Style Evolution: Introduction to Women’s Fashion


    The significance of fashion in societal expression is a topic of multifaceted importance and profound relevance within contemporary culture. Fashion, as a dynamic and visual language, serves as a means through which individuals and communities communicate their values, beliefs, and identities. It transcends mere clothing choices; it is a powerful tool for self-expression and a reflection of the prevailing cultural and social zeitgeist. In this exploration, we will delve into the various dimensions of fashion’s significance, including its role in conveying personal identity, reflecting societal norms and values, facilitating subversion and resistance, driving economic impact, and fostering cultural exchange. Through this lens, we can better understand how fashion shapes and is shaped by the intricate tapestry of human society.

    Fashion Trends and Styles for Women in the 18th Centuries

    Women of this era balanced modesty with a desire for delicate fabrics that not only showcased their piety but also their social status. A notable fashion development of this period was the hoop skirt, which became a lasting element of women’s fashion in the Victorian Era. Initially, hoop skirts created a wide silhouette, but they evolved into a more rounded and bell-shaped form. Regardless of their size or shape, these garments gave women an extremely unnatural figure, one they were expected to achieve.

    In addition to these extravagant silhouettes, women’s hairstyles became increasingly elaborate. At first, hairstyles remained simple, often featuring a frilled lawn cap. However, by the century’s end, women embraced elaborate wigs, primarily for evening events. These intricate wigs often required women to sleep in a sitting position the night before an event to ensure their wigs maintained their grandeur. The fact that women endured uncomfortable positions and cumbersome wigs for the sake of fashion and beauty underscores the extremes people went to during this era.

    Drawing of a two women in Victorian dress

    However, the focus on status and elegance that had long characterized colonial America began to wane with the onset of the American Revolution. Suddenly, adhering to European fashion trends no longer appeared patriotic, as the revolutionaries sought independence from British rule. Wearing European styles was associated with the British Crown and the loyalists who supported it, leading many to view such fashion choices as unpatriotic. Instead, Americans turned to homespun clothing as a symbol of their commitment to the cause of American independence. This shift was not only a matter of pride but also a practical response to the economic boycotts against British goods, which disrupted supply chains. Moreover, homespun clothing embodied the ideals of self-sufficiency and equality, allowing individuals from various social classes to dress alike, reinforcing the notion that all citizens were equal in the fight for independence. In this way, the adoption of homespun clothing during the Revolutionary era transcended mere fashion; it became a powerful emblem of a new American identity, solidifying values of independence, self-reliance, and the rejection of British influence, laying the foundation for the development of a unique American culture and fashion sensibility in the years to come.

    A renowned fashion designer from this century:

    Marie-Jeanne [Rose] Bertin – a French fashion merchant, recognized in English as a milliner and in French as a marchande de modes, achieved particular acclaim for her collaborations with Queen Marie Antoinette. Often regarded as the first celebrated French fashion designer, Bertin is credited with elevating fashion and haute couture to a prominent position in popular culture.

    The Transformation of Women’s Fashion During the 19th Century

    The 19th century marked a transformative period in American society, characterized by a shift towards religious freedom, a desire to eliminate class distinctions, and a rejection of old conventions. In the realm of women’s fashion, significant changes were afoot. While corsets still held a place in women’s attire, they became less restrictive, and high heels gave way to “Roman sandals,” essentially ankle-tied slippers. During this era, the introduction of the “Spencer,” a small jacket with snug, long sleeves typically crafted from dark velvet, added a new layer of style. Empire-waist skirts evolved into voluminous bell shapes adorned with rows of trimmings. At the same time, the whimsically named “leg o’ mutton sleeve” featured stuffed and wired sleeves, creating an illusion of broader shoulders. Ornate embellishments made a comeback as well.

    In this period, a woman’s role as the virtuous leader of her family was accentuated, and her dress served as a visual expression of her purity, status, and wealth. Hoop skirts remained immensely popular, allowing women to flaunt copious amounts of expensive fabric. However, this devotion to fashion often teetered on a fine line between self-presentation and the risk of being labeled as overly fashion-conscious. Tight-lacing corsets, particularly prevalent in the South, reinforced a sense of dependency, making it challenging for women to dress or undress without assistance.

