History of fashion – A brief story of the evolution of fashion

I wanted to study fashion and started to read everything and anything about the evolution of fashion. But that proved to be as if  I have fallen into a suck hole  –  It was drawing me in and not letting me out. So much to look at and absorb and everything appeared so complicated.

I had to ask my kids to eat cake instead of bread (and feel like a highly fashionable but conscienceless queen Mary Antoniette) because only cake was there in the kitchen – mama is studying fashion and had forgotten to cook. 

Why would I study Fashion History?

Fashion refers to the styles of clothing that are currently popular – ‘currently’ being relative. It is always evolving and changing and going back. Every style and trend in fashion keeps coming back at one time or the other. So a study of the evolution of history is very important for any fashion design student

To learn about people is to learn about their fashion. So if you are interested in learning about humanity, history of fashion is an important part.

But I knew I have to simplify the story. I hate complicated. And here it is – the evolution of fashion in straightforward terms as  I understood it.

Evolution of Fashion down the history- A timeline of fashion

In the western world, fashion was important all throughout history. The Dark Ages, the medieval period, the Tudor and Stuart times, the Renaissance era, the Georgian Period, the Victorian era, Edwardian age – The important periods in the history of Britain were also critical parts in the aisles of world fashion history. They influenced world fashion – colonial rule brought their dressing styles to a global audience and made them popular all around the world.

During all these times, it was the royal courts that dictated fashion. Aristocratic people dressed elaborately and stylishly. Poor could not afford to change their clothes according to the whims of fashion.

Clothes made of natural fibers mostly in neutral colors were the costumes of choice of the masses while the rich flaunted their wealth in the form of clothes and accessories. Clothes were used to separate people into groups.

Fashion in the Roman Era ( 500 BC – 323 AD)

People in Rome dressed with a cultural bias – their clothing used to denote their social status, wealth, etc.

In Rome, the woman wore a palla ( a shawl draped over her head) over her stola ( a long dress). The Roman man used to wear a Toga over a tunic. The toga was a semi-circular cloth draped over the body and was a mark of Roman citizenship. The draped style of clothing was popular then and their tunics were as close to modern dresses as any.

Read More here 

Fashion in the Middle Ages ( 400 – 1200 AD)

This is the period after the Romans exited England. During the reign of the Anglo-Saxons, the men and women used to wear a belted tunic. The women’s tunic was ankle length and over this, a shawl covered their head. The colour of the clothes used to denote the financial status of the people.

There was also clear distinctions between garments of the rich and the poor. The rich women wore layers of dresses. The rich men wore tunics which were sewn up on the sides in contrast to the poor who had their tunics open from hem to waist.

Read more on Anglo-Saxon clothing here

After the Norman Invasion, the fashion in England changed slightly. Clothes became more close fitting and elegant.

By the beginning of the 14th century, the men and women started to wear a different style of clothing, a big change from the tunics used earlier by both genders.

Women wore close-fitting gowns with long sleeves and a full skirt.Tight fitting hose made of wool or linen were worn under short tunics by men. Older men wore long gowns with full sleeves. 

Sometime later tunics were replaced by short jackets over padded doublets.

The Renaissance period ( 1350-1520)

This is a very important period in the fashion history, because of the high interest in fashion among the aristocrats.

A lot of money was spend on clothes. It is said that Henry VII, King of England, spend a fortune on clothes and the aristocrats followed him in everything he did and spend.

Other than the aristocrats a new cultural order emerged who imitated the aristocrats in their clothing- the traders and merchants (the middle class). The clothing during this period  reflected the social standing of the wearer

You can learn more about Renaissance fashion here 

Fashion during the period between 1600-1900

Elizabethan era ( 1558-1603), Restoration (1660 – 1700 AD) Victorian Period (1837–1901), all these periods have their own place in the evolution of fashion. But nothing groundbreaking happened in changing the clothing styles.

Gowns for ladies and trousers and jackets for men – this was established as the dress code. Men’s fashion consisted of buckled shoes, waistcoat, a shirt, and an outer coat. Seamstresses and tailors designed clothes for the aristocrats and everyone else followed suit as much as they could afford.

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France (1770-1789) dictated fashion of the period that she reigned. Rose Bertin, the dressmaker of the queen had a lot of influence during that time. French Revolution of 1789, which overthrew the French royals, is a historical event that caused some upheavals in the history of fashion.

Another major development during this period was the Industrial Revolution in Britain (1760 to 1840). Textile manufacturing flourished in Britain during this period. Till this time everything was handmade – now machines took over production and tailoring. Knitted and woven fabric of fine guage was produced by these machines.

