The style of frocks has changed dramatically through the years, with each new decade bringing in a new looks, cuts and styles. Here’s a tour down memory lane exploring vintage dresses and how they have changed over the past century.

1920s and 1930s

Following the conclusion of World War I, which for the first time saw a largely female work force and new, emancipated woman, dress design embraced a freer, celebratory style. Waists dropped, hems rose to just below the knee, and dresses were made unfitted for the first time. While there was some room for complex design, most people preferred drop-waist dresses with basic colours for daywear.

As the Twenties progressed, hemlines briefly rose to a then shocking level – just above the knee –  although they started to get lower again as the Thirties came in. Waistlines moved up again and a more natural, athletic shape was celebrated, leading to the creation of columnesque bias-cut evening gowns. 1935 saw the introduction of zipper technology, as pioneered by designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, which changed dress designs dramatically. The growing influence of movies meant that Hollywood actresses became trendsetters, with successful films and costume design driving the dress industry.

1940s and 1950s

The United States became a fashion leader in the Forties, due to the fact that the until then trendsetting Parisian fashion houses and Europe’s fashion industry were largely put on hold during World War II. With textiles only available on ration, dress design was simple and functional, without decorative features and simple, knee-length cuts.

The end of the war brought an increased focus on consumer culture, so dresses became mass-produced in greater numbers. Dior’s influential New Look collection, which took inspiration from 19th century gowns with full circle skirts and luxurious fabrics, brought about a move to higher collars, corsetted waists and lower hemlines.

1960s and 1970s

Early Sixties dress designs continued the shift cuts of the late Fifties. Dresses were still designed to be worn formally, with matching accessories such as a hat and gloves. By the mid Sixties, designers such as Mary Quant and Courreges, who both pioneered an above-knee mini length and new, artificial fabrics, had paved the way to less conservative dresses, however. Psychedelic prints and Eastern-influenced kaftan dresses became fashionable. A revival of Art Deco and a fashion for wearing vintage Twenties and Thirties dresses reintroduced the maxi length towards the end of the decade.

The Seventies continued this trend, offering increasingly complex patterns and more extreme hemlines – floor-length or very mini. Disco introduced flowing, long column dresses and fun elements such as sequins. Towards the end of the decade, punk began to radically question fashion design, introducing elements of fetish wear and customisation.

fashion history

1980s and 1990s

Influenced by popular television shows and soap operas, and taking inspiration from Fifties dress shapes,  dresses in the Eighties became more intricate, romantic and layered, often sporting shoulder pads, sequins, beads, and frills.

The New Romantic movement introduced elements of theatre and dress-up to dress designs, and Japanese designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons’ Rei Kawakubo created minimalist black, voluminously draped dresses that heavily influenced the following decade’s love for simple, darker colours and paired down designs, which culminated in the ultra minimal, grunge influenced slip dresses of the Nineties.

2000s and today

Two major factors influence dress styles in the contemporary era. First, there is very much a look to the past, with many fashions from previous decades getting slight modifications that update them while retaining their original feel. Second, modern consumerism is a big driving force. Lower-cost dresses tend to be generic in design and easy to mass-produce. Fashion shows and movies create a demand for more complex dresses, which are usually released at a higher price in limited edition clothing lines. Today’s dress fashions are very much a product of what has come before combined with the needs of a fast-fashion consumer culture.

Fashion has changed dramatically in recent decades, regardless of era however, there is a lot of interesting information and history behind fashion choices, with the information above just scratching the surface of fashion history.

4 Responses

  1. Linda

    Who did these great drawings of each decade’s fashion iconic looks? I love the dresses they picked!

    • Lena

      I wish I knew! I searched all over Pinterest and Google but could not find the illustrator. If anyone does know please leave a comment, I’d love to credit them properly!

  2. kSto

    Interesting post. It has to be said that fashion design pretty much hit a wall in the 1990s and we may never see anything truly new again. Fashion, after all, is self-limiting by two inescapable functions: To protect the human body against the elements and to cover the bits society doesn’t want on display.

    The ’20s and the ’60s were the most revolutionary in terms of negotiating gender boundaries and how much skin could be shown. Then there were the advances in material and production technology. But as far as shapes go, we have seen short, long, mixed length, fitted, loose, soft, tailored, plain, embellished. Designers can play with material, texture and color, but all new styles will reference past styles.