snapshot of fashion design illustrations showing female fashion icons.
Photo by Charlota Blunarova via Unsplash

5 Female Fashion Icons Who Changed History

Famous women throughout history have influenced both fashion trends and societal change while looking good doing it.

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snapshot of fashion design illustrations showing female fashion icons.
Photo by Charlota Blunarova via Unsplash

Famous women throughout history have influenced both fashion trends and societal change while looking good doing it.

Clothing is a way of expressing oneself — whether it be through lace and frills or minimalist practicality. Famous women throughout the decades have impacted style trends, securing their roles as fashion icons.

However, aside from their dashing apparel, strong women have long been overlooked for their influence and ability to make change happen. With their trailblazing impact and stylish garments, the following famous women have shown us that beauty is inside and out.

Queen Elizabeth I

Described by some as Britain’s first feminist and female fashion icon, the 1533-born monarch insisted on ruling independently, refusing to renounce or share her power. Queen Elizabeth I never married, something she used to her advantage politically.

Queen Elizabeth I saw her queendom through a plethora of religious, political and financial conflicts despite the backlash. She once stated, “Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.”

Elizabeth’s appearance was often intense, making a bold statement. Adorned in a stiff corset, frilly ruff collar, and gowns embellished with jewels, she was a sight to behold.

She broke gender roles while simultaneously celebrating her femininity. She displayed traditionally “masculine” strength alongside her opulent outfits, using weaponry and armor as accessories during the Spanish Armada’s attempt to invade Britain.

A part of her look was chalky white makeup, giving her an ethereal ghost-like appearance. Ironically, this makeup may have been what killed her. Known as Venetian ceruse, she used thick cosmetics to conceal smallpox scars, something she was incredibly insecure about. But, the makeup contained lead, a toxic substance that can deteriorate skin and hair, leading to deadly poisoning. Her makeup became a style trend nonetheless, alongside something even more strange — her rotten teeth. The Queen loved to eat sweets and only those with wealth could afford sugar.

Dentistry was nonexistent at the time, so Elizabeth I’s teeth blackened and decayed. Being able to afford sugar, and thus having poor teeth, became an aristocrat-inspired fashion trend. Despite the outright strangeness of these trends, people still love to aestheticize what’s considered wealthy, such as the recent obsession with “old money” style.

Josephine Baker

Famous as a 1920s American-born French entertainer, Baker’s style was scandalous, opulent and bedazzled in jewels. She helped originate the beloved clothing staple of miniskirts with her famous rubber banana skirt.  Unfortunately, Baker was subjected to racism, fetishization and stereotypes, as she was considered the first Black superstar. However, according to Vogue, when she strutted across the stage, she “clowned and seduced and subverted stereotypes.”

By reclaiming her image, she advanced her career in ways unprecedented for a woman of that time. Her scantily dressed yet glamorous style has become a part of cultural memory — Rihanna paid tribute with her crystal-covered sheer dress that was “barely there,” and Beyonce wore a rubber banana skirt for a performance. Baker was listed by Time Magazine as one of the All-Time 100 Fashion Icons.

Baker’s immense societal impact goes far beyond her fashion choices. Beyond her glamorous stage presence, Baker was also an anti-Nazi spy during World War II, using her unassuming star persona to obtain messages for the French Resistance. She smuggled documents under her dresses and hid them in her sheet music in invisible ink.

Baker eavesdropped and hid transcripts in her bra, and used her female-fashion-icon status to help save people, living a double life. She was a Civil Rights activist in the 1950s and ’60s as well and refused to perform at segregated theaters. Baker even spoke at one of the most important American historical events, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Audrey Hepburn

Belgian-born icon Audrey Hepburn once eloquently stated, “For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone.” Despite this powerful statement, society primarily associates Hepburn with her physical beauty. The 1950s and ’60s British actress is best known for her roles in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Funny Face” as well as her trendsetting style.

Known for her dainty elegance with pearls and streamlined silhouettes, Hepburn also “feminized” traditionally masculine garments, bringing pedal pusher pants and black polo necks into style.

Beyond her chic appearance, Hepburn was also an activist. Her family had moved to Holland during World War II because of assumed neutrality but ended up almost starving after the Nazis stopped food supplies from circulating. Despite her parents sympathizing with the Nazis, she helped raise money for the Dutch Resistance and Jewish refugees by dancing as a teen. She used her seeming innocence to help deliver goods and messages to Allied troops. Fame did not end her humanitarian impact, though.

In the last years of her life, she helped UNICEF in Africa, the same organization that provided resources to her during World War II. She did not volunteer for performative reasons, as many celebrities do, but out of empathy and the goodness of her heart.

Grace Jones

The Jamaican-born model, actress and singer is a jack of all trades. Known for her new wave music that incorporated genres such as reggae and disco, the performer was identified as “the most pioneering queen of pop” by BBC. Jones, amid the mish-mosh of styles in the 1970s and ’80s, has consistently held a timeless and sleek fashion sense. It is difficult to define Jones’ style, as her outfits are always bold statements — a bit sultry, a bit punk and always high fashion.

An important aspect of her style is androgyny, wearing blazers and blinged-out bras all the same. Through her persona, Jones has had a lasting impact — celebrating her Black identity and challenging gender norms while demonstrating the power of expressing oneself.

Her stardom was powerful when viewed against 1980s Reagan-era conservatism, which opposed feminism and rallied for traditional gender roles. She once stated, “I feel feminine when I feel feminine. I feel masculine when I feel masculine. I am a role switcher.”

Iris Apfel

Jewish New Yorker Iris Apfel is the definition of a female fashion icon, known for her oversized glasses and pattern mixing. She has been featured in Vogue, starred in a documentary by filmmaking legend Albert Maysles, and has collaborated countless times with fashion brands. Even at 100 years old, she is still hard at work.

Apfel found her unique look while traveling the globe with her husband for their textile manufacturing business, picking up a worldly style sensibility. In 2005, Apfel had an exhibit of her collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rocketing the fashion icon into stardom.

As Iris Apfel entered her older years, she didn’t replace her eclectic style with kitschy sweaters and fuzzy slippers — if anything, her style only grew with age. She proves that fashion can be bold, no matter how old.

As women across the globe get dressed, putting on theoretical armor to face the day, they are not too different from Queen Elizabeth I, who used literal weaponry as an accessory to prove her strength.

Power comes in many forms and is beyond physical appearance, but it must feel nice to change the world — and simultaneously wear a fierce outfit while doing it.

Writer Profile

Lena Bramsen

The New School
Liberal Arts

Lena Bramsen has interests in writing, film and art history. When she is not crafting her next story, she is exploring the beautiful oddities that make up her lifelong home of New York City.

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