    Two women wearing similar designs of dresses during the 19th century

    Moreover, throughout this century, skirt styles fluctuated, and bustles came and went, resulting in a range of distinctive and occasionally peculiar silhouettes. Overall, 19th-century fashion aimed to balance modesty with style, a challenge that became even more complex for women who ventured westward. The westward movement entailed a struggle to maintain social status and traditional roles. Many women resisted wearing trousers, fearing accusations of masculinity or a loss of their femininity. Wearing petticoats for as long as possible became a way to signal their readiness to return to traditional gender roles after the arduous journey.

    Meanwhile, women who stayed behind in settled areas began to recognize the extent to which fashion objectified them and put them at risk. Inspired by the anti-slavery movement, figures like Elizabeth Phelps advocated for dress reform. They demanded liberation from societal and fashion-imposed limitations, encouraging women to break free from their constraints, much like the enslaved people had done. This call for change signaled a growing awareness of the role of fashion in shaping women’s lives and the desire for greater agency and autonomy in their choices.

    Here are 5 renowned fashion designers from this century:

    1. Jean Patou – a renowned French fashion designer, is known for establishing the prestigious French fashion house bearing his name. Throughout its history, notable fashion luminaries such as Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Bohan, and Jean Paul Gaultier have contributed to the legacy of Jean Patou. Additionally, Patou is celebrated for pioneering the designer tie, an innovation he introduced during the 1920s.
    2. Jeanne Lanvin – a prominent French fashion designer, is recognized for her pivotal role in establishing the multinational high fashion house, Lanvin. Her contributions extend beyond fashion, as she is also credited with founding the renowned perfume and beauty company, Lanvin Parfums. During the 1920s, Jeanne Lanvin expanded her empire by launching dedicated stores for menswear, lingerie, and home decor. In recognition of her remarkable achievements, she was honored with the Officier Legion of Honour in 1938.
    3. Louis Vuitton – at the age of 10, following the loss of his parents, Louis Vuitton embarked on a journey to Paris. There, he garnered recognition for his skills as a box-maker and packer, even earning employment under Napoleon III’s spouse, Empress Eugénie de Montijo. Subsequently, he went on to establish the iconic French fashion and luxury brand, Louis Vuitton, which presently maintains a presence in 50 countries worldwide.Louis Vuitton designer’s portrait in black and white
    4. Orry-Kelly – originally from Australia and born to a tailor, initially pursued a career in banking. However, he eventually set sail for the United States to follow his passion for the theater. His journey began with painting murals in a U.S. nightclub, but his talents quickly led him to design costumes for iconic figures like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. His remarkable contributions to the film industry earned him three Academy Awards.
    5. Emilie Louise Flöge – hailing from a family involved in pipe manufacturing, initially began her career as a seamstress. However, she eventually discovered her true calling in the world of fashion design. Notably, she is also remembered as the companion of Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt and featured prominently in many of his paintings. Her presence and influence made her a significant figure of the Fin de siècle movement.

    WWII’s Impact on Women’s Fashion: Transformations During Wartime

    During World War II, American women faced a dramatic shift in fashion due to various wartime challenges and restrictions. Hitler’s occupation of Paris, the epicenter of fashion, in 1940 disrupted the industry. Key fashion houses closed or fled the city, leaving a void that American designers had to fill. However, they confronted the additional challenge of creating clothing within wartime constraints. Stanley Marcus of Neiman-Marcus department stores led efforts to reduce textile usage in women’s apparel by 15%, enforcing strict rules such as the elimination of double-breasted suits, hoods, and other features. War restrictions also banned metal zippers and limited civilian footwear. Despite these challenges, American creativity flourished. Magazines published patterns and designs to help women make the most of their clothing. Old garments were repurposed, and men’s suits were transformed into women’s attire.

    One significant change during this time was the introduction of the two-piece bathing suit, which aimed to reduce fabric usage. American designers like Claire McCardell and Norman Norell found ingenious ways to create stylish clothing. McCardell, known for American sportswear, used materials like denim and seersucker to craft classic dresses. She embraced challenges like zipper restrictions and introduced the versatile “Popover Dress.” Norman Norell, recognized as one of the greatest designers of the 20th century, introduced innovations like the chemise dress and leopard prints during WWII. Accessories also played a role in brightening wartime fashion. The War Production Board imposed restrictions on shoe colors and styles, leading to the popularity of T-straps and lower heels. Hats, not subject to rationing, became a way to add flair to outfits. American milliners used materials like ribbon, feathers, and netting creatively to craft extravagant headwear.

