Our clothing today says much about who we are and—in some cases—what we believe in. To some, what they wear is of great importance and to others, not so much. But modern women in most Western societies have the agency to decide what to wear and how much meaning they assign to what they wear. In the past, what women wore presented how societies wanted them to be seen; today women can use fashion to project how they want to be seen. Those ideas and presentations have evolved drastically over the years. It is undoubtedly impossible to document women’s fashion silhouettes through the years in a blog post; there are entire books that detail the evolution of fashion. But observing how Western and European women’s garments have changed tells us quite a bit about women—how they have changed society and how they have been changed.
Almost until the Renaissance era, before existence of the middle class, clothing was seen by the average man or woman as a way to cover their bodies. Garments were boxy and utilitarian and women probably owned about 2 or 3 outfits. But slowly, the ideas of the medieval period began to fade away in favor of an age of awareness—of art, of science, and of beauty. Toward the end of the medieval era, clothing for women of all classes became more colorful and better fitted; garments of well-off women became tighter and more form fitting. Fabrics like silk, linen, and fur set the wealthy apart from the working class. We saw the birth of tailoring and witnessed as the idea of fashion as a concept emerged. The appearance of tailor as an occupation showed how division of labor was evolving.
One of the first truly ornamental silhouettes grew out of the years preceding the French Revolution—a time of abundance and decadence. Gowns were elaborately draped in heavy silks. At events, society women wore panniers, which were side hoops that extended the width of the dress, while keeping the front and back relatively flat. These extravagant garments became symbolic of widening class differences, fanning the flames of the French Revolution.
But, after the revolution, very few wanted to be associated with the excess of those they so recently overthrew, and fashions became simpler and less ornamental. A high-waisted silhouette, known as the “empire” style, was inspired by Greco-Roman artwork and popularized by Josephine Bonaparte, wife of the French emperor. The bodice was fitted until just below the bust, when a long, gathered skirt was attached. The style represented freedom to many women who were happy to escape heavy and uncomfortable petticoats.
The high-waisted fashion lasted for years, but one of the next trends saw women combining the silhouette with more structured garments. Gauzy fabrics gave way to twills and taffeta and heavy, weighted hems replaced flowing skirts. By the 1830s, waistlines had again dropped to just above natural position. In both Europe and the United States, those with means found it desirable to embrace full, bell-shaped skirts and bodices laden with underpinnings. Boned stays put pressure on the waist and had gussets that pushed the bust upward. Massive “leg o’mutton” sleeves were supported with whalebone and skirts were corded or supported with heavy petticoats.
In the United States, women adopted the hoop-skirted style that remained popular until beyond the Civil War era. The exaggerated hip structure caused women to become walking hazards—constantly knocking over candles and gas lamps and setting their heavy dresses and wooden skirts on fire. Women could actually be swept away by heavy winds and some drowned, weighted down by the hoops and stays and heavy fabrics. This is in high contrast to the garments assigned to enslaved women of this time, who were dressed in clothing made from the most inexpensive cloth available, usually coarse, uncomfortable, and unfeminine. To strip females of their agency and identity, slave owners would often take away any feminine apparel—dressing them in the same clothing as men and cutting off their hair. (See more about this here.)
In Europe and the US, the following decades saw women’s skirts become even larger and stiffer with the addition of metal hoops and crinolines. During the Victorian era, silhouettes remained tightly fitted and skirts became even more voluminous. Bustled silhouettes with back-heavy petticoats put even more emphasis on waistlines. Boned bodices were creating the newest popular shape, emphasizing the rear. Though corsets and body braces had been around for quote some time, women were now pushing their physical limits to an extreme to create the desired shape. Some attempted to slim their waists to the ideal 16 inches—and some even smaller. Of course, this style did not come without a price. Repeated years of corset wearing resulted in broken ribs and shattered ribcages, damaged and herniated organs, or suffocation. Toward the end of the Victorian Era, women reformers began to openly oppose these body-modifying garments. The Rational Dress Society was founded to oppose fashion that “deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health.” Still, the hourglass silhouette is now an iconic visual representation of this era.
