What We Learned From 10 Influential Women in Fashion

Style Notes

When it came down to choose just ten fashion icons from the past century, it was an absolute struggle to narrow it down. Lucja reflects on a myriad of incredible influential women from the ages, who have changed fashion forever.

Art by Tenya Chen

Greta Garbo

An American actress who glamourised cinema during the original Roaring Twenties, Garbo worked her way up to model hats at a department store — making connections that led her to fame. She was best known for her portrayals of captivatingly mysterious, strong-willed heroines that reflected her own character. Throughout the 1920s, Garbo appeared in romantic dramas such as Flesh and the Devil (1927), Love (1927), A Woman of Affairs (1928) and The Kiss (1929). 

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/Kobal/Shutterstock (5885060j) Greta Garbo Greta Garbo Portrait

Often dressed in ultra-elegant gowns that framed her face, known as the Garbo look, she wore seductive dresses dripping with sensual glamour that reflected her on-screen characters. These magnificent creations were primarily produced by couture dressmakers who worked with loose, sophisticated shapes, favouring camel, black, navy, white and beige colours. Even though Garbo wore couture gowns, she dressed for herself and not for others. Garbo also sported grey suits from Givenchy and silk Capri trousers and colourful shirts from Emilio Pucci, always radiated dangerous beauty and glamour, no matter what she wore.

Whether dressing down or dressing up in glitzy glamour, Garbo habitually completed her ensemble with a hat — specifically, the slouch fedora, typically worn by men. This sexy, classic, androgynous allure signified strong individuality and originality from the previous Hollywood image. Garbo was also among the first women to wear well-tailored trousers, often paired with men’s shirts, ties, vests and camel coloured, trench-coats! By crossing the feminine-masculine boundary, Garbo established that fashion can be comfortable and casual for women, maintaining the same glamorous effect as a dress. Garbo showed that women could pull off both masculine and feminine dress with remarkable poise that was much admired. Her effortless and mysterious elegance has been exhibited by many designers such as Yves Saint Laurent to Stella McCartney.   

Anna May Wong

The first Asian-American queen of screen, Wong faced numerous challenges, from being denied lead roles due to her race; to being fetishised. Being a silent screen star, her outfits were a tool of visual expression, and ranged from headdresses to alluring qipaos — a body-hugging, silk (or cotton) dress with distinctive, Chinese features. Wong was a designer favourite, being voted as ‘the world’s best-dressed woman’ in 1934 by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York.

The clean, sharp and lean silhouettes of the qipaos portrayed her in a sassy, yet poised, demeanour. The Eastern exoticism depicted in Wong’s films introduced the West to Eastern fashion trends, which have become famous throughout the following decades and even today.

Wong has been fundamental in not only paving the way for Asian actors in Hollywood and inspiring designers, but also familiarising Eastern fashion with diamante embellishments, introducing side-boob, backless gowns, drop earrings and anything made of silk as references to her Chinese heritage. More recently, Wong has influenced the Louis Vuitton 2011 Spring/Summer Collection, sporting traditional Chinese dresses with a Vuitton twist. 

Katharine Hepburn

Not only does the iconic Ms Hepburn hold more Oscars than any actor in history, she embodied the modern spirit of women in the post-suffrage age. She was strong-willed, outspoken and unconventional, which made her alluring- an ultimate Hollywood rebel. Hepburn broke the boundaries of what it was to be a ‘‘conventional’’ woman, instead demonstrating that women could wear whatever they wanted, famously stating “if you always do what interests you at least one person is pleased”. 

Notably, when a pair of her denim jeans were confiscated from her dressing room on set, Hepburn refused to wear a skirt and roamed the set in her knickers until her jeans were returned. She never let the social structures of Hollywood dictate what she wore.

As one of the original wearers of androgynous clothing, Hepburn’s style was attached to her personal sense of autonomy and comfort, not to glamour. She owned her power through masculinity and wearing tailored tomboy attire. Even though Hepburn was a fashion minimalist, never over-accessorising and preferring a glossy, red lipstick and well-groomed eyebrows, she still oozed with elegance and illustrated that simplicity goes a long way.

She popularised the modern, achiever 20th-century woman aesthetic: trousers, flat shoes and little makeup. Her contribution towards making trousers a norm, rather than the gateway drug to female perversion, was significant. It worked towards equality where women could adopt qualities of men, without judgement. Most significantly, Hepburn inspired women with her personal philosophy; style is not about clothing but the woman herself! She demonstrated this as a regular jacket could look pathetic on anyone else, but was transformed with Hepburn’s confidence. Hepburn knew how to play with elements from both menswear and womenswear with her attitude. If one feels comfortable and sexy in something then that is expressed by their attitude, no matter what they wear. 