    In this era of necessity, American designers and women learned to adapt and innovate, finding beautiful and resourceful ways to maintain fashion while contributing to the war effort for freedom and democracy.

    The New Woman and 20th-Century Fashion Transformation

    Fashionable Londoners in front of Harrods, 1909

    At the turn of the 20th century, the United States witnessed rapid urbanization and industrialization, with waves of immigrants arriving and city dwellers crowded into slums. This period of massive migration to cities led to the loss of traditional support systems for women, resulting in both alienation and newfound liberation. Young women, often isolated from their families, were forced to adapt, giving rise to the “New Woman” – an independent, active, and self-confident figure.

    This transformation in women’s roles was reflected in their fashion choices. The previous dominance of the perfectly coiffured and slender “Gibson Girl” look began to wane as women rebelled against the discomfort of corsets that accentuated the bust. Mary Phelps Jacob’s creation of the prototype brassiere in 1913 marked a significant departure from traditional undergarments, gaining popularity among women embracing this new, active lifestyle. However, fashion wasn’t entirely liberated, as the “hobble skirt,” a tight-fitting style restricting stride, briefly became popular among urban women before public dancing took over in 1915. Sports attire emerged as a fashionable choice, flattering women’s bodies while allowing mobility. The emphasis was on the new, mobile woman, although some elements of femininity were still expected.

    Those who could afford it flaunted their wealth with extravagant accessories. Hats, adorned with various ornaments, were a must-have for women of all economic backgrounds. The rise of automobile travel led to the necessity of outfits designed for easy entry, sitting, and exit from vehicles, resulting in new ensembles comprising gloves, caps, and goggles for both women and men.

    Here are 5 renowned fashion designers from this century:

    1. Ralph Lauren – a prominent fashion designer and successful businessman, is the creative force behind the Ralph Lauren Corporation, a globally recognized and multibillion-dollar fashion empire. His journey began as a salesman for a tie company, and he swiftly rose to prominence by launching his own fashion lines. Within a short span of time, he established himself as a well-known figure in the fashion industry. Ralph Lauren is not only renowned for his contributions to fashion but also for his philanthropic endeavors, exemplifying his generosity and commitment to various causes.
    2. Coco Chanel – the French fashion designer and visionary behind the Chanel brand, is renowned for her significant contributions to fashion. She is credited with transforming the traditional corseted silhouette into a more relaxed, sporty, and casually chic style that became the new standard of femininity. Her pioneering designs had a profound impact on the fashionable woman of the post-World War I era, redefining the concept of modernity in clothing. In addition to her groundbreaking work in fashion, Coco Chanel played a pivotal role in revolutionizing jewelry, handbags, and fragrances, leaving an enduring legacy in the world of style and luxury.
    3. Gianni Versace – the legendary Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace is the visionary behind the globally acclaimed brand Versace, renowned for its luxurious offerings, ranging from clothing to accessories and fragrances. In addition to his contributions to the fashion world, Gianni Versace lent his design expertise to renowned artists and even worked on costume designs for various series and movies.
    4. Karl Lagerfeld – the influential German fashion magnate and son of businessman Otto Lagerfeld, left an indelible mark on the fashion industry. His notable roles as the creative director of Chanel and Fendi solidified his status as a fashion icon. Beyond his fashion prowess, Lagerfeld was a multifaceted artist, displaying talents as a photographer and caricaturist. He had a passion for book collecting, reflecting his intellectual interests. Lagerfeld was instantly recognizable for his distinctive style, characterized by signature sunglasses, iconic white hair, fingerless gloves, and detachable collars.
    5. Yves Saint Laurent – the esteemed French fashion designer, left an enduring legacy when he established his eponymous fashion label in 1961. Recognized as one of the most prominent and influential fashion designers of the 20th century, Saint Laurent is celebrated for his pivotal role in empowering women globally to exude confidence through a blend of elegance and comfort in their attire. His life and career have inspired numerous films, attesting to his lasting impact on the world of fashion and culture.

