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Fashion across the decades

How do fashion trends change throughout history, and how are some of them making a comeback?

Maggie Pasztor

Staff Writer 

February 26, 2024


Though extremely unique to the present day’s style, the fashion of the twentieth century was very similar to that of the previous century. In this decade, women were frequently expected to wear specific outfits throughout the day. This included separate afternoon dresses, evening gowns, and simpler less occasion-specific dresses according to Brown University, a private Ivy League research school. At the time the ideal silhouette was still referring to Gibson Girl, a pen and ink drawing depicting the epitome of Victorian female attractiveness during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, created by artist Charles Dana Gibson from Virginia. Many people and writers of the time were fond of this look and even went as far as considering her the “New Woman” according to “The Library of Congress”. With the specific intention of creating an S-shape of the female figure, bodies were defined and molded by intricate corsets. The skin of the body was consistently covered, from neck to floor, as well as shoulder to wrist, successfully shielding the skin from being viewed in order to achieve a modest look. As the decade went by, trends evolved, evening gowns transitioned to become more revealing, showing the collarbone area and sporting short sleeves along with fitted bodices, and the infamous S-shape lost popularity and was replaced by a more natural-shaped look for the bodice. Tailored blouses were common, and lace was appreciated, but a more cost-effective alternative was Irish crochet. Sports too became more popular as the decade went by, so clothing adapted to accommodate sports such as skating, cycling, and tennis. Men's wear during this time was similar to the fashion of the previous decade as well. Suits were worn the majority of the time, with multiple options varying in degrees of formality; frock coats were worn during the day, tails in the evening, tailcoats for the utmost formal events, and hats and gloves were common accessories for both men and women of the time.

Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

Famous fashion designer Jean Phillippe Worth’s dinner dress. 


World War I, which occurred from 1914 to 1918, had a prominent effect on the fashion of the decade. As was more enforced towards the end of the 1900s, the softened, more natural shape was still popular but relied on more of a top-heavy look, and skirts began to taper at the bottom. In a 1915 newspaper titled “The Sunday Telegram” published by the “Library of Congress”, the article mentioned the empire waist, where the bodice ended just below the bust, which was popular during the 18th century in Europe, was making a comeback. Corsets eventually began to be strayed away from, and women began wearing more war-familiar clothing such as tunics over skirts and utilitarian clothing, and uniforms with overalls and trousers when working in munition factories for the war effort according to the “Fashion History Timeline.” After the war, women’s silhouettes changed to become more barrel-like. For men, lounge suits rose in popularity, and trouser legs became shorter and were often cuffed. Collars were started and laid high upon the next. The Frock coat and Morning coat were worn for what was considered formal events, as well as top hats, which typically only upper-class folks could afford. Every fashion piece was dominated by dark tailcoats worn with waistcoats and trousers, though trench coats saw their rise. Despite the specific style of the decade, the men were primarily photographed in military uniform, especially during the period of the war. 

Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

U.S Navy Uniforms during the First World War


Still recuperating after the First World War, the fashion of the decade began to evolve as well. The epitome of fashion for the 20s was represented by the infamous Flapper look. This look threw away the natural shape of the 1910s, replacing it with the now-ideal silhouette, which favored a more shapeless, modern, and slim look of the bodice. Furthermore, the shoulders were typically cut off along with low necklines and creeping hemlines, which for the time seemed particularly scandalous. These dresses were paired with stockings, heels, and headpieces. The Garconne look, according to the “New York Times,” was a look that implemented suspenders and boyish style jumpsuits into women’s fashion as well. However, though the Garconne and the Flapper did define the decade, it was not the only style. A famous French fashion designer known as Jeanne Lanvin had designs that contrasted heavily with the look of the flapper. These dresses were long with full skirts that were considered feminine and romantic, and evening dresses still usually reached the ground, according to the “Fashion History Timeline”. Aside from the Flapper as well, sportswear being worn during the day became very common, tennis wear especially, so a lot of the clothing was made to be accustomed to that. The bob hairstyle became popular, as well as the short look of hair in general. As for men, they moved away from starched collars in exchange for softer collars, and button suits without the waist jackets replaced the three-piece formal suits. Trousers were modified significantly, and the Oxford bags and the plus-fours were created as a result. The Oxford bags were loose-fitted baggy pants, customary for Oxford graduates in England to wear. Plus-fours were pants that were considered a version of knickers, pants that cut off at the calf, but plus-fours were wider than typical knickers. These became acceptable to wear during the day and, according to the “Metropolitan Museum of Art”, were worn for sports or outdoor activities, especially golf.

