No matter what changes humanity has gone through, fashion has been a constant throughout time. The trends which course through history reflects the nature and likes of us humans who utilise clothing as a form of self-expression. Let us travel back in time to have a glimpse of fashion’s evolution through the ages.
1930: Cheap, but Classy
In the wake of the Great Depression and the rise of Hollywood, fashion in America saw changes in broad, sweeping strokes – washing away the reckless freedom of the Roaring 20s with a slight return in conservatism.
As opposed to the almost-boyish styles of the 1920s, the 1930s signed in an era of feminine elegance, with a heavy focus on slinky, outlined figures and silhouettes.
The ideal figure (which would thus be accentuated by evening gowns of the era) was a slender, long torso with wide shoulders. One such fashion trend that highlighted said figures was the ‘bias cut’, made popular by designer Madeleine Vionnet, which involved cutting the dress fabric 45 degrees against its weave, making the fabric skim over the wearer’s curves.
As for daywear, the 1930s ushered in an era of romanticism – with clothing littered with prints of polka dots, plaid, and floral patterns hitting the streets. The look of exaggerated shoulders was also heavily popularised in this era, with suits and dresses alike adorned with padding, embellishments, and extra layers to achieve the look.
Following the economic recession, it’s also important to note that fashion became far more affordable in the 1930s: while people used to buy copies of Paris fashion pieces and resell them for a high price, cheaper and simpler copies of said pieces were now being produced and sold at a much lower price.
1940: Purely Practical
As expected, the prevailing influence over the world of fashion during the 1940s had to be the war. France, having once been the hub of fashion, had most of its designers stuck within the country after Germany’s invasion in the early 1940s, causing a split between its leading fashion trends and that of the rest of the world.
Outside of France, utility clothing and uniforms were the dominant forms of “fashion” throughout the war, due to their durability and cheap production costs. Utility dresses were defined by padded shoulders, tight wrapping around the waist, as well as hems that reached just below the knees. Even in non-utility clothing, the designs generally remained the same.
However, designers such as Norman Norell and Claire Mccardell did spice up the fashion scene a little. Mccardell, for example, navigated rationing restrictions, using material such as denim and jersey (with wool and silk being limited at the time) to create sporty and practical dresses that were both fashionable and relatively affordable.
The style of clothes rationing continued to remain popular shortly after the war, but soon saw a takeover by French designer Christian Dior’s “Corolle” line. It was characterised by rounded shoulders, a cinched-in waist and a long, full skirt. Although it was simply an exaggeration of the styles that defined the occupation, it was jarring to the world of fashion at the time – using up to 15 yards of fabric – which completely went against the trend of rationing fabric and cloth.
1950: Life and Luxury
The style of Christian Dior’s “Corolle” remained fairly popular up until the mid-1950s, with the cinched-in waist and full skirt being a staple of design from both Dior himself, as well as other designers in the era.
It wasn’t, however, the only dominating fashion trend at the time. Whilst “Corolle” was still making its rounds, defining stylists Chanel, Dior and Balenciaga introduced the straight-cut suit at about the same time. It focused on emphasising a woman’s natural shape, with a jacket hanging off just at the widest point of the hips. Both sheaths (close-fitting dresses) and high-waisted chemise (loose-fitting dresses) were also popularised in the latter half of the decade by Balenciaga.
Left: A sheath dress (Source)
Right: A chemise dress (Source)
The “poodle skirt”, designed by Juli Lynne-Charlot, was also an item of popular casualwear. These were just simple felt skirts cut in a circle reaching down to one’s ankles, and generally still followed some stylistic choices of Dior’s “Corolle” line.
Cocktail dresses were introduced in this era as well, toeing the line between daywear and evening gowns – just about the length of a day dress, but embellished like an evening gown. However, most evening gowns of the decade were still full-skirted, as was popularised by Dior. As the deprivation of the war left women of the 1950s yearning for luxury and fashion, regardless of the time of day, they were expected to be dressed to the nines, with perfectly done hair, spotless makeup, and matching accessories.
