History of Women's Fashion & Style from 1900 to 1990

5:30 PM

One time I came across a fashion blogger who always dress in vintage. From all of her pictures that I've seen, she never wore pants and I think it's really cool when you have your own typical way of dressing and not following the current trend. At the time, I wasn't sure if her style was from the 50s or the 60s, so I googled it and I started to think, "but how was the fashion in the 30s? the 40s? or the 70s and so on. Then I started to learn decades by decades fashion evolution and it's quite interesting so I decided to make a post on my blog about it! Just to share something I just learnt. Hope you enjoy!
(PS: It's the fashion in the Europe/America)

1900 to 1909

As the Victorian era drew to its close, skirts for both day and evening were elongated at the back to form a train. The skirt’s silhouette was slim at the hip, achieved with pleating and smocking. Any fullness in the skirt was confined to below the knee. Decoration was applied using large and small tucks, hem ruffles, buttons and lace insertions. For day, ladies wore very high necks and the bosom was undefined with fullness over the boned bodice that would often drop to below the waist. These pigeon breast or monobosom bodices often featured wide cape type collars that dropped off the shoulders. Sleeves were generally fitted from shoulder to elbow from where fullness would extend to the wrist. It was not unusual to see a double-sleeved effect, which featured a small, gathered under sleeve revealed at the wrist. Evening dresses were more daring and were worn off the shoulder, with or without sleeves. The Edwardian era began mid-decade and initially took a retro step, delighting in small balloon sleeves and very nipped-in waists last seen in 1895. Skirts, although full, were rounded and fabrics were soft and allowed to drape. It was de rigueur to wear a wide sash or cummerbund.

The retro look quickly faded in favor of the revolutionary designs of Paul Poiret. He quickly became the most prominent fashion designer in Paris. He showed slim, straight skirts and insisted on fewer undergarments. Due to his decrees, the high boned collar disappeared and women’s corsets were loosened, allowing them literally to breathe a sigh of relief. This new freedom made it possible to sport a higher-waisted look and Poiret’s empire line was popular. Most representative of the period were the amazingly detailed and superbly constructed gowns. These gowns featured lace, cord work, appliqué, soutache, beading, tucking and insertion – very often on the same gown! The great Haute Couture houses of this golden era include Worth, Doucet, Lanvin, Boue Souers, Callot Souers, Paquin, Lucile, and Fortuny.


Fashion in the 1910s is characterized by a rich and exotic opulence in the first half of the decade in contrast with the somber practicality of garments worn during the Great War. Shape and silhouette constantly evolved. More radical styles like the hobble skirt and the lampshade skirt each enjoyed their moment in the sun. The Edwardians became more playful and innovative, taking an interest in asymmetrical draping techniques. Considerably less boning was used in bodices and boning was now solely for supporting the shape as opposed to changing it.

Suits were fashionable for daywear and walking was eased due to a really big fashion happening – the skirt hem rose to the ankle! The First World War provoked yet another fashion – skirts that rose to well above the ankle. Bodices tended to lean towards the higher waist and skirts were full and tiered. Other popular fancies were bat-wing sleeves, over-drapes and flying panel skirts. Wool and linen walking suits were appreciated for their practicality. Asymmetrical designs were featured in bodices and skirts and preferred fabrics were satin, taffeta, chiffon and lightweight silks, with washable cottons to ease hot summers. Early Art Deco inspired prints were seen in the post war years. The automobile achieved status, so driving clothes were developed to protect against dust, including the aptly named duster, a long, lightweight coat. Hats were veiled to keep the complexion smudge free.


World War I ended and euphoria was the order of the day. Fashion responded by dropping waists to high hip levels and dresses became unfitted. While some gowns retained the design complexity of the Teens, the trend was toward Simplicity. Simple bodices, shaped using only a few tucks or shirring at the shoulders, or a little gather at the side seam reflected this new freedom. As the decade began hems lines perched above the ankle but in only three years skirt lengths had risen to unprecedented and – to some – shocking heights! Necklines were usually a simple scoop or “V” but when collars were used they emphasized the long line. Sleeves were either long and straight or with bell shaping. Chiffons, light silks, soft velvets, lamés, lightweight wools and soft cottons made up the fabrics. Sometimes a sash was applied to the hip but dresses also fell in a straight line. Although dresses were simple in construction, detail was apparent in surface ornamentation such as embroidery, soft braid, and beading for evening; or fabric manipulation such as pin tucking or pulled threadwork. Tabard style sheer or semi-sheer dresses were worn over matching slips.

As the flapper era became established, hemlines continued their scandalous ascent and had reached the knee by 1926. The drop waist continued its popularity but skirts and bodices became more complex with seaming, circular flounces and floating panels. Decorative seaming, contrasting fabrics, and overlays began to appear. Quality, previously apparent by means of complicated fit and construction was now expressing itself through fabric and by manipulating a single layer of material. Time-consuming and costly beading was immensely popular, especially for dance dresses. Skirt levels, that some believed were indecent, were tamed in the 1928/29 fashion collections and asymmetrical hemlines (knee length in the front, longer in the back) made their appearance to forecast the longer hemlines of the 1930s. Waistlines gradually rose to resume the position nature had intended. Designers of the 1920s included: Patou, Molyneux, Chanel, Boue Souers, Louiseboulanger, Augustabernard and Vionnet.

