From the Anti-Rape Bra to Chastity Belts: How Women Use Clothing for Protection
“You might find a bit of armor useful when you become queen,” Cersei Lannister recently told a female rival on Game of Thrones. But her advice could just as easily apply to women from all walks of life—particularly now, in the aftermath of a series of high-profile sexual assaults around the world. In a reflex response to the quest for a societal aegis, a number of contemporary clothing designers have found armor (or a variation thereof) useful as a form of protection for women. Most recently, three Indian engineering students designed a bra even more kick-ass than the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms’ chest plate. The so-called Society Harnessing Equipment (SHE) reportedly delivers 82 shocks in response to an unwanted touch and was designed as “retaliation against menaces in society” after last year’s gang rape in Delhi.
In the same month that SHE was unveiled, the India Times reported that two students at India's National Institute of Fashion Technology had created an "anti-molestation jacket" that unleashes 110 volts when it detects unwanted advances. The coat (available in both denim and acrylic) was reportedly created in 2004, though it is still awaiting patent.
But India hasn’t cornered the market on protective fashion. In Japan six years ago, designer Aya Tsukioka invented what The New York Times dubbed “urban camouflage.” She reportedly took her cue from ancient ninjas (who camouflaged themselves in black at night) to create a skirt that doubled as a vending-machine disguise. She also designed an emergency "manhole bag," a flat purse that could be thrown on the ground to double as a sewer.
Among the other latest accessories souped up to safeguard women is an “anti-rape” belt created by two Swedish teens in 2005. It includes a buckle that requires a complex path for removal. "It's like a reverse chastity belt," one of the creators told Agence France-Presse, referring to the medieval girdle said to have been used to keep women’s virginity under lock and key (though a story in the Mirror in 2000 claimed Chinese women in Indonesia had since adapted it as a means of avoiding rape). Then there’s the new trend of what xoJane described last year as “pretty weapons designed for bad ass girls:” pepper spray disguised as lipstick, pink cellphones that double as stun guns, and even knife-wielding necklaces.
Shira Tarrant, co-editor of 2012's Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style, a treatise on the politics of contemporary style, believes these newfangled attempts at arming women have symbolic importance. “Things like camouflage and body armor and ninja fashion, these have all been used in warfare—and rape is the everyday war that women face,” she tells The Daily Beast. “The fact that our fashion designs are beginning to reflect this means that we're shifting awareness about how seriously we're taking these issues.”
Still, she accedes that what you wear can serve as a shield without the garments being literally rigged. “There are ways that I might clothe myself that are aesthetically pleasing, but also don’t highlight certain aspects of my sexual body. That’s a form of armor. It’s like armor lite,” she says. One of the examples she offered was the uniform worn by ’90s riot grrrls, the feminist punk rockers whose bands, including Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, regularly spoke out against rape and in support of empowerment. These were the women who made flowing “tentlike” baby-doll dresses and “kick ass” combat boots fashionable.
Along those lines, Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, dismissed protective clothing as being outside the realm of fashion. Instead she thinks contemporary fashion’s “psychological aspects of protection” are more pertinent than its physical aspects. “The early theories of fashion tended to focus on the idea that dress was originally and primarily about protection, meaning essentially physical protection,” she tells The Daily Beast, and gives the example of shoes protecting feet. “Later theorists pretty much rejected the functional origins of dress and suggested instead that dress is much more about symbolic communication, particularly to display gender, sexuality, position in society, et cetera.”
Fashion can empower, even if it can’t protect. The little black dress is “like armor” in the sense that it bestows confidence on its wearer, Steele says. Not to mention Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic pantsuit, which started the ball rolling toward equality couture. In 1966 the French designer created a tuxedo suitable for women, called Le Smoking, which, according to Vogue, for the first time positioned the so-called second sex “at glittering galas standing lapel-to-lapel with a roomful of men in black.” In the 1980s Le Smoking became the power suit, and those glittering galas became executive offices. All this is not to say that men’s clothing has not historically served a physically protective function.
In the past, sporting male attire enabled women to camouflage their vulnerability, which was considered synonymous with their gender. Evidence suggests that to protect herself from being raped by 15th-century prison guards, French saint Joan of Arc dressed in drag. Several other women throughout history have also cross-dressed to ease their movement through society. Such was the case with Isabelle Eberhardt, who traveled through North Africa in the late 19th century, and author George Sand, in the same era, whose masculine garb supposedly became her VIP pass to male-only venues.
In the Victorian era, women began to arm themselves with their own accessories. Hat pins were considered the go-to tool for self-defense in the 19th century, said Edwina Ehrman, curator of textiles and fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Historical evidence reveals that these accessories, which could reach up to 13 inches, were “every woman’s weapon” against male threat. Also in the 1800s, historians have suggested that with the advent of industrialization, women who were working in close proximity with men for the first time packed not only their lunchboxes but also their chastity belts to prevent sexual harassment.
Even Queen Victoria’s parasol was equipped with chain mail, which was created for her in the 1840s after she survived several attempts on her life. “Possibly made by a manufacturer, or perhaps devised by her husband, Prince Albert, the parasol incorporates a layer of chain mail between the outer green silk cover and the lining,” Ehrman told The Daily Beast via email. “The parasol is very heavy, 1468 grams [3 pounds], and difficult to hold upright so the Queen probably never used it.”
Though the effectiveness of defensive female fashion, even when it is used, may never be quantified, there is a danger that this genre of clothing directly contradicts the feminist adage that rape has nothing to do with what women wear. However, Tarrant, an associate professor of women’s studies at the California State University, thinks inventions like SHE and Tsukioka’s vending-machine skirt serve a similar purpose to SlutWalk (the protest march dates back to 2011, when women in Toronto purposefully wore revealing clothing to fight the myth that rape depends on dress). “The solution is not to have Kevlar fashion,” Tarrant said, “but to the extent that SlutWalk put [rape] on the table for discussion, I think the same holds true for the anti-rape fashion.”