Histories    |     Facts    |     Archives    |     About Us    |     Contact Us

Fashion Forward

The History of 20thCentury Women’s Clothing

Clothing styles and popular apparel fashions are constantly in flux, and the fashion world is continuously inundated with runway innovations and fly-by-night fads. Over the last century, fashion in the Western world in particular has experienced continual upheavals and major changes. From 1900 to 2007, popular fads have included such fashion statements as rear-enhancing bustles, short flapper dresses, wide-leg bell bottoms, and deliberately ripped jeans. These and other major fashion trends make up the fascinating history of twentieth- century women’s clothing.

Haute Couture Era: 1900-1920

Women’s fashion in the early 1900s highlighted the silhouette of the mature, full-figured body. Low busts and curvy hips were flaunted by the dress styles of the era (Pendergast 2004). In the early years of the first decade, skirts were long and full and often contained a small train, similar to what is commonly seen in today’s wedding gowns. However, as the decade drew to a close, skirts gradually grew shorter and began to reveal tantalizing glimpses of the ankle. The overall silhouette of dresses also changed slightly, moving toward a narrower, straighter line. 

The early 1900s also marked the flowering of the haute couture movement in Paris. Parisian designers set the fashion tone for the rest of the Western world, and their designs were highly sought after by women of the upper classes. Quite frequently, horse races served as a debut for important new fashions, as well-known designers sent models to attend these races wearing their latest creations (Pendergast 2004).

From 1910 until the start of the First World War in 1914, fashion continued to move toward slimmer, narrower silhouettes that emphasized flat busts and slim hips (Pendergast 2004). Bustles and trains were removed from dresses, as fashion designers played with the length of skirts to reveal enticing new areas of skin. However, as the war began in 1914, attention and materials were drawn away from fashion design, and no significant fashion developments occurred again until peace was declared at the end of 1918. 

Modern Era: 1920-1940

flapper
Flapper styles of short skirts, low waistlines, and bobbed hair characterized fashion in the late 1920s
During the 1920s, clothing styles officially entered the modern era of fashion design. During this decade, women began to liberate themselves from constricting clothes for the first time and openly embrace more comfortable styles like pants and short skirts. While popular fashions remained relatively conservative prior to 1925, short skirts, low waistlines, and revolutionary styles of the flapper era characterized the latter half of the decade (Hall 1992). Dresses were made to fit close to the body in order to emphasize youthful elegance. Hems were cut to the knee, and waistlines disappeared almost entirely. Cloche hats without rims also became a key popular clothing item during this period (Pendergast 2004). 

The fashion styles of the flapper era lasted throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s before the hardships of the Great Depression forced more conservative trends. During this time, skirts became longer and the natural waistline became a more important part of dresses as society began to move back toward a more traditionally feminine look (Hall 1992). While some trends of the 1920s, such as cloche hats and bobbed hair, lasted slightly longer, the difficult times of the 1930s definitely called for more conservative wear.

The decade of the 1930s also saw the first true distinction between day and evening styles. During the affluent era of the 1920s, women could easily wear impractical clothing during the day without worry, so long as domestic servants took care of the chores (Pendergast 2004). However, the hard times of the Depression caused many women to do more work at home themselves and necessitated more practical clothing for the daytime. Simple skirts and pared-down outfits allowed for ease of mobility in the daytime, while new fabrics such as metallic lamé became popular for more luxurious evening wear. The newly improved, synthetic fabric rayon became an important part of many designers’ fashions during the 1930s, and cotton also moved into more stylish clothing designs; however, silk remained the primary fabric of most fashion designers.

Rationed Fashion and the New Look: 1940 – 1960

As Europe, and later America, entered the landscape of World War II, fashion responded to the restrained mood and economy of the war. Drabness and uniformity in clothing were embraced, and people were encouraged to make do with and mend the clothing they already had. Service uniforms were constantly seen on both men and women at all types of social functions, as the reality of the war became impossible to ignore.