    Clothing Trends in the 21st Century: Bridging the Past and Present

    In the 21st century, the world of fashion reflects a fascinating blend of past and present influences. It’s essential to acknowledge that what we wear today draws significant inspiration from styles of the past. The ready-to-wear industry has seen continuous growth, necessitating a workforce, often comprised of skilled immigrants. Looking back to the early 1900s, certain clothing styles were immensely popular. For instance, the “shirtwaist,” consisting of a shirt and skirt, was a coveted ensemble. Women also sported straw boater hats, even though they had long hair, tucking it underneath. Corsets were in vogue, cinching waists to emphasize the female figure, despite being somewhat restrictive. Undergarments during this period featured bodices and were similarly constraining. Long necks, sleeves, and skirts characterized fashion at the turn of the 19th century. Blouses were adorned with laces, and men favored two-piece suits. Eveningwear for women featured long, flowing gowns, including wedding dresses. Shoes were high-heeled, buttoned, and featured sharp-pointed toes.

    Fast-forward to the 1960s, a decade that showcased the power of youth in reshaping fashion. This era saw a shift away from excessively long dresses, suits, hats, and corsets to the emergence of “hippie clothing.” This style embraced more revealing attire, including plastic mini-skirts, with looser and more casual designs. The “unisex” look became popular, allowing men and women to interchange clothing. Stretch bras gained popularity for their comfort, and ragged jeans became a fashion statement, not a sign of poverty. Moving into the 1990s and early 2000s, fashion trends became less rigid. Rappers popularized baggy jeans, and men revisited the formal look, favoring three-piece suits. Elegant satin gowns became staples for dinners and special occasions. Beachwear evolved from modest to semi-nude styles.

    Four women and a man wearing shiny clothes at a party

    In the 21st century, fashion has taken a unique turn, with designers not only focused on the next big trend but also looking to the past for inspiration. This blending of historical and contemporary influences has created a fashion landscape that is both nostalgic and innovative.

    Here are 5 renowned fashion designers from this century:

    1. Virgil Abloh – a multifaceted talent, not only recognized as a designer but also holding qualifications as an architect. His creative pursuits extend to the realm of music, where he has worked as a DJ. Beyond his eclectic interests, Abloh holds the prestigious position of artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection, marking a significant milestone as the first Black designer to lead a major fashion brand. Additionally, he has made a mark in the fashion world with the launch of the luxury streetwear label Off-White.
    2. Tom Ford – the accomplished American fashion designer, made an indelible mark on the industry. His tenure as the creative director at Gucci was nothing short of remarkable, as he rescued the fashion house from the brink of bankruptcy and transformed it into a formidable powerhouse. In 2006, Ford ventured into establishing his own eponymous luxury brand, solidifying his reputation as a style and fashion icon. His influence and impact were further recognized when he earned a place on the All-TIME 100 Fashion Icons list, cementing his status as a pivotal figure in the world of fashion.
    3. Alexander McQueen – a renowned figure in the fashion industry, achieved significant recognition with four British Designer of the Year awards and one CFDA International Designer of the Year award. His career commenced with designing for Givenchy before he embarked on creating his own eponymous label. Tragically, McQueen, who was openly gay and HIV positive, took his own life in 2010, a sorrowful event that occurred shortly after the passing of his mother. His work and contributions continue to be celebrated in the world of fashion and design.
    4. Thomas Jacob Hilfiger – widely recognized as Tommy Hilfiger, is a legendary fashion designer who has achieved global acclaim through his eponymous fashion brand. His journey in the fashion world commenced with his involvement in the fashion chain People’s Place. While his brand is currently under the ownership of Phillips-Van Heusen, Tommy Hilfiger continues to serve as its chief designer, ensuring his enduring influence on the fashion industry.
    5. Calvin Klein – The award-winning American designer, renowned for his creation of snug-fitting signature jeans, holds the distinction of co-founding the New York-based fashion powerhouse, ‘Calvin Klein Inc’. Calvin Klein’s sartorial excellence earned him a coveted place in The International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame. Notably, he is the father of the accomplished television producer, Marci Klein. Beyond the realm of fashion, Calvin has made significant contributions to the political landscape, providing financial support to Democratic Party candidates and contributing to Political Action Committees.


    Throughout history, the evolution of women’s fashion reflects not only visual aesthetics but also the profound changes in societal expectations and norms. It’s crucial to recognize how fashion has transformed alongside women’s struggles to break through boundaries, illustrating that it has not merely been a source of visual pleasure but an integral part of women’s journey towards the state it holds today.


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