pay for it with discomfort. In mixing high-street and designer shoes, the exhibition strives for relatability, something made explicit in the Obsession section, where historical and designer collections sit with those of high-street shoes and sneakers. This insight into the psychology of avid consumption serves to balance the making and material cultures angle of the preceding sections. On the lower level, cultural stories feel unexplored in favour of aesthetic spectacle, socially and bodily divorcing the product from wearer. Unusually for a ‘fashion’ exhibition, the tone isn’t aspirational, but celebratory, with entertainment value managing to disguise the areas which lack rigour.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A is on until 31 January 2016. Click here for more information and booking.