(As an additional note, oddly enough, as styles for women in the era became more and more formal, fashion for men was met with a wave of never-seen-before informality. Leather jackets and Hawaiian shirts saw a great rise in interest, made popular by stars such as Elvis Presley, James Dean and the Teddy Boys.)
1960: Wild and Free
The 1960s ushered in a complete change in the world of fashion – in all sorts of ways. During the early years of the decade, fashion trends still remained relatively formal, being greatly influenced by the first lady of the U.S. at the time, Jacqueline Kennedy. With her well-put-together style and ladylike glamour, Kennedy’s outfits (from the boxy-skirt suits, to the sheaths, to the A-line dresses, paired with her signature white gloves and pearls) were admired worldwide.
Although, moving into the mid-60s, the movement of “The Swinging Sixties” bore its influence more and more, with youth, music, and fashion hitting an all-time high with the rising popularity of bands like The Beatles.
Mary Quant was the defining designer of the decade. Opening her store “Bazaar”, Quant created simple and colourful mix-and-match designs that had an almost childish air to them, rejecting the prim and proper styles of the previous decades to embrace the peppy candidness of the sixties. Miniskirts and minidresses were also becoming increasingly popular following Quant’s influence.
With new scientific developments and discoveries, designers began to find easier access to new and revolutionary materials. Designs built on acrylics, polyester, and even PVC found its footing in the 60s, creating looks that were totally and utterly “camp”, inspired by growing interest in pop art and space.
In the late 1960s, hippie fashion began to emerge, bringing with it the rise of the maxi skirt. Headbands, flowing skirts, beads, and thrifted clothing began to make its mark on fashion. With such drastic changes in style over the course of this decade, fashion was now embracing originality and freedom, breaking the expectations and hegemony of high fashion.
(Note: This is easily the writer’s (Natalie’s) favourite era out of all of them, both to write about and to look at :))
The influence of the sixties stayed strong going into the 1970s. The easy accessibility of boutiques and the introduction of new, synthetic fabrics meant that clothing could be bought at any price point. These materials were so prominent that the 70s were called “the Polyester decade”!
With a prominent influence from the style of “hippies”, handmade materials and styles reigned supreme, meant as a way of rejecting mainstream fashion and its pretentiousness. However, that didn’t stop designers from implementing patchwork, crochet, and embroidery into their pieces, inspired by the aforementioned stylisations. The prairie dress was also a highly popular clothing item at the time, at a midi-length with delicate patterns, it drew slight inspiration from both the Victorian era and the handmade charms of the hippie generation.
Despite being known as the Polyester decade, that didn’t stop the rise of disco from seeping into the trends of the 1970s. Evening wear was stunning and glamorous, with satin, sequins and velvet ruling the dance floor, embellishing long, swirling dresses and skirts.
Women also began finding increasing freedom in sexuality and expression within this era, which could also be reflected in their choices of fashion. Many women began exploring menswear as well, with trouser suits becoming less form-fitting and feminine – highlighted by Bianca Jagger’s white tuxedo during her appearance at Studio 64. Animal print also made a heavy debut during this era, often accompanied with a fur coat.
Wrap dresses were significant to the women of this era as well. To quote fashion historian Milford Cottam, “With long sleeves and at midi length, wrap dresses offered a professional appearance in the office, and could then be dressed up with strappy sandals, jewellery and loosened hair for an evening on the town immediately after work.”
1980s: Big & Bold
This decade brought anything but subtle. With oversized shapes and eye-catching patterns, 1980s fashion was like a whirlwind of styles and colours. Big hairstyles and mullets were a trend during this time as well. With shoulder pads and voluminous outerwear, standing out in a crowd with flashy outfits was adding flair. Truly, drama at its finest.
Leg warmers were initially mostly used for ballerinas to keep their legs warm during their practice. Eventually, the accessorising of the item were popularised by Jane Fonda and other fashion icons, but the trend accelerated when one of the biggest fashion icons of the decade, Madonna, adorned these in her “Hung Up” music video. This sparked for people to accessorise them for aerobic wear or jeans.