The invention of the sewing machine (1790) enabled speedy and less labour intensive manufacturing of garments. Learn more about the time line in the history of sewing machines here

During the earlier times, the common man was not concerned about fashion. Fashion was more of a cultural thing than showcasing a personal style.  It was only by the 16th century or to be precise from the 1770s that fashion evolved as a mainstream thing. So evolution of fashion as we know today starts from there. But not as much changed till the beginning of the 20th century.

By 20th Century things changed a great deal in fashion history. There was a large scale adoption of fashion by the masses.

The evolution of the entertainment industry and its massive growth led to people being influenced by fashion in the films and the music scene. Introduction of synthetic fibers and the availability of cheaper and practical clothes which were mass produced changed the fashion scenario like never before.

Fashion in the late 1800s-1900s

From the middle of the 19th Century, world fashion was dictated by designers of the fashion capital of the world, Paris. Whatever Parisians donned the world followed and copied. London also influenced fashion to a lesser extent.

In the late 19th century there was a revolution in the fashion scene- a designer was born. Charles Frederick Worth (1826-95, Britain born but based in Paris ) may be called the first fashion designer of the world – In all the period dramas and historical novels that I read the aristocratic beauties were all custom dressed by Worth. He can be credited with the start of fashion designing in the true sense.

The ladies of the court vied among themselves to wear his best creations.The house of worth founded by the designer replaced the unknown seamstresses and tailors who sew clothes till then.

Many other designer houses were established to cater to the members of the royal court.

Earlier the seamstresses were at the mercy of their clients and they decided what they wanted to wear but the arrival of Worth and other designers changed this scenario and the designer was able to dictate terms – which fashion should stay and which should be out was decided by the designer.

The prewar period of fashion from the 1890s to the first world war is known as La Belle Epoque and clothes consisted of extravagantly decorated evening dresses and tailored day dresses with corsets shaping the female body to regressive proportions. The clothing was elaborate and ornate and very expensive. No one could dress by herself- there were many layers and petticoats and tightly laced corset under their gowns. 

Corsets which were tightly laced at the waist and chest made the waist seem tiny and the hips were forced back. Hats and parasols were a major part of the elaborate dressing style of this period.

But towards the beginning of the 20th century more practical clothes were preferred by many women and it coexisted with the elaborate style of dressing of earlier.

Fashion magazines started to be popular and influential. These magazines started to cover the fashion scene accompanied by photographs and this had a great impact to spread the word on new trends in fashion. 

La Gazette du bonbon was one of the first French fashion magazines and a very popular one.

Fashion in the 1910s

This period saw a major change in women’s dress silhouette. The S bend silhouette that made the waist very narrow with corsets gave way to a slim straight silhouette.

Famous Designer Paul Poirot (1879-1944 ) had some hand in this change. Paul Poirot designed the first outfit that a woman can wear on her own, and more clothes that did not include a petticoat or a corset.

Another fad during this time was orientalism with pantaloons, turbans and kaftans. 

Designers of the period: Jeanne Paquin (The first fashion show was organized in 1910 by Jeanne Paquin who is known as the first female couturier)Jacques Doucet (He made clothes with a fluid silhouette in diaphanous materials), Mariano Fortuny 

World War 1 started in 1914 and ended in 1918. The war had a great effect on fashion as people were forced to adopt austere measures to cut cost. Elaborate styles of dressing had to give way to more practical dresses. Monochromatic and darker colors were used for clothes. Social activities had to be curtailed and hence the dressing for the parties was less.

Fashion in the 1920s

This period between the two world wars is known as the golden era of French fashion. America started to be very prosperous. Other than royalty and aristocracy, a new set of clients emerged for fashion houses – wives of Industrialists, American entrepreneurs, film stars.

Women gained more independence and even got the right to vote and started to join the workforce more than ever.

This period saw the androgynous looks gaining acceptance – people abandoned the elaborate dressing style for a more sporty flat-chested look. Bob cuts (Short hair cuts) instead of long hair and short skirts instead of long trains were fashionable. Corset was more or less replaced by a straight silhouette. By 1925 this became the norm.

The waistline dropped. Flapper style with no-waist gained unprecedented popularity during this period. 

In men’s wear also there was a major change. The formality of the past years was replaced by clothing that gave more emphasis on relaxation and youthfulness- sports clothes gained acceptance. Wide grey flannel trousers called Oxford bags became popular. Short jackets replaced long stiff jackets. Knickers ad sweaters gained popularity. The tailcoat was replaced by a short tuxedo.

Film stars like Louise Brooks, Gloria Swanson, Collen Moore were influential in shaping fashion sensibilities of the era.