Photo courtesy of Harper’s BAZAAR

An example of one of the many Flapper looks presented by women in the 20s.


During the 1930s, the Flapper looked diminished from popularity, instead, the silhouette went from a more boxy, boyish look to a more feminine presentation. Hemlines dropped back down to the mid-calf and sometimes the floor, and waistlines sat near the waist, pulling it in, as they did before the 20s. Dresses similar to the Garconne look arose; however, these dresses chose to hug and define curves rather than avoid them. Day dresses encouraged unique patterns, and luxurious gowns were saved for the evening, where the halter and cowl neck looks, created by French designer Madeleine Vionnet, shined, according to “Fashion-Era.” The look of the exaggerated shoulder, too, was one of the “defining” aspects of 30s fashion, and the Hollywood style of famous actresses inspired the fashion for everyday wear. Menswear also took influence from movies. The concept of suits being worn for every occasion lessened and instead was replaced with knitted sweaters and collared shirts. Ties were no longer worn daily as well. Nonetheless, the tuxedo continued to be popular. Sports, such as tennis, golf, and more, still had a large impact on men’s fashion. Blazers and sports jackets also became popular because of their tie to sports, as stated by “Fashion History Timeline.” The wideness of trousers decreased from the extremity of the Oxford Bags, but still were considered wide; furthermore, trench coats and leather bomber jackets saw their rise. 

Photo courtesy of Adored Vintage

Women sport these near-floor-length dresses, that hug curves rather than hide them.


The end of the 30s brought the war and with its change in society brought the change in fashion as well. Uniforms, utility clothing, and two-piece suits with skirts were worn by many women, especially during this time, presenting broad, round padded shoulders, often fitted with buttons and pockets on the blazers. Full skirts and cinched waists emerged as the new look, in reality being an exaggeration of the styles from the 1930s, with wool being a commonly used fabric. Hats were often seen accommodating these sets as claimed by the records of the “Imperial War Museum” records. Though the war ended in 1945, its effects on fashion were long-lasting. More men were in military uniform than not. Utility suits, too, were common for men, as they were created in order to conserve as much material as possible. Even long after the war, shortages of material lasted, and eventually, the utility look faded in popularity. After the war, the trend of brightly-colored Hawaiian shirts became popular for men, a juxtaposition to the dull uniforms that were worn previously throughout the decade. 

Photo courtesy of Royal Shave

Four ladies display the professional and flattering outfits that were presented in the 40s. 


The 50s brought with it an entirely new perspective on fashion. Large skirts were essential for women, and nipped-in waists with belts additionally accompanied them. This was not the only look of the 50s though, alongside it, two-piece skirt suits were common, where blazers fell to the hipline and young women turned to sportswear still, as it was as popular as ever. An infamous design of the 50s arose: a particularly wide, light pink skirt with an iconic poodle on it. However, these skirts also had other patterns and accents, and in order to achieve the look of the full skirt, petticoats became essential. Slacks were becoming more acceptable, but the idea of femininity was encouraged, hence the introduction of the Cocktail dress, dresses that fell near the knee, and were tight-fitted in the bodice. Women were also expected to be wearing a full face of makeup, and sporting perfect hair and accessories throughout the day. Neckerchiefs, scarves tied around the throat, were also exceedingly ordinary for women. For men “youth culture” arose, motivating the informality of clothing which was the hallmark of the decade. Narrow trousers, collared jackets (especially those of leather material), and slicked-back “Greaser-style hair" was extremely popular. Elvis Presley was also a huge encourager of this unique and never-seen-before style. Simple, tight-fitting white t-shirts and jeans accompanied by leather jackets were gaining popularity due to actors such as James Dean and Presley as well. This look was carried by the wish to be rebellious. Other memorable aspects that changed throughout this era include ties becoming skinnier, and color also making a huge comeback from the dim coloring that was often associated with many uniforms and clothing for the 40s due to the war, to bright colors such as pale yellow, pink, turquoise and more. 

Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress

Elvis Presley rocks this all-black, slick outfit.


Moving into the 1960s, the elegance of the previous decade never vanished, skirt suits doused in classic jewelry were still seen daily; however, additional new designs instigated more fun styles, especially as the hippie look was discovered later in the decade. One big defining aspect of the decade was the new idea of Swinging London, or Swinging Sixties, which was a revolution that came about in the UK, encouraging and influencing the youth to appreciate modernity in fashion and life. This included pieces like Capri pants and the invention of the miniskirt, a skirt that typically sits at the mid-thigh or higher; minidresses came about as well. Tall boots and dainty heels were also very common alongside these dresses. Though the most scandalous look to come about since the Flapper, women ate the idea up, clearing the plate entirely, and the skirts were flaunted around town. This want for a new uniqueness and playfulness came with it the experimentation of new prints, colors, and fabrics as well such as acrylic, polyesters, and more, and the look of the cinched waist was no longer as desirable, and now loosened skirts loosened up a bit. Women, still taking advice and inspiration from famous actresses, turned to one of the top actresses, Audrey Hepburn. Towards the end of the decade the skirts gradually lowered to create the maxi skirt and with it came the Hippie look, considered to be a street style maintained by “Fashion History Timeline,” though Hepburn was a fashion icon when the hippie look was implemented into fashion she was one of the few who instead chose to ignore it and continued to wear her modern-like style. Bright prints and colors were brought not just for women but for men as well. Many music stars like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Mick Jagger influenced men's fashion to a T, in one case Jagger and Hendrix influenced military jackets into style after they wore them in a performance. Other defining aspects of this era included the turtleneck sweater, ties slowly widening, and tie-dye shirts with a loose fit were brought forth.

Photo courtesy of Hairstylery

Long sleeves and loose patterned dresses were quite the hit in this decade.


The 1970s brought forth an entirely new style that had never been seen before: vibrant colors, funky unique patterns, and handmade painted fabrics. Throughout history, color in fashion had typically been nonexistent and dull, but the 70s took an unexpected turn from the past and finally began using colors of all sorts to be depicted in fashion. Boutiques, which had risen in the sixties, provided easily accessible clothing for the 70s and prompted the use of clothing that could be reused from previous decades and upcycled. Throughout the decade there were many different styles, from “early prairie dresses” to bold disco fashion. Flared jeans and Bell Bottoms became particularly in style, and since the hippie style came from the late 60s, it blended into the early 70s as well, featuring crochet, patchwork, beadwork, tie-dye, psychedelic prints, and patterns in clothing. Go-go boots and suede boots came about, and athletic and sportswear became more popular throughout the decade as well. Evening wear consisted of more modernist elements like sequins, satin, and velvet as stated by “Fashion History Timeline.” It was also becoming exceptional for women to create clothing based on menswear; consequently, suits began being worn by women frequently, though taking a more “form-fitting” twist, and new fabrics were also becoming acceptable, prompting clothing such as fur coats. The Wrap dress was created by a Belgian-born designer by the name of Diane von Furstenberg, and the design flourished in the 70s. Menswear took a turn as it saw colors it had never seen before, and suits became very funky and unique with patterns. It finally became acceptable to grow their hair long as well. To achieve a slim, tall, and lean figure, turtlenecks and slim fitted pieces along with flared jeans or bell bottoms were implemented into fashion and turned out to be quite the hit. Suits were still worn but typically followed these new trends as well. As the 80s neared, the look of the shoulders had gotten broader with the help of shoulder pads in blazers, and tracksuits and athletic wear became popular as everyday wear as they had originally been for women.

