Fashion Through the Decades

Alongside people and society, fashion evolves with the times. A brief history of the fashion timeline in the 20th century.

Case study: The corset

The corset is a structured garment designed to shape the torso. It features a bodice with rigid lines and was traditionally worn as an undergarment to reduce the size of the waist, lift the breasts, and train the waist into the desired shape over time. These rigid undergarments hidden beneath clothes gave form to the latest fashions. The corset remains prominent in fashion history as a controversial garment that disfigued the body and put women’s health in danger. 

Corsetry dominated women’s fashion between the 16th and early 20th centuries. They were made increasingly uncomfortable, with whalebone and steel used between the layers of material. They altered women’s bodies into unnatural shapes considered attractive at the time, such as the S-bend corset of the 1900s. 

The corset was later considered detrimental to health, causing many women to faint due to restricted breathing. Eventually, corsetry began to decline in popularity as women switched to wearing brassieres following material shortages during the First World War.

The 1900s

The most fashionable item of clothing during the 1900s was the S-bend corset. The S-bend corset allowed the bosom to hang lower while pushing the hips back, morphing the body into the shape of the figure S. This silhouette ruled women’s fashion and was often called the ‘Pouter Pigeon’ as the puffiness from the waist resembled the bird puffing its chest feathers.

Although the corset forced women’s bodies into a form that was deemed desirable, people’s clothes remained modest. Full-sleeve, full-length dresses typically covered the entire body from the neck down. They were emphasized with extra fabric, frills, puffs, lace, and other forms of embellishment. The trumpet skirt was narrow from the hip to the knee before flaring at the hem. Accessories-wise, enormous hats were the norm, completing the overall look of the sophisticated, well-dressed woman of the 1900s.

Meanwhile, men wore three-piece lounge suits and a range of coats depending on the occasion, such as knee-length top coats and dinner jackets.

The 1910s

The previous contorted shape of the 1900s softened. Several designers liberated women from the corset in favor of more relaxed silhouettes, including Paul Poiret and Lady Duff-Gordon. Their new designs focused on highlighting the natural form of the female body rather than distorting it with heavy, highly-restrictive, and uncomfortable styles. Women were becoming more conscious of the health risks that putting such pressures on their bodies could lead to.

Paul Poiret, in particular, defined the era with his inventive designs. Although he freed women from corsets, he restricted their legs with the hobble skirt, a fitted, ankle-length skirt that grew narrower at the bottom. It made it difficult for women to walk, forcing them to hobble awkwardly. Due to their restricting nature, hobble skirts were relatively short-lived, and historians generally date the wearing of the hobble skirt from 1908 to 1914. Poiret also designed the lampshade tunic, a long shirt with a rigid bottom worn over a hobble skirt or harem trousers.

The 1920s

‘La Garconne’ dominated the 1920s and referenced the style of the flappers. Following the war, people wanted more freedom, swapping formality with comfortable and more relaxed fits. The Roaring Twenties was a time of prosperity and vast economic growth. Many Americans had extra cash to spend on clothes, cars, and other consumer goods. The cultural change meant that people were now leading a more active and sociable lifestyle.

The symbolic 1920s look was the knee-skimming dress that allowed free-spirited women to move and dance with ease. Pleated skirts, cloche hats, and embellished evening wear were all typical elements of the glamorous scene in the Roaring Twenties.

Art Deco, the art and architectural style, emerged in the 1920s and soon crossed over into fashion. The design introduced geometric form, long lines, and vivid colors. It created a modern, sleek, sophisticated aesthetic that radiated luxury and wealth.

French designer Jeanne Lanvin is closely associated with Art Deco fashion, although her most prominent designs arrived in the 1930s. Her evening dresses epitomized the concept of Art Deco as she combined geometry with long, clean lines.

The 1930s

In the 1930s, women left the boyish look of the 1920s behind and returned to the feminine aesthetic. Garments reverted to hugging the female proportions while the silhouette became more slim and elongated. Much of 1930s fashion was heavily influenced by fashionable women in the Hollywood movie industry, like Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, and Vivien Leigh.

A widely adopted style was the bias cut, the technique of cutting the fabric at a 45-degree angle. This allowed the fabric to drape and skim the female curves, creating a slinky silhouette. Beautiful bias-cut gowns in satin were a favorite choice for eveningwear. Another defining trend was the strong shoulder on suits and dresses made with padding and layers. Elsa Schiaparelli pioneered the shoulder pad, but Joan Crawford later popularized it after wearing a flamboyant dress with oversized ruffled shoulders in the 1932 film Letty Lynton. Costume designer Gilbert Adrian created the iconic dress, especially for the film.

The 1940s

World War Two had an overpowering impact on fashion in the first half of the 1940s. Fashion effectively stalled as rations meant clothing styles were limited. In Britain, utility clothing was introduced as part of a rationing scheme in response to the shortage of materials in 1941. Rationing was not as severe in the US, although there were limitations on certain items, such as wool and silk. 

Most of the time, men and women in the 1940s were dressed in either uniform or utility clothes. Everything was less fussy. Utility wear was simple, standardized, and purchased with coupons. It included everything from coats and trousers to shirts, socks, and gloves. 

While clothing felt very military and practical, the 1940s still managed to capture new styles despite the hardships of the time. Things were also looking up when Christian Dior’s groundbreaking silhouette with cinched-in jackets and full skirts heavily defined women’s post-war style. Tailored skirt suits and slimmer skirts were also popular pieces.