Great innovations in fashion were seen during the Depression despite the economic hardships of the time. The abbreviated, linear forms of the 1920s quickly gave way to sinuous shapes and longer hemlines. Waistlines returned to the natural position, while remaining relaxed in fit. Designers experimented with new cuts and new materials. For evening, the bias cut gown was favored (as created by Madeleine Vionnet) in silk velvet or silk satin. Synthetic fabrics such as rayon and nylon were in common use for everyday garments. After 1935, zippers were employed as a more efficient alternative to labor-intensive hook-and-eye closures. Indeed, in the hands of prestigious houses such as Schiaparelli they became design elements. Costume jewelry, popularized by Chanel’s signature faux pearl strands, became an accessory staple. By 1938, small shoulder pads had become fashionable, heralding the shoulder emphasis of the 1940s. This, in spite of the Depression, was another grand era for Haute Couture. Lanvin, Molyneux, Mainbocher, Patou and Maggy Rouff all had active fashion houses as did Vionnet, Chanel and Schiaparelli. The movies influenced how women dressed and what they thought about fashion.

It was not uncommon for designers such as Gilbert Adrian and Irene to make their names in Hollywood’s film industry. Women clamoured to look like their screen idols. This desire prompted many Hollywood couturiers to produce clothing for the mass market via department stores or their own collections. The Hollywood phenomenon also spread to Europe. Exemplified by the white satin bias cut dresses as worn by Jean Harlow, the Hollywood look featured dramatic lines that played best to camera. The full length garden party dress with picture hat, the striking wool suit with portrait fur collar, the grand negligee – these were all part of the Hollywood in the 1930s look as well.

Fashion in the 1940s was a good mix of comfort and glamour. There were specific outfits that were meant for specific times of the day. Some of their designs look downright modern even by today’s standards. Women wore dresses and skirts—they still didn’t wear slacks yet. Another thing women ALWAYS wore: gloves. Preferably a pair that matches your outfit. Fur was very popular, as were animal skins. Crocodile purses, wombat collars, lambskin lining, and leather sleeves — no animal was off limits. Clothes in the 1940s were very bright and colorful. The brighter the better. Women’s shoes were often one of three popular color choices: red, white or blue.

February 1947 brought one of fashion history’s most dramatic events – Christian Dior’s explosive first collection hit the runway. He called it the Corolle line but the American press, which referred to the collection as “New Look”, ignored this. The media’s chosen name stuck and so did the fashion. The New Look called for rounded shoulders, exaggerated bust lines, wasp waists and padded hips and long, often extravagantly full skirts that required an exorbitant amount of fabric. This was a strident comment on the end of wartime asceticism. While fashion writers loved the New Look, initially it met with public resistance. Many viewed it as frivolous and wasteful after the rationing and deprivation of World War II – especially when the economic hardships of war were still very much a reality in Europe. But ultimately, the New Look became a symbol of the return of prosperity, femininity, and glamour. Women who had for years worn the more austere fashions of the 1940s (and were fatigued at reading endless articles on how to extend the life of old garments) began to see a distinct appeal in the swish of long skirts and the allure of curvaceous shapes. The “New Look” was essential in restoring the French couture industry and was the cornerstone of the following decade’s predominant fashion aesthetic.


Fashion in the 1950s varied greatly from the beginning to end. Maybe not quite as extreme as the 60s, 1950s fashion saw the introduction of many new styles as well as many styles that paid homage to the 1920s. The waistline was a major issue in the 1950s. Some women really like the snug fit of the Dior dresses while others liked the dresses with no waistline, often referred to as “sack dresses.” The important thing is that people were beginning to feel a little more freedom when it came to their fashion choices. No longer did people feel like they had to conform to a certain look for certain situations.

The first years after World War II might be regarded by fashion historians as a period of transition, a period of groping after the lines into which fashion would settle for an 8-year or 10-year span. No final answer to questions about the waistline was given in 1952. The phrase “the wandering waistline” was coined at the Paris spring collections and the waist continued to wander to the point of disappearing, throughout the year. 1953 ushered in a mood of sleek, slender elegance — at once young and sophisticated. Hemlines, waistlines and hairlines all grew shorter in 1953. Buzzwords at the time were “shape” and “sheen.” 1957 was the year in which Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (at age 74) became “an adjective in her own time.” Sort of like “Googling,” Chanelisms were ubiquitous.