Photo courtesy of NZ Herald/Getty Images

Farrah Fawcett flaunts her stylish and put-together look.


The 80s is known for its eclectic, bold, and colorful style, considered by many as “power dressing”. One of the many trends that took place in the 1980s was preppy fashion. Polo shirts, khaki pants, and sweaters, specifically from Ralph Lauren, layered over collared button-ups were popular among both genders to achieve this look. However, while the upper class wanted to leave an impression of modesty, the youth were looking for a more rebellious look, as the youth in the 60s were as well. Youngsters preferred to dress in bright-colored, and funkier patterned pieces. Taffeta, a silk fabric with a crisp texture, was very common to appear in clothing, as it allowed for pieces to be designed with a large facade. Ripped jeans and band t-shirts became popular due to the rise of Punk Rock. Women continued to wear voguish athletic wear throughout the day, and leotards were often worn over leggings, accompanied by leg warmers and sometimes off-the-shoulder sweatshirts. Padded shoulders became very popular, as they had begun to be in the late 70s, and fashion was still heavily influenced by celebrities and famous people from the music industry, David Bowie and Michael Jackson being prime examples of this. Actors like Tom Cruise in Top Gun made leather jackets and aviator sunglasses come into style, according to “The Fashionista.” Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers were extremely popular as well, despite their first creation being in 1917. Denim and Letterman jackets were popular for men, especially at the beginning of the decade along with other athletic wear such as tracksuits or jerseys, some of which are seemingly reappearing in fashion today.

Photo courtesy of Film Racket Movie Reviews

The Iconic Breakfast Club bunch shows off their differentiating style. 


Versatile fashion defined the 90s, but the overall arching theme was undoubtedly grunge. Whereas the 80s were extreme in color and pattern, the 90s were more laid back and lowkey in those categories. Oversized clothing and mixed and matched patterns dominated the decade, incorporating many pieces to achieve this desired look. Pants developed to become noticeably larger: cargo pants and baggy jeans like Jincos were insanely common, as well as MC Hammer pants, popularized by famous rapper MC Hammer, which were modified baggy pants where the rise of the pants was unusually low. For women, slip dresses were a sleek and sensual option for the evenings, bodysuits as well. Brands shaped this decade by a mile: Abercrombie & Fitch, Umbro’s sports shorts, Bebe’s tight tees, Dr. Marten's combat boots, Converse’s Chuck Taylors, and Vans’s Sk8-Hi Ranges. Women’s hair resembled that of Jennifer Aniston’s in Friends, and eyebrows were plucked and defined to be pencil thin. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were men’s fashion icons, influencing clothing like thermal shirts and flannels being tied around the waist.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Jennifer Aniston showcases the epitome of 90’s fashion.


Unlike the grudge look that the 90s focussed on, the 2000s moved on to an entirely new concept of fashion: the Y2K aesthetic. Women were seen strutting in Juicy Couture Velour tracksuits and sweat suits, low-rise jeans (oftentimes with thong straps peaking out), and babydoll tees. Kangol hats of all different styles were prominent, as well as Pageboy hats, which were a hat that newsboys used to wear, were frequently seen with iconic celebrities, like Britney Spears, sporting them. Vests, leg warmers, and blazers were paired with tight t-shirts and denim miniskirts. Think Sharpay from High School Musical, with her wardrobe consisting entirely of pink articles of clothing. Crop tops were worn with nearly everything, and points were added if they had embellished rhinestones. This decade was known for its odd combinations, and skirts and dresses over jeans and trucker hats were not an exception. However, this combination is still a hit, as they have been spotted recently in fashion, possibly triggering the domino effect of repetition in 2000s fashion.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Britney Spears pulls off the odd combination of a dress over denim. 

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