The 1950s

1950s fashion has several hallmarks. Women were now embracing new styles as they could afford to shop for clothes after living through the Second World War. While elements of conservatism remained, many designers were now offering more fun and freeing casual wear. 

Christian Dior’s New Look launched in 1947 and maintained popularity in the 1950s. It honored the hourglass figure which dominated the decade, as women wore cinched waistlines and full skirts with exaggerated hips. In 1954, Dior introduced the modern pencil skirt, which also hugged the waist. Unlike his billowing skirts, it created a narrow silhouette. 

Shirtwaist dresses—a dress that buttons at the front from the neck to the waist or hem—became popular as a casual, toned-down alternative to the more oversized silhouettes. For trips to the beach, women were now donning short shorts, halter tops, and peddle pushers. German designer Sonja de Lennart invented capri pants in 1948, and they became a staple in the 1950s wardrobe. Cristóbal Balenciaga flourished during this time, introducing creations that defined his career, like the sack dress and the ‘baby doll’ dress.

The 1960s

The 1960s is a defining decade for fashion. The way people were dressing represented a cultural shift in conventional norms, as fashion began to target a younger market. It was a new era of style, brought about by a youth movement that challenged attitudes. The rise of influential designers further shaped it. 

The decade was full of controversy, with clothes that remain signature looks of a bright, colorful, and optimistic time. Swinging London was the hub of 1960s fashion, with boutiques like Barbara Hulanicki’s Biba and Mary Quant’s Bazaar selling the latest designs to ordinary young people. People flocked to London’s boutique scene to obtain influential clothes that were affordable. 

The groundbreaking trends that came out of the Swinging Sixties include mini skirts and mini dresses, shift dresses, berets, psychedelic prints, color blocking, tie-dye, and vinyl. Mod subculture also emerged in the early 1960s. Mod women donned short haircuts and short hemlines, while mod men wore tailored slim-fit suits, knitted polo shirts, and parka jackets.

The 1970s

The 1970s was another decade bursting with memorable fashion moments. Numerous looks helped define the decade’s style as it moved away from the swinging vibe of the 1960s and toward the modern disco scene. The glamor associated with 1970s fashion blossomed with the rise of disco music. Society continued to progress with the rise of different movements, such as women’s rights, racial equality, and sustainability. 

The hippie movement that began in the 1960s continued into the 1970s, translating through fashion in the form of flowing garments, such as bell bottoms, maxi dresses, and kaftans. Men and women were dressing more alike with a distinctive flared silhouette—tight on the top and loose on the bottom.

The disco side of things was all about the glamor. It featured sequins, sparkles, metallics, flares, and platform shoes. Other defining garments include hot pants, jumpsuits, and halter tops popularized by designers such as Halston and Missoni. 

Elsewhere, punk was emerging as an anti-fashion movement, offering a completely alternative aesthetic to the glitz and glamor.

The 1980s

When the 1980s arrived, everything got more extravagant. A recurring theme throughout 80s fashion was the desire to be bright and bold. It was about making a statement in loud outfits featuring neon colors, quirky patterns, and many accessories, such as leg warmers, hair scrunchies, sheer tights, large earrings, and chunky necklaces. The fabrics of chiffon, silk, lycra, spandex, and velour were unquestionably 1980s. Everything got more prominent, too, with oversized blazers, shoulder pads, parachute pants, baggy t-shirts, and big hair. Silhouettes were oversized and over-the-top compared to the previous decades. 

The everything in excess approach was also prevalent on the catwalks. The Thierry Mugler Fall 1984 show celebrated the tenth anniversary of the brand, with model Pat Cleveland descending from the ceiling as a Madonna-like figure amongst models dressed up as angels. 

Many trendsetters dominated 80s fashion, especially in the music industry, with artists like Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Grace Jones. Elsewhere, Princess Diana remains an 80s style icon thanks to her bold fashion choices. Her ivory taffeta wedding gown for the royal wedding in 1981 when she married Prince Charles is symbolic of the big, flouncy, and exaggerated look that characterized the decade’s fashion. 

The 1990s

The 1990s hit, and we began to say goodbye to the glitz and glamor of the 1970s and 1980s in favor of a more casual way of dressing. In essence, clothes went back to basics as fashion reverted to minimalism. Instead of volume, frills, and padded shoulders, people were now wearing simple slip dresses with spaghetti straps, denim overalls, bike shorts, combat trousers, and baby tees. 

Grunge emerged in Seattle in the late 1980s and soon became widespread. Signature grunge looks included everyday clothing like baggy jeans, flannel shirts, and Dr. Martens boots. Style at this time was also influenced heavily by supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell and other celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Winona Ryder, and Kurt Cobain. 

Calvin Klein, Helmut Lang, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Thierry Mugler are among the most prevalent designers of the decade.

The 2000s

Many trends in the noughties stemmed from the rise of fast fashion and the growing influence of celebrities as fashion icons. The decade witnessed many of trends come in and out of style. At the beginning of the decade, fashions were built around the Y2K aesthetic. Y2K is a distinctive look from the late 1990s and early 2000s when the internet entered the mainstream. It blended popular culture with the latest advancements in technology, creating a mix of futuristic and retro fashion. 

Those growing up at this time typically wore wide-leg jeans, baby tees, trendy sneakers, tracksuits, metallics, and other shiny materials. People couldn’t get enough of jeans either. Low-rise jeans were popular at the start of the era before progressing to skinny jeans and the revival of distressed jeans. 

American casual wear brand Juicy Couture was iconic in the 2000s due to their brightly-colored velour tracksuits with the ‘Juicy’ bling logo printed across the rear.

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