How did fashion progress and help shape societal norms? These are some defining events that changed fashion.
The rise of denim jeans
Jeans are a wardrobe staple, but these casual everyday bottoms have a long history. The blue jean we know and love today, characterized by indigo denim and front and back pockets reinforced with copper rivets, arrived in May 1873. Tailor Jacob Davis and wholesaler Levi Strauss patented the process of riveting men’s work pants. While denim pants had been around for some time, it was the rivets that transformed them into jeans.
The blue jean design improved with other inventions, like belt loops and zippers. The popularity of the classic blue jean grew in the 1920s and 1930s when Hollywood began dressing actors, such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper, in jeans. Later, in the 1950s, actors Marlon Brando and James Dean further popularized jeans. These casual-wear pants were now associated with rebellion, sex appeal, and the working class.
In 1976, Calvin Klein brought blue jeans to the runway for the first time. By the 1990s, many more luxury fashion houses had joined the jeans market. The garment has evolved frequently over the decades, and today we have access to jeans in a vast range of styles, such as baggy, skinny, bootcut, wide-legged, high-waisted, low-rise, ripped, and tapered fit.
Coco Chanel popularizes women’s trousers
Aside from the little black dress, Coco Chanel is recognized for pioneering trousers for women. Although women’s pants were invented during the first world war as women took on traditionally male roles in the workforce, Chanel is credited with popularizing them in the 1920s.
Chanel was a fan of trousers. She often wore men’s trousers borrowed from her partners and took inspiration from men’s fashion before launching her range. It began with yachting pants—wide trousers inspired by sailors that allowed women to move freely while enjoying leisurely activities. These trousers offered comfortable elegance to women previously constricted by impractical, long skirts. Her designs also ventured away from the restrictions of other female garments, like cinched waists. She began making her sportswear designs out of jersey, a soft, stretchy material that enabled freedom of movement.
In the mid-20s, women’s trousers were a staple among ladies who wanted to dress smart and stylishly while remaining comfortable.
The Flapper dress
We often remember 1920s fashion for its glamor, and one of the most familiar trademarks of the Roaring Twenties is the flapper. Flappers were a subculture of fashionable young women who enjoyed socializing and defying conventional standards of acceptable behavior. They smoked cigarettes in public, drank alcohol, and danced freely in jazz clubs. They had bobbed hair and wore short skirts, high heel shoes, lingerie, and makeup. The flapper symbolized newfound freedom and liberation for young women after the first world war.
The flapper dress was short and calf-revealing, with a lower neckline and a dropped waistline. It was sleeveless, straight, and loose-fitting, creating a new silhouette that was androgynous and slender. The 1920s style of the flappers was known as ‘La Garconne,’ which translates to ‘boyish.’ The flapper was tomboyish without being overly masculine.
Designers Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Jean Patou were pivotal figures in flapper fashion.
Elsa Schiaparelli’s surrealist fashion
Elsa Schiaparelli was a pioneer in couture and is well known as the fashion designer to interpret surrealism through fashion. The Italian-born French designer collaborated with the leading artists of the surrealist movement, including Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali. The result was surrealism brought to life in garments that made unique fashion statements.
Schiaparelli began creating Avante-Garde gowns in the 1920s, but she is best known for her work in the 1930s. In 1937, she made the unusual ‘lobster dinner dress’ in collaboration with Dali. The evening gown featured a lobster motif printed onto off-white silk organza. Schiaparelli’s designs were often humorous. Another outrageous surrealist design was her ‘shoe hat,’ again in collaboration with Dali. It was a hat crafted in the shape of an upside-down, high-heeled shoe.
Aside from the wild creations above, Schiaparelli is strongly remembered for her other trademarks, including trompe l’oeil (visual illusions) and popularizing shocking pink. This color came to be known as ‘Schiaparelli pink.’
Christian Dior and the “New Look”
On 12 February 1947, Christian Dior unveiled his very first couture collection in Paris. The Spring/Summer 47 collection launched his reputation as one of the most critical couturiers of the twentieth century. It remains one of fashion’s greatest debuts because it delivered a look that nobody had ever seen before. It was immediately dubbed the “New Look” by American journalists.
Ninety silhouettes made up the collection. The “New Look” had prominent characteristics that celebrated femininity and exaggerated female proportions. It featured cinched waists, full A-line skirts, tight-fitting jackets, padding, and rounded shoulders—a far cry from the utility-style clothing of women’s wartime fashion. It sought to move away from the austerity of the second world war, creating a new vision for post-war society. It was a welcome change and a fresh start for women everywhere.
