Women's fashion trends from the past 100 years
Fashion is so much more than a “cute outfit”—it’s a major reflection of the times and a big part of American history. Since the inception of the fashion industry, womenswear trends have always been driven by culture, events, popular music, and celebrity influence. In the last 100 years alone, there have been some big changes in women’s fashion.
At the beginning of the 20th century, styles were proper and demure, with high-necked dresses and hemlines that brushed the floor serving as the look of choice. By 1920, though, women began to feel empowered and experiment with short flapper dresses and modern, boyish haircuts. Over the next century, fashion continued to evolve: War-rationed fabrics and gloves disappeared once women joined the workforce—first in boiler suits, then eventually in power suits. The disco era brought sensual silhouettes and vibrant colors and paved the way for pop princesses like Britney Spears, who made the crop top a part of everyday street fashion.
From clothing to accessories, undergarments to shoes and even haircuts, cultural shifts, and societal movements over the past century have brought American women on a wild style ride. Some looks, like the feminine A-line silhouette and cool leather jacket, are quite perennial; other unique fads (JNCO jeans and matching velour tracksuits, anyone?) have stayed in the past. There are even some trends, like capri pants and pleated skirts, that had a moment early on and came back again decades later. Currently, chunky dad sneakers are a thing, although the shelf life of this fad is still to be determined.
In celebration of American fashion, Stacker compiled a list of 50 women’s fashion trends from the past 100 years that left their marks on history. We’ve gathered our looks and information from other reputable style-oriented sources and blogs.
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At the beginning of the century, women’s fashion was very romantic and feminine, and, most importantly, modest. Think garden party-chic gowns designed with puffy sleeves and ladylike silhouettes, in fabrics such as cotton, chiffon, and lace. Hemlines covered the ankle and stiff, high-boned collars the neck. A parasol accessory completed the look.
After World War I, female fashion swung in the opposite direction. Women felt empowered as they gained the right to vote. Additionally, jazz music and prohibition were cultural milestones in the 1920s. During this shift, women broke out of the mold in a sartorial fashion with the flapper dress—a drop-waisted shift dress with decadently beaded fringe. Hemlines rose to the ankle and then above it, and women sported sleek short hairstyles.
By the same progressive token, the ’20s marked the decade when women began freeing themselves of restrictive corsets. With the newly celebrated boyish figure (and flatter chest) en vogue, one-piece lingerie like silky chemises, thin camisoles, and panties became the undergarments of choice, since they fit very comfortably under flapper dresses.
Fashion over function: The cloche hat was a wardrobe staple throughout the 1920s. It featured a distinctive round top and a low brim that made it difficult for most women to see without tilting their heads back. That said, the hat’s accentuating decorative flower or bow made up for it by providing feminine flair.
Although female pantsuits were still uncommon in the ‘30s, a few daring women embraced the look of pants in a brash attempt at abolishing gender roles. Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli frequently dressed actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn in chic pantsuits. Dietrich even wore pants onscreen in the Oscar-winning film “Morocco,” proving a woman can indeed wear the pants if she wants to.
[Pictured: Marlene Dietrich wearing a signature look in 1932.]
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Wide-leg pants and trousers
Although the U.S. was plagued by the Great Depression during the 1930s, it was still a noteworthy time for fashion. Continuing the trouser trends that appeared earlier in the decade, Actress Katharine Hepburn showed women everywhere how to borrow style from the boys, pairing wide-leg trousers with a chic blazer and oxfords.
While smaller scarves tamed hair and larger ones added warmth around the chest, draped scarves, fastened with scarf buckles and clips or tied in a knot, complimented clothes by adding a pop of color to otherwise bland outfits. Spacial and patterned designs, particularly polka dots, were popular during the ‘30s. Later, the 1940s saw visual artists like married couple Zika and Lida Ascher turning out patterned scarves, which they used as a medium for their work.
Suitable for both daytime and evening affairs, fashionable fur was a status garment to own and wear in the 1930s. In the 19th century, fur was a necessity for men and women who lived in colder climates. By the mid-20th century, it was almost exclusively worn by women. Once fur coats and stoles were seen as high fashion items of luxury, the price of fur began to rise.
Mary Jane shoes
A staple in every little girl’s wardrobe, Mary Jane shoes were born in 1902, modeled after a Buster Brown comic book character of the same name. Since then, the flat shoe with a small leather strip has been shaped into heels, paired with little white socks, and bedazzled in sequins. Mary Janes were a favorite of '60s supermodel model Twiggy and are often worn by contemporary fashionistas, proving that Mary Janes are one style that has stood the test of time.
Form-fitting, floor-length dresses inspired by Hollywood glamour gave everyday women in the '30s a taste of elegance. Speaking of Tinsel Town, red carpet events, including the Academy Awards, inspired some of the most notable evening gown silhouettes of all time, many of which are still popular today. The biggest difference between the original dresses and today’s versions is that you can now rent gowns through companies like Rent the Runway, giving any woman the opportunity to look like a star.
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