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


The trouble with androgyny

By Anushka Tay

Marlene Dietrich

{ Marlene Dietrich – image source }

Understanding fashion as a social process suggests that if a fashion trend is to spread, it must capture and reflect the cultural zeitgeist; this includes our attitudes towards gender. 21st Century culture is moving towards the idea of gender as a wider spectrum, not a binary. In fashion, styles for men and women have grown closer together throughout the 20th Century as the cut of clothing and use of surface decoration bear more similarities between genders. The common acceptability of women in trousers, and the increasingly homogenised colours, has led to a widening of gender styles in fashion. This, alongside the increasing de-stigmatisation of men’s interest in fashion, may allow fashion to provide a basis for expressing the complexities of gender and sexuality. Using fashion to communicate our innermost personalities and broadest identities, unbound by societal binaries, seems to be the ideal manner of dressing in a society defined by equality (and tolerance). In this sense, adopting an androgynous look, through wearing either a mixture of gender-specific clothing or else unisex clothes, could be liberating. Arnold (2001, p.118) writes, ‘Unisex dress that disguises gender distinctions and presents a masquerade of equality for all, has been a recurring utopian dream.’ Avoiding assumptions and stereotypes associated with gender, androgyny could be used to offer choice: to dress in multiple ways, or one, or both.

However, in many ways, feminism’s struggle for gender equality has stressed the importance of adopting stereotypically masculine features, rather than championing both; this bias extends to works of queer theorists such as Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (1998). Oates-Indruchová (2003, p.48) criticises this common practice in gender studies: ‘These approaches work with the prevailing social and cultural assumption of the lesser value of the female/feminine in relation to the male/masculine, or show how the assumption operates.’ Even the concept of androgyny is not as neutral as it may at first seem. Williams (2003) studies the etymology of the words ‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘androgyne’, revealing that the Greek and Roman roots of both of these words open with the male reference (Hermes – the male god of virility; ‘aner’ meaning man), and are grammatically male. ‘Both words make strongly masculine first impressions, then, just where one would expect the second halves to redress the balance, revert to the masculine’ (Williams, 2003, p.127).

Fashion cannot reflect all the complexities of social life, and it would take concerted effort to break from convention. Even when fashion designers operate as artists, the system of change which defines fashion takes precedent; and styles cannot change if they are not accepted by people in society. Fashion is one tool amongst many which we may use as communication; however, we are far from living in a utopia where diversity is championed. We must return to Judith Butler’s concern for this heteronormative world (Butler, 1990 and 1993), where even diversity is coloured by the dominant ideology of whiteness and heterosexuality, and gender-neutral concepts such as androgyny still contain masculine undertones.





Butler, J. (1990) Gender trouble. 2nd Edition. Reprint, New York and Oxford: Routledge, 2007.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex”. New York and London: Routledge.

Arnold, R. (2001) Fashion, desire and anxiety: image and morality in the 20th century. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Halberstam, J. (1998) Female masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Oates-Indruchová, L. (2003) ‘The ideology of the genderless sporting body: reflections on the Czech State-Socialist concept of physical culture’ in Segal, N., Taylor, L. and Cook, R. Indeterminate bodies. Hampshire: Palgrage Macmillan. pp.48-66.

Williams, C. D. (2003) ‘ “Sweet Hee-She-Coupled-One”: unspeakable hermaphrodites’ in in Segal, N., Taylor, L. and Cook, R. Indeterminate bodies. Hampshire: Palgrage Macmillan. pp.127-138