Bianca Jagger

Nicaraguan-born model Bianca Jagger wears a double-brested white suit as she and her daughter Jade walk across the street in front of a group of policemen in London, May 4, 1979. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Queen of the power suit, Jagger caused fashion controversy when she rocked a YSL wedding suit in St. Tropez. Whilst the marriage didn’t last, her impact on the fashion industry certainly did. She transformed the suit from masculine attire to a symbol of style and red-carpet elegance regardless of where she was and what she was doing — Jagger was a bastion of the stylish, independent woman. 

In 2020, designers have frolicked with an innovative interpretation of her original wedding suit. Most recently, celebrity Emily Ratajkowski channelled the Bianca Jagger look for her City Hall wedding in 2018, wearing a mustard-coloured Zara suit. 

Ali MacGraw

Another timeless star of screen, MacGraw was known for her natural look, pin-straight hair, preppy bohemian outfits and woollen hats that became a trend for 1970s fashion. Love Story saw her in ready-knits, camel coats, leather gloves and chic hats — the perfect building block for the flawless autumn wardrobe that is always in vogue and continues to inspire designers today. 

MacGraw also pioneered the preppy bohemian style of a generation. Reflected in the 70s poster girl with high-neck blouses, whimsical prints, knee-high boots and flowing silhouetted dresses, this style unified the classic bohemian flair with the New England preppy style with which she grew up.  The Paisley patterns, floral swirls and wistful prints were essential to MacGraw’s romantic style, and she often emblazoned crochet hats to complete her ensembles. 

As the goddess of bohemian flair, naturally, Macgraw inspired modern bohemian styled collections, and her ensembles are just as relevant today. The Chloé Spring/Summer 2020 runway collection has been infused with a fresh, sophisticated take on a polished approach to daywear with the 1970s bohemian spirit.

Diana Ross

An icon in both popular culture and cultural change, Ross helped break the racial ceiling by weaponising fashion and defining the Swinging Sixties’ fashion industry. As part of The Supremes, never before had a young black group used visual signifiers to make them palatable to a white audience. It was sequins and a whole lot of glitter, inspired the musical Dreamgirls

Renowned for her legendary, maximalist style, Ross personified big curls, bold furs, baby doll lashes and dazzling jewels. It makes sense that her wardrobe would be embellished enough for musical royalty who singularly transformed the fashion landscape with her affinity for luxury and unadulterated glamour. Not only were her clothes draped in sequins, but her confident attitude exemplified her as a stunningly powerful woman in whatever she wore. Whether sporting hot-pink, sequined jumpsuits or sultry plunging sequin gowns, she was a visionary. 

Along with Beyonce, Madonna and Michael Jackson, Ross has influenced many performers with not only her music but also her slaying’ fashion sense. In the 2014 annual CFDA Awards, Solange Knowles hit the red carpet almost identical to the ’70s disco diva Diana Ross. Knowles also donned Ross’ voluminous, natural afro-hair as the singer always believed the bigger the hair, the better! 

Donyale Luna

As the world’s first black supermodel, Luna characterised herself as ‘out of this world’ and began changing the fashion industry and the understanding of beauty. She developed crazy runway walks including moving like a robot and crawling on all fours like a stalking animal; further signifying her eccentric feline features. Luna was human artwork with her uniquely arresting visual presence that enchanted the overwhelmingly white fashion world. 

Before Luna, there were no modelling opportunities for non-white individuals other than dedicated African-American publications such as Ebony. Almost against her own will, she became a symbol for African-American resistance. Like many others, Luna could never escape prejudice. Luna was not hugely interested in being a black icon and was unenthusiastic about participating in race-centred discourse. 

Sporting a Chloé dress and dramatic gold Mimi de N earrings, Luna became the first black covergirl of Vogue. Even though there is still a long way to go with complete equality — up until 2013 British Vogue only featured three black models on the cover — Luna’s astonishing beauty, unusual poses, style and personality marked a change in the history of fashion. Ultimately, Luna transcended racial politics by just being herself.

Josephine Baker

An iconic dancer, singer, French Resistance agent, and civil rights activist, Baker stimulated audiences with her uniquely glamorous sense of style. Throughout her performing career, she demonstrated how her platform and style choices could change the world and people’s views of individuals and even themselves. 

The 1920s Art Deco movement influenced Baker’s sophisticated style in Paris, where sleek geometric or stylised forms and human-made materials were incorporated into fashion. Baker quickly gained fame due to her shameless costumes and bold dancing. Her accessories also epitomised the luxury and wealth of the 1920s. She paired ropes of pearls with door-knocker earrings; oversized cocktails rings with feather tutus and headpieces. For Baker, more was more!

