What my favorite vintage dress taught me about feminism

It’s the end-of-year, time-for-reflection time and we’re thinking back to all the HelloGiggles stories that we truly loved in 2014. Here’s just one of our faves, which was originally published on May 13, 2014 

Let me tell you about this dress: It’s black raw silk with princess sleeves, a cinched waist, a high collar and very short hemline. It’s the kind of dress you’d wear to a 1960s advertising agency or a very scandalous funeral. It hits every high note on my style scale, in fact, it’s perfect, except: it buttons from the back. The problem is not just a button. It’s the button on the back of my favorite vintage dress that I just cannot reach.

Here’s why this drives me crazy: a) I can reach all five of the other buttons b) this button happens to be positioned right at the center of my back where my bra line rests c) the hole it presents when unbuttoned is very revealing — not only in the literal sense, but in the way that world can see a simple fact of my life. That breezeway to my back lets the very perceptive know — without a word — that I live alone. I have no helping hands. When I get dressed it’s usually a solo project. It’s not a secret, and not usually a source of shame, unless I’m wearing the weight of it on my back.

Inevitably, I leave the house looking almost put together, in the hopes that no one notices the opening exposing my bra hook. And inevitably someone always notices.

If you’re a fellow vintage-hound, you understand there is a certain harmony that comes with finding a dress designed for some woman from another era that fits you both physically and psychologically. It’s a kind of “Quantum Leap” moment, where you step into the suit of another generation. What frustrates me about the button on my favorite vintage dress is that I can never completely close the gap. Between two buttons, the fabric is a loudmouth, letting the whole world know I am not the woman intended for this dress.

Recently, I started noticing that all of my favorite vintage dresses and blouses pre-dating the 1970s feature some sort of back button. After a little over-thinking and some Internet investigative work, I realized why: Women dressed differently before the rise of second wave feminism. As in, they physically got dressed differently.

Designers weren’t impractical in assigning back closures, women were just expected to have more helping hands. In 1952, 75 percent of women married by the age of 21, meaning they went from their parents house to their husband’s house. There was always someone there to help with the buttons.

The architecture of clothing is a footnote in the history of divided sexes, and this is particularly true with buttons. Even today men’s shirts open to the right side, while women’s shirts open to the left side. The reasoning, according to historians, is that most people are right-handed and while men often tended to dress themselves, women usually had a family member, or depending on their class, a servant to help them dress. The buttons on women’s shirts were designed for someone else (a righty) to fasten.

Back buttons on women’s clothes were no different. Think about it: Women’s clothing was designed with the expectation that they would not dress themselves. They were treated like children, or dolls, expected to rely on others for even the most basic of tasks. When you think about it this way, the phrase ‘slave to fashion’ takes on new meaning.

That’s not to say the notion of a Marilyn Monroe type, pulling her hair to one side and telling some swarthy gentlemen, to “do me up” isn’t romantic. But it does tell you something about the changes that have taken place since Monroe was a leading lady.

Aside from button-down shirts, contemporary clothes are all side zippers, or easily pliable back zippers, or front buttons. They’re designed for women who can and must dress themselves.

And there are plenty of us.

Today, women are getting married later than ever —the average age, 27, is the oldest on record. Since 1952, the marriage rate has dropped, the divorce rate has spiked, and one-person households have grown over 27 percent. That means I’m not the only one leaving the house with one back button unfastened.

I am at odds with my button theory. At once it suggests that life was rich with company and generally easier in the days of back buttons. But it also suggests a reliance on others, instituted at the most basic level. I covet my independence, I have cultivated an ability to do everything from bill paying to hanging curtains and drilling door locks without relying on others. I have come to realize, through the process of living alone, that I’m surprisingly self-reliant. Maybe that’s why not being able to do something as simple as button a dress frustrates me so completely.

Another thing that happens when you wear vintage clothing: you tend to make it your own. Maybe you shorten it, you take the sleeves in, you add a necklace — you offset the old with something new. For me, that open button is my present-day stamp on a dress that once belonged to someone else. When I reach around like The Exorcist to fasten up, I think of the dress’s original owner pushing her hair to the side and saying, “do me up.” And then I think about my independence, and how being a woman has changed so much it’s impossible to wear something from our collective past without altering it in some way. And I think about how later on, when I’m out in the world wearing my dress, long after I’ve forgotten about the breeze on my back, someone, maybe another woman who lives alone, will notice my open button, and gently fasten it without saying a word. And how nice that will be.

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