Fashion & History

Women Behind the Cloth: A Celebration

From the untold narratives of the women who have shaped the very fabric of fashion history, to the revolutionary designs of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, globally, women have made indelible marks on the ever-evolving world of style. But the industry has often been at war with gender. We unravel the history of the female pioneers, trendsetters, and innovators whose vision transcended boundaries, challenging norms and redefining elegance, as we celebrate the enduring legacy of women in fashion throughout the ages. And even as we acknowledge women, it's essential to recognize and applaud the contributions of individuals across all genders.
Yue Qing Wei CollectionCourtesy of Yue Qing Wei


Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Diane von Fürstenberg, Miuccia Prada, Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, and Donna Karan are some of the most influential women in fashion historically. As a collective, they can be credited with revolutionizing styles, forging timeless and staple garments, introducing new techniques, driving the economy, influencing contemporary culture, and breaking down barriers with fearless creativity. It’s therefore easy to make sweeping statements that women have been one of the biggest driving forces of the fashion industry. After all, their creativity, innovation, and determination have helped shape the way we perceive and engage with fashion today.

However, if we look beneath the surface, the gender gap within the industry is enormous. Much of the work that women have done has gone unnoticed, unclaimed, undervalued, often unpaid, and frequently forgotten.

According to the International Labour Organization’s findings, nearly 60% of garment workers globally were women, and at the same time, they make up the most disproportionately vulnerable, mistreated, and underpaid of all workers across the industry. In an industry that’s forecast to reach approximately $900 billion globally in 2024, according to Statista, do we truly recognize the contribution of women in this global market?


Maja Baczynska CollectionCourtesy of Maja Baczynska


Step into the illustrious tapestry of fashion history where the remarkable contributions of women have intricately woven themselves into the very essence of the industry. From Glasgow's textile renaissance in the 1800s, where the resolute spirit of women formed the sturdy backbone of the workforce, threading together the very fabric of innovation and progress, to the enchanting era of the Belle Époque, where the French fashion scene radiated with feminine flair and finesse. Here, female dressmakers reigned supreme, their skilled hands crafting masterpieces that captivated the world with their elegance and sophistication. In this opulent landscape, women's influence transcended mere trends; it became an indelible mark, shaping the cultural landscape of fashion for generations to come.

Their legacy, a testament to resilience and creativity, continues to echo through the corridors of time, reminding us that the power of women in fashion knew, and knows no bounds. From the bustling mills of Glasgow to the haute couture houses of Paris, their imprint remains etched in the annals of style, forever celebrated and revered.


Mara Danz CollectionCourtesy of Mara Danz


The expertise introduced by immigrant communities to the textile and fashion sectors, spanning from the early modern era to the postmodern age is indisputable. Moving towards the 20th and 21st centuries, in the UK for example, early migrants from Cyprus and Turkey often found employment in textile factories across the UK, with both Greek Cypriot, Turkish Cypriot and Turkish entrepreneurs establishing thriving businesses in the diaspora—though many men set up and worked within these thriving businesses, it was the women who particularly excelled in sectors such as tailoring and dress-making, contributing to the rich British fashion scene. In stark contrast, however, 2010 media reports including an investigation by Channel 4 found fast-fashion made in unsafe buildings under deplorable conditions in Leicester where the female South Asian community makes up a large proportion of Leicester’s garment industry and became a focal point for an investigative essay exploring ‘Race and Hostility in Britain’s Fast Fashion Industry’.

Despite such stark contrast, the imprint of female garment makers, couturiers, artisans and leadership is undeniable and more so now than ever before, a plethora of women are the leaders of small and large-scale brands, many of which are celebrated for shaping brands, continuing and often raising heritage brands into a new era with modern constraints, and influencing a new way of dressing. Yet, amidst these triumphs, challenges persist. Gender inequality still looms large, and the need for more female leadership and craftsmanship remains urgent, serving as a rallying cry for continued progress and empowerment.


Adeline Rappaz CollectionCourtesy of Adeline Rappaz


Together, let's celebrate the resilience, creativity, and unparalleled contributions of women behind the cloth. So, what can we do to celebrate, and perhaps make a difference? 


Highlight Their Achievements: Share stories and profiles of influential women in fashion and celebrate their contributions to the industry and recognise their successes.

Support Female-Owned Brands: Seek out and support fashion brands and labels founded or led by women.

Amplify Voices: Elevate the voices of women in fashion by sharing their insights, perspectives, and experiences.

Promote Diversity and Inclusion: Advocate for greater diversity and inclusivity in the fashion industry, ensuring that women from all backgrounds have opportunities to thrive. Support initiatives and organisations that promote equality and representation.

Mentorship and Collaboration: Mentor aspiring women in fashion by sharing your knowledge, experience, and resources. Collaborate on projects, workshops, or events that foster community and support networking opportunities.

Celebrate Trailblazers: Recognize and honour trailblazing women who have broken barriers and paved the way for future generations in fashion and pay tribute to their legacy and inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Educational Initiatives: Support educational programs and initiatives that empower women to pursue careers in fashion.

Encourage Self-Expression: Celebrate individuality and self-expression in fashion, encouraging women to embrace their unique style and creativity. Create spaces where women feel empowered to express themselves through fashion without fear of judgement or criticism.

Further Reading

International Labour Organization: How to achieve gender equality.
A Gender Gap: Why Do Men Still Rule The (Fashion) World? 
Exploitation or emancipation? Women workers in the garment industry.
History Works: Migrant Textile Workers and Irish Activism in Victorian Dundee.

Visit NJAL | The Shop and discover our curation Women at the Helm, celebrating the dynamic creativity and empowering spirit of women-owned brands.