During the war, all types of cloth were needed for a variety of wartime purposes, and material for clothing was severely rationed. Women were issued a limited number of ration coupons to use for clothing purchases each year, and this number declined steadily as the war progressed. Due to the limited materials, fashions of the era emphasized shorter skirts than ever before and short, blocky jackets (Pendergast 2004). Buttons for any type of apparel were limited to three per clothing item. Nylon stockings were very scarce, and women were encouraged to make do with ankle socks and bare legs. During the war and its aftermath, there was rarely an adequate amount of any clothing item available, and women were forced to do the best they could and dress as femininely as possible with the available stock.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, designers had quickly grown tired of the utilitarian, minimalist clothing of the wartime era. Longings for elegance and luxury that had been suppressed during the war years began to creep out again with the “New Look” of fashion in the late 1940s in which clothing styles emphasized rounded shoulders, full skirts, and narrow waists (Hall 1992). The garments were often lined with luxurious, expensive fabrics, and ornate accessories became necessary items.  Although critics complained about the extravagance of the clothing while rationing was still mandated, women throughout the country clamored for the revitalized femininity of the New Look. And it would prove to be popular enough to last well into the affluent decade of the 1950s.

Fashion Revolution: 1960 – 1980

1960s miniskirts
Youth of the 1960s rebelled against traditional styles and created their own trends
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a youth explosion that completely revolutionized the fashion system. Prior to 1960, designers generally created styles for runways, and clothing manufacturers mass produced the designers’ styles for the general public. However, during the 1960s, youth throughout the Western world began to rebel against traditional clothing styles and create their own trends. Soon, fashion designers and manufacturers were madly trying to keep up with the trends and implement the youths' popular creations into clothing for the masses. 

During the 1960s and 1970s, a huge variety of clothing became popular, including bell bottoms, increasingly short miniskirts and hot pants, and blue jeans (Pendergast 2004). It was no longer shocking for women to wear pants on a daily basis, and many of the styles of the era were somewhat androgynous. By the 1970s, it was nearly impossible to tell what was in fashion and what was not, as the choices for available clothing had become very diverse. During these two decades of rapid social revolution and change, it was “anything goes” in terms of fashionable clothing. By the late 1970s, popular styles had turned somewhat more conservative, but the freedom of choice inspired by the two decades would live on.

Present Era: 1980 – 2007

While high fashion had greatly declined during the free-for-all of the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s saw a definite rise in the popularity of designer styles. Wealthy people across the country flocked to New York boutiques and Paris fashion shows to purchase directly from designers’ lines, while mass producers replicated the high fashions for the general public. Power and money dominated the styles of the 1980s, with women donning expensive business suits and dresses during the day and extravagant designer gowns in the evening (Pendergast 2004). While not everybody could afford the expensive designer clothing, some top fashion designers such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren also produced ready-to-wear lines to appeal to less-affluent customers. During the 1980s, clothing was a sign of power, and the top designers reigned supreme with their fashionable apparel.

But by the 1990s, women had begun to reject the moneyed, designer styles of the 1980s and opt for more comfortable, casual clothing. Flannel shirts and ripped jeans inspired by the grunge movement in rock and roll became popular, while the rising hip-hop movement brought baggy pants into fashion (Pendergast 2004). Whatever its expression, comfort remained the key factor in clothing choice for most women in the 1990s and 2000s. Even standards for work relaxed somewhat, and casual dresses and pants became popular workplace attire. 

Today, while expensive designer clothing is still sought after by some women, casual, comfortable clothing styles at reasonable prices are the popular choice at the start of the new century. But one never knows what new trendy or outrageous style will emerge next on the fashion scene.

-- Posted May 2, 2007

References

Hall, Lee. 1992. Common Threads: A Parade of American Clothing. Boston: Little, Brown.

Pendergast, Sara. 2004. Fashion, Costume and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. Detroit: UXL.