HERSTORY

Are this season’s “pussy bow” blouses feminist?

Obsession
Fashion
Obsession
Fashion

As Gucci’s runway show made clear again yesterday (Sept. 23), Alessandro Michele, the brand’s new creative director, is the undisputed king of the pussy bow blouse.

A billowy top with a floppy bow tied at its neck, it’s one of fall’s biggest fashion trends. It also happens to have a history charged by gender politics, and surely one of the most potent names in all of sartorial nomenclature.

The blouse is just about everywhere lately. Since at least last fall, it’s been turning up in the collections of top designers, including Haider Ackermann and Bottega Veneta. But it was Gucci’s Michele who set the agenda for the season with his gender-bending womenswear debut for Gucci. His delightfully nerdy fashion grandmas sported them in numerous iterations, as did many of the guys in his earlier menswear collection.

Since then, pussy bows have been the subject of Vogue trend pieces, and have reportedly been selling well at contemporary retailers too. Notably, they’re also a throwback to the power-dressing of professional women of the 1970s and 1980s, though it’s apparently debatable whether that connotation is positive or not.

In a piece about their surging popularity among millennials, Bloomberg (which opts to call them “tie-neck blouses”) describes them as “reviled by feminists.” The blouses, it explains, were part of the corporate uniform of women trying to conform in the male-dominated workplaces of those decades.

But whether they’re a symbol of oppression or liberation may depend on who you ask.

In Makers: Women Who Make America, a PBS documentary about the women’s movement in the US, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman talks about wearing “button-down shirts and a little bow tie, because that was sort of our interpretation of the man’s tie.” That prim, less droopy bow was an attempt, she says, “to be feminine but fit into what was then a male world.” A 2013 piece on the website Jezebel hailed “the feminist history behind the pussy bow blouse,” with Whitman’s comments as evidence of the garment’s empowering history.

The Jezebel piece also asserts (approvingly) that the name is a reference to a woman’s anatomy. But given that the pussy bow is also called a pussycat bow, it more likely derives from the bows people used to tie on their cats’ necks.

Most don’t appear to like the name much. In a recent survey, Glamour magazine found that 96% of respondents wanted to rename the blouse. The leading candidate: the “Thatcher collar.”

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister throughout the 1980s, donned them so frequently they became part of her signature style. She was happily known as being tough, which helped earn her the nickname “Iron Lady,” but wore pussy bow blouses because she thought they were “rather softening and pretty.” They served to feminize her image as she—Britain’s first and up to now only female prime minister—did what was seen as a man’s job.

Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand with the guest book at Lille Town Hall in northern France on Jan. 20, 1986, after announcing the Anglo-French agreement to build a Channel Tunnel rail link under the English Channel. The tunnel will be a high speed rain link.
A soft touch for the Iron Lady. (AP Photo)
American Apparel's "Secretary Blouse"
An actual office worker might want to wear a shirt underneath.

That same professional-yet-feminine appeal made these bows such a staple of women’s office wear that they became practically synonymous with it, and to some extent still bear the gender connotations of those decades. American Apparel has a pussy bow blouse for sale on its site that it calls by another common, if rather retrograde, name for the style: the “Secretary Blouse.” It’s not clear whether the name is ironic or not.

When Michele shows the blouses on men and women, however, he toys with that symbolism and subverts it. It’s part of the reason his take on the pussy bow feels fresh, like Miuccia Prada’s did in the early 2000s.

Of course, the average woman buying a pussy bow blouse today probably isn’t thinking about any of that. The test is whether she thinks it looks good. Sales indicate that she does.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search