By the turn of the century, the S-Bend corset (considered a “healthy” corset, as it removed significant pressure from the abdomen) became popular. It pushed the hips backward and the chest forward. Separates became popular, as detached skirts assisted women in creating this pigeon-like silhouette. But, things were about to change drastically as World War I began—and women were forced to adopt more practical clothing, including (gasp) trousers.
By the 1920s, women’s fashion had undergone a drastic evolution. Short skirts were en vogue and androgynous looks became more popular. The flapper, with her dropped waistlines, knee-length skirts, and colorful garters, is symbolic of the “Roaring 20s” era. Rayon fabric, created as a more affordable, artificial silk, allowed more women access to the silk-stocking look. More women were entering the workplace—or simply wanted a less fussy wardrobe—and so metal hooks and eyes, buttons, and zippers were substituted in place of lacings and corsets. The runways displayed luxurious, high-end designs that were adapted or copied by department stores using more affordable materials. All of these new developments were effectively democratizing fashion.
In the 1930s, many women wanted a highly feminine, glamorous look. Parisian designers introduced the bias-cut evening gown, meant to skim along the body’s curves. The average American woman’ wardrobe was greatly affected by the Great Depression—but Hollywood promoted this glamorous trend as an escape of sorts. They would embody everything that the everyday woman wanted but could not achieve.
Rationing due to World War II also placed limits on the average woman’s clothing budget. Dresses became slimmer in order to conserve fabric and separates became popular as a way to make a greater number of looks from fewer items of clothing. The look of the military uniform influenced women’s wear and practical garments became essential as more women entered the workplace. For those who went to work in factories during the war, adornments were hazardous; practical, basic clothing would not get caught in heavy machinery. In an effort to prevent looking entirely masculine, women adopted high-waisted pants—like those popularized by Katharine Hepburn.
In the days immediately following the war, women were eager to embrace feminine fashions again. Young people’s income was higher, now that the war was over and many designers focused on youth. Fuller skirts came into fashion again, though the lengths remained shorter than in previous decades. The pencil-skirt silhouette also became popular—and girdles were wardrobe staples that helped women achieve a “wasp waist” without a corset. By the 1960s, the girdle had largely been replaced by panty hose—and “control top” pantyhose for those who wanted a more secure garment.
During the 1960s, women’s fashion trends were influenced a great deal by social movements. Many women wanted to be a fashion-forward mix of independent and traditional—like First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The Mod style—sleek, with bold colors and patterns, emboldened women to wear less with more confidence. Hippie fashion placed more importance on comfort and less importance on expensive fashions; it was fashionable to embrace non-Western cultures in fashion and ideology and do less with more.
From that moment on, many women’s fashion trends grew from the ideas of the Women’s Liberation movement and the cultural norm of women in the workplace. Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress was a staple for women who needed versatility. Women seeking equality at work sometimes embraced the “power suit”, with a masculine edge and large shoulder pads. As women’s earning potential rose, so did the rejection of Hippie styles in favor of powerful, dramatic looks inspired by the decadence of television shows like Dynasty. In the decades that followed, women continued to use fashion to exhibit confidence and power. The 1980s trend of wearing visible undergarments was a way for women to be empowered by their femininity and sexuality. The same was true in the 90s, when so-called Grunge musicians like Kathleen Hanna commanded stages, sometimes wearing only slips or nightgowns.
I’m not entirely sure if the current era has any defining style. Perhaps we are to be defined by our revolving door approach to fashion: keep producing and give us more… At the moment, two very different points of view are emerging in women’s fashion: the fast fashion ideology and the new maker movement. Since the 00s, fashion labels have designed more and more collections each year to keep up with a near-insatiable consumer appetite for relevance. But also, more and more people want to know more about what they wear and more women want to be involved with making their garments. We are perhaps at a crossroads where we decide if we are to be defined by our fashion or if our fashion is to be defined by us.
Photos by Abraham Rowe of the books Costume 1066-1966, Evening Dresses 1900-1940, Historic Costumes in Pictures, Fashion in Detail, The Concise History of Costume and Fashion