How did the jeans contribute to the female emancipation in the west during the 20th century?

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The jeans are one of the most beloved garments of our time in the western world. They started out as overalls for men in factories, and were worn by very few women during the beginning of the 20th century. However, in the forties something changed. The war brought women to the factories and in them they found the jeans. Little happened after this point and the next step towards the emancipation of women, concerning the jeans that is, was during the sixties. In the middle of the sixties, the first women’s jeans with the zipper up front were produced. This caused perhaps not a major change of the female role, but it is a proof of the jeans’ ability to change the classes of society. As the time went by the jeans were no longer just a piece of clothing for leisure or hard work. Now they became, and would remain this way, the most wanted fashion garment of our time. It became a symbol for freedom. Furthermore, the jeans had successful companions. Faces such as Marilyn Monroe in the U.S. and Brigitte Bardot in Europe gave many women female role models and a reason to wear the jeans.

When the U.S. entered World War 2, the whole country joined the war. The men were fighting on the front, while the women ran industries and factories in their place. Suddenly one third of the people in the chemistry, metal and car industry were women. In the factories however, working in long skirts made the job ineffective and extra tough, thus making the jeans welcomed on the women’s market. Along with the portrait of “Rosie the riveter” dressed in a jeans overall, which was published in 1943 for a report on workingwomen, the taboo was lifted and thereby the jeans entered the life of women.
The war ended, and most women went beck to their ordinary lives, with exception of one thing. They still wore the jeans. However, the female emancipation was restrained by ideals of perfect housewives who also looked elegant and feminine. Jeans wearers were in the fifties considered rebellious hooligans. This made especially the young female jeans wearers a bit more self confident which would be noticed during the sixties.

The sixties are known as the flower power age. Taboos from the fifties were rejected, perhaps by the young confident jeans wearers who had matured. Around 1964 the first jeans with the zipper up front were released for women. Although this was not a major success at first, and did not change the female role as much as the jeans had done themselves in the beginning of the forties, it still demonstrates the influence the jeans have had on classes and gender in society. During the fifties this is most clear in the way that the popular trousers spread from being work and leisure garments of the working class to the upper class and at the same time was the every-day clothing for rebels who revolted against the aristocracy. In the sixties this step towards equality was expressed with giving the women’s model the zipper up front.

Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot were both female celebrities who lacked counterparts on the male side. They were female role models that had their own saying in things, and even though they had men by their sides from time to time, they still expressed themselves in their own words. These were role models who wore the jeans as the ultimate piece of clothing, both for every-day wear, as well as party outfits. Superstars walking hand in hand with the jeans was one of the ultimate triggers, fuelling the emancipation; it was the luxury many women longed for along with the desirable freedom the jeans symbolized, that made it okay for women to feel sexy and feminine, not for their husband’s sake, but for themselves. Is it a mere coincidence that Marilyn Monroe is one of the biggest fashion icons of our time, as the jeans still are one of the largest markets in the fashion world today?

However, although the points above may seem important for the equality between the genders we see at the present, the jeans’ effect on the female liberation is rather irrelevant. Another aspect which might be more worthy of examination is the oppositely directed question. How did the female emancipation affect the jeans? Or even further, how did time spirit in general affect the jeans? Starting out in the middle of the century, 1950, one can see that the clear cut and straight, if not narrow leg had been strongly influenced by the quite optimistic mood of the fifties, but also the ideals that it had. Perhaps the narrow leg was a way of expressing fear of moving outside boundaries. The appearance of the jeans could easily be reflected on the simplicity in furniture fashion.
During the sixties, and if not even more obvious in the seventies, the leg became wider and wider. This corresponded to the idealism of the fifties and was perhaps a way of showing discontent of the older generations. The wide leg could be interpreted as if the youths wanted to be able to stop bother about the templates that the adult generations had built up, to be able to walk freely, which would explain the growth of the leg. Another perspective could be that the mob in general was tired of living under a constant threat of a third world war, where the wide end of the leg would also symbolize a wish to walk freely, but in this case, not having to watch every single step.

Even though the political debate could be seen so clearly in the jeans of the fifties to the seventies, this phenomenon would soon change. During the eighties and nineties, jeans became nothing more than jeans. Since we had already seen all the jeans models we could think of, the only thing there was to change was the length. The shorter the better. Nevertheless, the jeans never became the same political tool as it had been in the past, but rather a competition between companies in order to see who could attract the most attention.

To summarize this essay, I would like to say that the jeans perhaps have not played a magnificent role in emancipating the women. Neither did the women play a significant role in shaping the jeans. However, the jeans can be held responsible for causing key points in history to occur. Without Marilyn Monroe, Rosie the Riveter and the zipper, the genders would probably not be as equal as they are today. Therefore it is faulty to assume that the jeans did not play a significa...

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