Designers of the era – Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, Jeanne Lavie. Among them, Coco chanel was the most popular. An iconic designer, she popularised the little black dress, her signature jacket, use  of knit fabric in making clothes

Fashion in the 1930s

The Wall Street crash of 1929 had a major impact on the fashion scene also – the frivolous dressing made way for a conservative style of dressing

During this period there was a re-emergence of feminine fashion – to recapture sophistication and elegance in dressing. Ankle length skirts, evening dresses all became popular once more. At the same time, the girls started to wear trousers.

Sportswear was gaining popularity and women started to take an interest in sports and gained a more athletic figure.

Designers of the times: Elsa Schiaparelli ( the most famous fashion designer between the world wars), Madeleine Vionnet, Main Rousseau Bocher

Fashion in the 1940s 

After world war 11 everything changed in the fashion industry. A booming consumer society with the common man at the center stage emerged and changed the fashion scene in its entirety.

Mass manufacturing gained popularity along with ready to wear clothes. Many fashion houses in Paris had closed during the world war and they never opened. The fashion scene shifted from Paris to London and New York.

Handmade clothes became unaffordable to the now impoverished aristocracy, so fashion houses lost favor with them. Common man adopted factory made clothes.

The wealthy who had enough of austerity during the world war started to be interested once more in the elaborate dresses of earlier times. The age also saw the return of the corsets. Ready to wear dresses was adopted by modern women as they were deemed as elegant and modern

Polyester and Nylon had just been discovered and this was revolutionary. The discovery of Nylon led to it replacing silk to make leggings and cheaper clothes.

Designers of the period: Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior and Jacques Fath were the 3 most dominant fashion influences of post war period. Christian Dior emerged as a front runner with his first collection in 1947. The post-war clientele who had enough of the austerity of world war lapped up his la epoch style dresses with enormous skirts.

Other important names were Nina Ricci, Maggy Rouff, Marcel Rochas, Jeanne Lafaurie, Madeline Vramant,  American designers Claire McCardell, Anne Klin Tina Leser, Cristobal Balenciaga (Spanish designer) Hubert de Givenchy (Audrey Hepburn was this designer’s most famous client)

Fashion in the 1950s

High disposable income along with a booming economy meant young invested more in fashion than ever before, and in great numbers. The ready to wear mass market found favour and Brands  like Marks and Spencer became great success stories.

American Movie star James Dean popularized blue jeans in the movie Rebel Without a Cause in 1955. A combination of T-shirts, Jeans and leather jackets as worn by him became hugely popular.

Another major change in men’s fashion occurred in the 1950s with the introduction of Italian tailored clothing with single-breasted suits, tapered pants, narrow ties and pointed shoes.

Film stars of the times like Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelley, Marlon Brando started to influence the fashion styles of people. When they wore a garment in a movie that became an instant rage. 

Designers of the period: Christian Dior, Jaques Fath, Hubert Givenchy. Hollywood costume designers like Orry Kelly (winner of three Academy Awards for Best Costume), William Travilla (Who designed clothes for Marilyn Monroe) 

Fashion in the 1960s

During this period ready to wear clothing brands established themselves as big players in the fashion scene.

Unisex clothes were all the rage in this period. The A-line dresses without much body definition started to be popular. Mini skirts came to be in 1965. Young working middle-class girls with financial independence started to be a major force to reckon with.

Tight trousers and brightly colored military jackets and patterned shirts were favorites of men.

Designers like Yves Sait Laurent came up with modern clothes for modern youth. Designers Andres Courreges and St. Laurent made clothes with the theme of modernism and futurism and space-age themes. Jeans started to be accepted as  daily wear

Designers of the period: Mary Quant (English fashion designer), Barbara Hulanicki (Polish fashion designer) Pierre Cardin (French) Andre Courreges, Yves Saint Laurent (French), Emanuel Ungaro, Rudi Gernreich, (American) James Galanos, (American) Emilio Pucci (Italian), Paco Rabanne (Spanish)

Fashion in the 1970s

Vivienne Westwood opened her boutique catering to customers who loved Punk clothes in this decade. Punk was defined by ripped t-shirts, chains and weird hairdos.

In the 1970s there was a fashion preference for flared trousers. Hippy clothes with maxi skirts, wide-legged trousers  (bell-bottomed denim), hot pants, tie and dye clothing, kaftans along with platform shoes, all were popular. 

Nostalgia for the past can be seen in the creations by some designers.

During this time pants were preferred by most women.

