A Brief History of Women's Fashion


Sep 7, 2016

A Brief History of Women's Fashion

The buzz around New York Fashion Week is always exciting. It's wonderful to see people from all over the world gather together for their love of fashion.

It makes you realize how important fashion is. One of the first things we do in the morning is decide what to wear. Whether we're heading out for a day of leisure or getting ready to make a big sales pitch, our clothes help us tell our story throughout the day.

Fashion has always been key to how women have presented themselves to the world, and how society has wanted to present women to the world. From panniers that emphasized wide hips to shoulder pads that emphasized "power," the fashion of the time tells our history in great detail.

Whether it's fashion week or not, MAKERS is taking a look back at the history of women's fashions from before the French Revolution up to the modern century. Take a look in the gallery above.

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Fashion in the years preceding the French Revolution was characterized by great abundance, elaboration and intricacy in clothing designs. Iconic fashion figure, Marie Antoinette, embodies the decadence of the time. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Panniers, or side hoops that extended the width of a dress while keeping the front and back relatively flat, were worn at court with formal gowns at court.  
The fashion-forward shoes of the mid-18th century had high, curved heels and were made of fabric or leather, with separate shoe buckles. The shoe became known as the "Louis heel." Interestingly, the height of heels have been seen as economic indicators; the higher the heel, the wealthier a nation.  Photo Credit: LACMA Image Library 
Following the French Revolution, most did not want to be associated with the aristocracy or the decadence of the fashion previously worn by the aristocracy. Fashions took on simpler silhouettes. 
In the early 19th century, high-waisted dresses were in vogue. The "Empire style" was made famous by French Emperor Napoleon's wife Josephine Bonaparte. The empire dress has a fitted bodice ending just below the bust, giving a high-waisted appearance, and a gathered skirt which is long and loosely fitting but skims the body rather than being supported by voluminous petticoats.  Photo Credit: Getty Images
The empire style began as part of Neoclassical fashion, inspired from styles seen in Greco-Roman art which showed women wearing loose fitting rectangular tunics known as Peplos which were belted under the bust, providing support for women and a cool, comfortable outfit suitable for the warm climate. Photo Credit: UIG via Getty Images
From 1810 to 1820, dresses became slightly more structured with padded hems and firmer fabrics, such as twills and even taffeta. Sleeves began to grow fuller at the shoulder and high waists continued throughout this period but lowered slightly as the years went by. Photo Credit: Getty Images
The dress in this image illustrates tendencies of the transition away from the Empire/Regency fashion aesthetic, such as a more conical silhouette, and heavy ornamentation around the dress near the hem. Still, the waistline remains high. 
This style of gowns is often portrayed as what would've been worn by Jane Austen's characters.
Western fashions during the 1820s began to re-adopt 18th century elements such as full skirts and clearly visible corseting of the natural waist.
By the 1830s, the silhouette of the time had almost fully transitioned from the Empire silhouette of the early 19th century to a silhouette that accentuated the fashionable feminine figure with its sloping shoulders, rounded bust, narrow waist and full hips. Leg 'o mutton sleeves and wider skirts highlighted a narrow waist achieved through corseting.  Photo Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum 
Trends remained similar into the 1840s, characterized by a narrow, natural shoulder line following the exaggerated puffed sleeves and lower waistlines. 
In the 1850s and 60s, women's fashion saw an increase in the width of women's skirts supported by crinolines or hoop.
The hoop skirt has also become associated with the American Civil War "southern belle." The most iconic southern belle is, of course, Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara.  Photo Credit: Getty Images
Surprisingly, the 1860s also saw an emergence of alternative fashions known as the Artistic Dress movement. Artistic Dress rejected the highly structured and heavily trimmed Paris fashion of the day in favor of simplicity and beautiful materials. Photo Credit: The Society of Antiquaries of London
During the Victorian era, silhouettes were tight-fitting and heavily trimmed with pleats, rouching, and frills. Women wore form-fitting boned bodices that reached below the hips to mold the body into the ideal shape. Emphasis of the skirt was place on the rear.  Photo Credit: Getty Images
During the late Victorian Era, various women reformers opposed the restrictions of the tight-lacing and boned bodice body-modifying garments in favor of more practical clothing. In 1881, the Rational Dress Society was founded with the purpose of opposing fashion that "deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health." Oscar Wilde and his wife Constance were both of the Rational Dress movement. Pictured is a woman in her reform corset from about 1892. 