The “New Look” skyrocketed the French couturier to fame, despite having only opened his first atelier in December 1946.
Jackie Kennedy’s Halston pillbox hat
Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is one of the most significant fashion icons of the 1960s. Her signature style included Chanel suits, tailored coats, shift dresses, and oversized sunglasses. But perhaps the pillbox hat is the most iconic accessory connected to Jackie Kennedy.
In 1961, Jackie attended her husband John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration. She wore a blue pillbox hat to match her duck-egg blue Oleg Cassini coat. The hat was created by Roy Halston Frowick, the designer later known as Halston. According to Halston, Jackie accidentally dented the hat when trying to save it from blowing from her head in the wind. Hat makers then began replicating the pillbox hat and copying the signature dent.
The event marked the first lady as a style icon and symbol of the new generation. At the time, Halston was an emerging milliner in New York City. At the end of the decade, he launched his fashion label and went on to define fashion throughout the 1970s disco era.
Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s
In the American romantic comedy film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn wowed audiences with her portrayal of society girl Holly Golightly. It wasn’t just her performance that caught attention, but the impact of the film’s most iconic outfit—a little black dress.
American costume designer Edith Head hired the French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy to create the character’s wardrobe. The first Givenchy dress appears in the opening scene, where Golightly gets out of a taxi in a floor-length, black satin dress. She carries a coffee in one hand and a croissant in the other as she stops to view the Tiffany and Co. jewelry store window. Her hair is pinned up, and she is wearing a five-strand pearl necklace, now another iconic accessory of the film.
Givenchy’s dress was an interpretation of Coco Chanel’s little black dress, which she introduced to the world in 1926. It put a modern spin on the classic design, and is one of the 20th century’s most powerful dresses, frequently referenced by fashion historians.
Mary Quant’s mini skirt
The launch and rise of the mini skirt was another defining moment that changed fashion forever. A handful of designers are associated with the mini skirt invention, but British fashion designer Mary Quant remains forever linked to the iconic piece.
In 1963, the mini skirt appeared in the window of Quant’s small boutique, Bazaar, on King’s Road. The King’s Road in Chelsea was the hub of Swinging London in the Swinging Sixties era. It was a time when the English capital became the influential center of fashion, art, and music, driven by a cultural revolution. Quant was an instrumental fashion figure, designing exciting new clothing that matched the energy of the youth movements at the time.
The above-the-knee mini skirt was an innovation for contemporary women. It removed the restrictions of previously-worn long skirts, freeing the legs so that women could now move around with ease, be it to run, catch a bus, or dance. The mini skirt is symbolic of the 1960s, along with hotpants, or short shorts,—another legendary creation by the British designer.
Yves Saint Laurent and Le Smoking
In his Autumn/Winter 1966 collection, Yves Saint Laurent introduced the “Le Smoking” tuxedo suit. It was a tuxedo suit like no other because this was the first tuxedo suit designed for women. While he used many of the same design elements, it was not an exact replica of the male tuxedo. Instead, it was purposefully transformed to fit the shape of the female body.
Up until this defining moment, the tuxedo was strictly male-only. It was originally invented as an evening garment to wear in a smoking room, to protect a gentleman’s clothing from falling ash and the smell of cigars. Before it was a tuxedo, it was called a smoking jacket.
The Le Smoking suit faced a lot of criticism upon its debut. Yves Saint Laurent was blurring the lines between feminine and masculine fashion, and many people did not welcome this new androgynous style that saw women wearing trousers. However, the iconic garment proposed a cultural shift and revolutionized how women’s fashion was perceived.
The power of shoulder pads
Shoulder pads originated in 1877 as a practical measure to pad out and protect the shoulders of American football players. However, the shoulder pad soon moved into women’s fashion when Elsa Schiaparelli included them in her 1931 collection. Schiaparelli enjoyed tricking the eye while experimenting with female silhouettes. The use of shoulder pads and wide lapels created the strong shoulder that dominated her coats and suits.
American costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenberg brought shoulder pads to the mainstream when he introduced them to the silver screen in the 1930s. Actress Joan Crawford helped popularize the style as shoulder pads became part of her signature look. Shoulder pads were more than just a fashion statement. They reflected a shift in gender roles as women sought equality with their male counterparts.
In the 1980s, shoulder pads were a primary feature of the power suit, coupled with oversized lapels and sharp cuts. The exaggerated shoulders allowed women to take on a more masculine appearance to match their male colleagues in the workplace.