Using fashion to revolutionise society, Baker redefined the symbols of wealth, womanhood and race within French society. Baker was sexy, but not a sex object! This suggested that women are not to be used and abused by men. Even though her audiences were predominantly white, Baker’s performances followed African themes and style. Ultimately, Baker’s distinct style, boldness and complete fearlessness awarded her with fame. She was even known as the ‘Black Venus’ and ‘Black Pearl’ of Europe! At the same time, she dismantled the social systems and cultural beliefs where these fantasies originated. 

By reclaiming a supposedly ‘primitive’ aesthetic, Baker personified the image of exotic and erotic style and introduced Europeans to African women’s beauty by celebrating her own authenticity. Again, Baker embraced her sexuality as a black, flamboyant jazz star and set the path for the awareness and element of power over her audience. Due to her unique glamour and style, Baker was a role model for understanding herself in her surroundings whilst standing in playful control of her image.

Lauren Bacall

Making her breakthrough co-starring with Humphrey Bogart (her future husband) in To Have and Have Not, we have Bacall to thank for not only some amazing movies, but also for the houndstooth blazer.

Creative yet eccentric, Bacall had a genuine, effortless elegance that could never be faulted! Along with her famous beauty, Bacall stuck to a distinct style of broad shoulders and so preferred structured silhouettes as well as the fluid drapery from long gowns, midi skirts, wide-legged trousers and silky blouses. She favoured clothing that showed off her midriff and became a silky, liquid fabric lover. Bacall knew what outfits brought out her confidence whilst enhancing her allure.

A duotone textile pattern characterised by broken checks or abstract four-pointed shapes, often in black and white, houndstooth was Bacall’s look. In her first film, costume designer Milo Anderson created a fitted checked suit with a peplum jacket. The houndstooth and peplum, a short, full-flounce or an extension of a garment below the waist, covering the hips such as a short skirt attached to the jacket, served as her primary movie outfit. Bacall seduced the audience with the feminine, houndstooth suit.

Elements of Bacall’s houndstooth suits have heavily influenced the fashion industry today. The timeless pattern has been reproduced in everything from coats, dresses to clutches and pumps — and even our very own David Jones department store logo. example, Alexander McQueen has recreated the jacket to give it a more punk-inspired feel.  

What started as a costume in To Have and Have Not, as a two-piece suit, has influenced fashion design.  Whether styled with two matching houndstooth pieces or worn as a statement piece- paired with black, white or even red garments — Bacall’s spirit lives on!

Eartha Kitt

An iconic American singer-dancer and actress, Kitt rose to stardom as she made her acting debut as Helen of Troy in Time Runs, an Orson Welles adaptation of Faust, in 1950 along with her best-selling record, Santa Baby. Kitt’s success continued in nightclubs, theatre productions and television appearance; particularly the role of Catwoman in the late 1960s series Batman where she gained a reputation as one of the first black sex symbols with her cat-like frame and distinctive voice. Staying true to her role, she never shied away from a bold, animal print! 

Wanting to depart from hour-glass, silk and satin dresses of the 1950s, along with the prejudice of the era, Kitt paved the way to animal print by appearing in tight, cheetah-print dresses in the 1960s. In this way, she reached enduring ubiquity as ‘60s fashion turned tighter and more suggestive. Kitt radiated beauty, strength, power and sex appeal as the print embodied the feline qualities. 

Today, the print can have a ‘basic’ label, but it has been widely accepted as a professional garment. To keep things fresh, designers have reimagined their favourite animal prints in punched-up versions; from saturated neutrals to deep reds, electric greens and vibrant yellows. Tom Ford led the charge with loud, playful, leopard prints decked out in 1980s excess and a touch of 1960s mod on feminine pieces in his Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. 

Kitt’s distinct sense of style brought head to toe fabulousness as it was thanks to her, the cat continues to be a recurrent character in fashion. Designers such as PPQ and Givenchy are still using the tamed feline as an inspiration in 2011, sending out models on the catwalk with hats and helmets ornamented with ears. Without Kitt, Ariana Grande wouldn’t have accessorised wearing cat ears as a profound fashion statement. 

So there you have it! The next time you’re feeling stuck on what to wear, why not take a leaf out of any of these inspirational womens’ arsenal’s.

1 thought on “What We Learned From 10 Influential Women in Fashion”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I hadn’t heard of some of these women but it was so inspiring to read about how each of them have taught us things and made such an impact on our society today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s