At the turn of the century, fashion took on simpler, more pragmatic lines with a rise in women's sportswear. With changing attitudes about what was acceptable for women to do, such as bicycling and playing tennis, fashions were created around the activities. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art
The early 20th century is characterized by tall, stiff collars, broad hats, and "health corset" that removed pressure from the abdomen and created an S-curve silhouette. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Huge, broad-brimmed hats were worn, trimmed with masses of feathers and occasionally complete stuffed birds or decorated with ribbons and artificial flowers. Photo Credit: Library of Congress
The full "Gibson Girl" hairstyles were also popular, as seen on "Gibson Girl," Evelyn Nesbit. Photo Credit: Library of Congress
During the 1920s, fashion entered the modern era. It was the first time women first abandoned the more restricting fashions of past years and began to wear more comfortable clothes (such as short skirts or trousers). 
The tubular dresses of the earlier part of the century had evolved into a similar silhouette that now sported shorter skirts with pleats, gathers, or slits to allow motion. The "flapper" look is undoubtedly the most memorable fashion trend of the “Roaring '20s." It was functional and fun. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Lack of money during the Great Depression affected everyday clothes, but Hollywood was an escape from harsh realities. It was the golden age of Escapism and glamour, and that included the fashions on screen. The bias cut made popular by starlet Jean Harlow was made of silk or satin and clung to a woman’s curves, highlighting the feminine figure. Photo Credit: Getty Images
There were also major fashion innovations during the Great Depression. Zippers became widespread. Costume jewelry, popularized by Coco Chanel’s signature faux pearl strands became more affordable.  Photo Credit: Getty Images
Rationing during World War II meant that dresses became slimmer with just enough fabric for regular movement. Clothes took on a sharper, military-inspired look.  Photo Credit: Getty Images
The idea of separates became popular as it allowed women to mix and match different components while actually owning fewer items.  Photo Credit: Getty Images
When women went to work during the war, they needed safe clothing that wouldn’t snag in machinery, like men's pants. Trends followed suit such as the high waisted trouser Katharine Hepburn made popular. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Following the war, fashion saw a resurgence of haute couture. The harder military look was replaced by soft femininity of Christian Dior's "New Look" silhouette, characterized by a small, nipped-in waist and full skirt falling below mid-calf length, which contrasted greatly to the 1940s fabric austerity. Photo Credit: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
In the 1950s, Lucille Ball was the first woman to show her pregnancy on television! I Love Lucy brought new attention to maternity wear. Photo Credit: Getty Images
The 1960s saw a number of diverse trends that mirrored the time's social movements. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was a style icon of the early 1960s with her pillbox hats and geometric suits. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Fashion in the late 1960s was just as revoluationary as the times. Mod and hippie chic reigned. Mod fashion meant flat shoes, sleek, almost andorgynous lines. Pictured is queen of mod, Twiggy. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Representing the counter culture, hippie fashion was almost the opposite of mod. The emphasis of their style was on comfort and flow. Women wore jeans, brightly colored, psychedelic patterns and non-Western inspired clothing. Photo Credit: Getty Images
The 1970s was the age of disco! The wrap dress, orginated by Diane Von Furstenberg, was a staple for the woman going to the office in the day and out at night. Platform shoes gave way to mules and ankle-strapped shoes, both reminiscent of the 1940s, at the very end of the decade.
Pop culture infiltrated the 1980s with superstars like Madonna introducing risqué trends like visible bra straps and wearing underwear as outerwear. Photo Credit: Getty Images
Fashion in the 1980s rejected the non-materialist hippie values that had inspired much of the fashion in the 1970s. People were earning more money, and bigger meant better. The soap opera Dynasty popularized shoulder pads, which gave women, now more prevalant in the workplace, a "power dress" to feel equal to men in the office. Photo Credit: ABC via Getty Images
Grunge brought a simple, unkempt grunge look to mainstream fashion in the 1990s. The minimalist aesthetic contrasted to the more elaborate and flashy trends of the 1980s. Photographed is 90's supermodel Kate Moss. Photo Credit: Getty Images
A conversation with her granddaughter helped von Furstenberg discover what she really loves about her job. 

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