Designers of the period: Kenzo Takada, (Japanese-french) Sonia Rykiel (French designer, called Queen of knits), Laura Ashley also called Mountney, (British designer) Calvin Klein (American) Ralph Lauren American) Pierre Cardin (French) Valentino Capucci (Italian) Giorgio Armani (Italian) Nino Cerruti (Italian)

Fashion in the 1980s

Jeans became a staple in every wardrobe. Women of the 80s wore tailored suit with wide padded shoulders to office.

Fitness was big during this period. Sports brands like Nike, Reebok, Adidas came up with athletic clothes and were very popular. Fashionable sportswear with tracksuits, training shoes, leggings and lycra / stretch body-hugging clothes became popular.

Madonna, Boy George and Michael Jackson were music icons as well as fashion icons and their styles were taken up by their millions of fans. Celebrities like Princess Diana also held a lot of influence in fashion sensibilities of the period. What they wore became fashion.

Famous Designers of the period: Mary Quant, Ossie Clark and Jean Muir (British) Paco Rabanne, Yves Saint Laurent and Ungaro (Paris). Bill Gibb (Scottish) Zandra Rhodes. (British) Japanese designers like Kenzo and Issey Miyake. American designers Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein Vivienne Westwood , Azzedine Alaïa

Fashion in the 1990s

The main change in fashion during this time was that the glamourous dressy style of the early decades gave way to more simplistic styles. Fashion shows gained immense popularity.

Globalization led to international influences in fashion. Fashion images spread through the internet and television led to fashion adopting international influences. You may hear of this as cultural appropriation (the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture) in a negative sense (misappropriation) or as global fashion influences in the positive sense

Subcultures started to gain high traction in fashion – this refers to a group of like-minded people dressing in a similar fashion. They developed common fashion styles – egs. are rockers, hippies. You can learn about the 45 fashion styles thus developed here

Synthetic materials like lycra spandex and viscose became popular fabrics for making figure-hugging clothes. Luxury brands like Prada, Gucci and sports brands like Nike became hugely popular.

Designers of the period: American Fashion designers Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Gianni Versace (Italian) Vivienne Westwood (British), Thierry Mugler (French), Claude Montana,  (French) Angelo Tarlazzi (Italian) 

Fashion in 2000

In this century, the economy and profit drive fashion. Another important element is comfort. The very popular fashion style called ‘Streetwear style” has its base on comfortable clothes that people like to wear. 

Brands are big, much bigger than designers and most of them have a presence in major countries of the world.They are collaborating with designers to become even bigger.

Till now the 5 countries which drove the most fashionable ideas and innovations were America, Britain, France, Japan, and Italy. All the rest of the world looked up to them for inspiration. But today countries in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are emerging as major markets for the fashion industry and fashion is changing to cater to these changing audiences and designers from these areas are gaining global attention.

Fast fashion, online selling platforms and shops, mobile obsessed consumers, economic uncertainty, ethical concerns and sustainability, emerging markets (other than the established markets in western parts of the world) are the watchwords of this century. These are the drivers of fashion forecasts of this period.

Notable Designers of this period: British designers Alexander MacQueen, Stella McCartney, Phoebe Philo, American designers Alexander Wang,  Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Christian Louboutin (French)

Conclusion

The key takeaway in studying the history of fashion has been that fashion changes periodically as a result of a revolt. Whenever there is a fashion going on strong there is a tendency to oppose it. A style then develops that completely changes the previous one on its head. For the corset there was a flapper, for the princess gowns there was a punk. This attitude of protest inherent in humans changed fashion trends.

Today everyone wants to be unique, where once people wanted to look alike. Fashion has evolved – from being a response to cultural changes to being a reflection of a person’s individuality. Social ‘conformation’ is no longer the goal of fashion.

One thing is common for fashion through the centuries and holds still to this day – those with wealth and influence continues to hold the power to influence the course of fashion history. Earlier it was the royals, today it is the celebrities and big corporations and brands. But the common people have a larger say than ever in the history of fashion – their tastes drive the market for fashion

Related posts : Fashion vocabulary – 100+ fashion terms. 

Comments 6

  1. Thank you for this article. One suggestion: move the purple haired photo to the 80’s or 90’s section. Definitely not what we were doing in the 70’s.

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  2. I loved this capsule! Thank you!

    It’s always amazed me that when items were made with so much hand labor, the fashion was yard upon yard of fabric and elaborate decorations. Remember too, all the other “must-haves” such as gloves, handkerchiefs, and outerwear. Now that we’re more affluent and industrial, fashion is overall quite simple and minimal. You would think that in the very early years, one would wear only the most basic coverings given the time required to make the thread which made the fabric which made the garment.

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      Hi Gaye
      Thanks for the appreciative comment and your insight. It must have taken so many hours to dress up so.

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