1960s fashion was bi-polar in just about every way. The early sixties were more reminiscent of the 1950s — conservative and restrained; certainly more classic in style and design. The late 1960s were the exact opposite. Bright, swirling colors. Psychedelic, tie-dye shirts and long hair were commonplace. Woman wore unbelievably short skirts. The foray into fantasy would not have been believed by people just a decade earlier. It’s almost like the 1950s bottled everyone up so much that the late 1960s exploded like an old pressure cooker. Women were showing more skin than ever before. For the first time in the 19th Century, London, not Paris, was the center of the fashion world. The British Invasion didn’t stop with The Beatles. It swept into all parts of life, especially clothing. But actually, lost in the two extremes is the mid-60s, which I think actually had the coolest style, albeit more subtle. I love the long, slender shapes, the bright colors and the young, London look.


The early 1970s fashion scene was very similar to 1969, just a bit more flamboyant. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that a fashion revolution occurred in the 1970s. Polyester was the material of choice and bright colors were everywhere. Men and women alike were wearing very tight fitting pants and platform shoes. By 1973, most women were wearing high cut boots and low cut pants. Early 1970s fashion was a fun era. It culminated some of the best elements of the 60s and perfected and/or exaggerated them. Some of the best clothing produced in the 1970s perfectly blended the mods with the hippies. Just when it seemed pants couldn’t flare any more (bell bottoms, anyone?), the flare was almost gone. By the late 1970s the pant suit, leisure suit and track suit was what the average person was sporting. Every woman had a cowl neck sweater in her close. Tunics, culottes and robes were also very popular. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which dresses were meant to be worn at home, and which ones were for a night on the town. Chest hair, medallions, polyester, butterfly collars, bell bottoms, skin-tight t-shirts, sandals, leisure suits, flower patterned dress shirts, sideburns and, yes, tennis headbands. There is one common theme throughout fashion in the 1970s: pants were tight fitting. And it is probably the first full decade in which women could be seen wearing pants in every walk of life. It’s also hard to miss the fact that color almost completely disappeared by 1979. Earth tones, grays, whites and blacks were back in full force, as people had apparently tired of the super bright tones of the early 1970s.


1980s fashion can be commended for its creativity. Some fashion designers abandoned history, some borrowed from it, while others tried to design the future. Designers abandoned all convention — and their creations were interesting to say the least. The early 80s were somewhat subdued in color, where we see a lot browns and tans and oranges. Blocky shapes were everywhere and dressing like a tennis player was the cool thing to do. Velour was hot and velvet was even hotter. For both men and women, the waistline was a little high. But let’s face it, early 1980s fashion was very similar to the late 1970s. In 1983 there was a slight 1950s-style throwback, especially in women’s dresses.

By the mid-80s, pop music stars like Cyndi Lauper were ushering in an entirely new style — one that many people associate with the 1980s to this day. Bright colored accessories like sunglasses, bangles and hoop earrings were a necessity. Teased hair, loud makeup and neon were an important part of this style. This style was obviously more popular with the younger crowd. But that didn’t mean “regular” women in the 1980s couldn’t have fun. It was an exceptionally flexible time when a woman could wear skin-tight cotton stirrup pants with leggings and a giant turtleneck sweater one day — and parachute pants with a small v-neck top and a high-waist belt the next. Society’s love for brand was epitomized by its inexplicable love for wearing Coca-Cola brand clothing in 1987.

MTV had a huge impact on fashion, as teens across the U.S. were tuning in to watch music videos starring wildly dressed celebrities. Suddenly it became much easier for a fad to spread across the country faster than wildfire. If you ever hear someone talk about Cosby sweaters, they are referring to sweaters that were most popular in 1989. By then, women’s clothing had gotten considerably more baggy as women clamored for styles that hearkened back to a more conservative time.


Fashion in the early 1990s was generally loose fitting and colorful. Unless you were going for the grunge look, then color was the enemy. Who remembers pegging Skidz pants bought from Merry Go Round? We had to wear Air Jordans, too. The t-shirts were big and The shorts were extra long. The tapered pants were a big deal. If they weren’t tapered, then you had to taper them yourself with a fold and a couple flips. Boys and girls both wore baseball caps in many different ways. Mullets were stylish for a couple years and every sweater had a turtleneck under it. But then grunge happened. Suddenly every thrift store in town couldn’t keep a flannel shirt in stock to save their backs. Teens were digging through dad’s box of old clothes to get their hands on some authentic hole-ridden jeans to wear over top of their long john stockings. Barbers nearly went out of business because no one under 17 got their hair cut any more.

Also in the early nineties fashions worn by hop hop artists were becoming increasingly mainstream. And because of the growing popularity of hip hop music among the suburban community, urban styles were seen everywhere, not just in the big city. By the late 1990s hip hop style was arguably the most popular among young people. Starting in the mid-90s, industrial and military styles crept into mainstream fashion. People were finding any way to make a fashion accessory out of a piece of machinery. Camouflage pants were ironically worn by anti-war protesters. By the late 90s, rave culture swept through and people were looking for clothes that were more glamorous again. The grungy styles of the early nineties were old hat. Looking rich was cool again. Name brand designers were back in a big way. Interestingly enough, late 90s clothing styles are not too drastically different than they are today. In the 1990s, musicians had a much greater influence on what young people wore than designers. All a kid in Kansas had to do was turn on MTV for the latest east and west coast styles of the moment.


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