Street looks were filled to the brim with fashion brands like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani. This fit the common idea that most clothing was meant to flaunt status and celebrate wealth. Clothes were all just mediums to show the fabulous shades and ups of life.
1990s: Goodbye, Glamour
Shying away from the maximalist trends the 80s brought, the fashion in the 1990s was much simpler. That doesn’t mean everything was a plain Jane or boring. There were still the patterns and the stunning outfits put together, just taken down a few notches. Of course, the grunge trend emerged and was quite popular during this decade. Leather pieces were also a wardrobe staple, whether it was jackets or skirts. Leopard prints were also all the rage at this time.
In comparison to the previous decade, the trends were leaning towards minimalism. The grunge aesthetic focused on loose clothing for comfort and ease, stealing attention away from the body’s silhouette. Streetwear was also popular, the style having been inspired and combined hip-hop and grunge fashion.
2000s: Tacky & Wild
As people began to lose interest with consuming products of high-end fashion brands, they turned to cheaper retail options such as Zara. With the rise of fast fashion, this era had brands cater to the mass market for affordable and accessible accessories and clothing pieces. Brands decided to shift their focus to high volume, lower quality. Tons of these garments would be manufactured, but they won’t last for long in consumers’ wardrobes.
The entertainment industry had the world in a chokehold over various fashion statements. Movies like Mean Girls and Legally Blonde played a huge influence on people’s taste in clothing. Low-rise pants, handkerchief tops, and sequins were all popular pieces of the decade. This also went hand-in-hand with the new era of technology which everyone was obsessed with. Mini shoulder handbags and oversized hoop earrings were fun to accessorise, adding a finishing touch to the outfits.
Due to the rising popularity of futuristic styles in this decade, denim saw a massive wave in consumers. And this is especially towards distressed denim, or having embroidered patterns along the material.
In some parts of the world like the United Kingdom, it became a trend for women to layer skirts over trousers. Tle extra layer allowed them to play with silhouettes and shape, incorporating some extra oomph to their outfits.
2010: Casual Comfort
Looking for comfortable clothing that you can just throw on for a casual outfit? This decade’s fashion speaks for itself. Athleisure rose to popularity due to the sporty aesthetic and the fact that people could wear clothes suited for both the everyday look and for sportswear.
A clothing item that really showed its prominence was the crop top. Buying a shirt which was cut in half? Initially, it was thought to be ridiculous. However, it stood the test of time and remains an incredibly popular item in clothing today.
Additionally, as the Internet and social media took to the people by storm, streetwear was on blogs and other platforms. Brands such as Supreme and A Bathing Ape received massive followings. This eventually led to streetwear incorporated into mainstream culture through collaborations.
2020: Y2K Revival
Fashion trends usually make a comeback in a cycle of 20 years. Look no further than this case in point: Right as the world was hit with the global COVID-19 pandemic, and everyone chronically online with everything at the fingertips, Y2K fashion was revived.
Thanks to the widespread audience of social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, influencers and even the everyday ordinary person decided to get creative with their appearances for this spark in their mundane stuck-at-home life.
Wide-legged jeans, loud printed tops, knitwear and chunky jewellery are parts of the Y2K trend. With the skirts over trousers looks, influencers added their little twists for the outfit to look edgier and more appealing.
Along with the rise of vintage fashion being implemented in more outfits, thrifting for vintage and secondhand clothing items saw a massive wave. People wanted to lead a more sustainable lifestyle, concerned for the consequences of fast fashion which have damaging effects on the environment.
Fashion giants like H&M and Forever21 will not be going away soon, but that does not stop the growing interest in thrift shops to hopefully quell the rising wave of fast-fashion consumption.
As humans with the ever-changing presence of clothing and accessories in our lives, we dress ourselves to express who we are. Clothing gives us the choice to show others how we want them to see us. We feel good about ourselves by throwing on these outfits to let the world know who we are.
For the years to come and what path fashion brings us to, let us enjoy the colour intertwined in our lives!
Written By: Natalie and Zhen Li