Fashion History

Fashion designers have a wealth of information to turn to when they look to the historical archives of clothing. A student of history can spend a lifetime delving into such a fascinating subject, and even the most avid fans will merely scratch the surface. Any good designer, however, should make a habit of two things: First, cultivate an understanding and an appreciation for the cycles of history and the ways that they allow one to anticipate how society might respond to ideas. Second, continue to seek out, collect, and assimilate the historical references that speak to them as a designer. No abridgement of an era could do it justice for the true scholar. Volumes upon volumes of detailed treatises have been dedicated to the study of almost every historical period. The goal here is to begin a simple outline that will serve as a roadmap, encouraging many side trips into the vast and varied periods of fashion that are so well documented in books, on the Internet, and in museum collections (many of which are available to industry professionals and students by appointment). This simplifi cation is intentional, for it serves to clarify a larger picture as well as the stimuli behind changes in fashion. The evolution of fashion runs in cycles, each with peaks and valleys symbolic of their corresponding socioeconomic impacts. In recent history, this can be illustrated by the rise and fall of hemlines. Fashion icons also play an important role in every era, as they breathe life into clothing and often put their unique stamp on the fashions of their day. With a broad perspective on all these aspects of fashion history, designers are better equipped to recognize how trends develop and can both deliver what their customers desire today as well as anticipate future demand.


The origins of clothing falls into the category of what is now considered regional or folk costume. Much of it can often be pinpointed to a country, a region, or even a town because customs and traditions in any particular area were so insulated from the rest of the world. As communication and transportation technologies expanded over time, information and products would reach farther and farther, and fashion cycles would speed up.

In the Beginning

The first garments fashioned by man were made from the hides of animals. Initially, worn over the shoulders with no way to secure them, these skins were cumbersome and left parts of the body unprotected. The Paleolithic Age is distinguished by evidence of the use of stone tools. From a fashion perspective, the truly significant discovery of this period is the invention of the eyed needle. Needles made of bone and wood allowed cut pieces of hides to be assembled to conform to the body. Felt and bark cloth were developed from animal and vegetable fibers, respectively. Layers of these fibers were put through a matting process until they bonded, producing a workable cloth. Eventually, people learned to spin these fibers into thread. The threads were then woven into cloth, usually small rectangles that were wrapped around the body like a sarong. Over time the skill and scale of weaving advanced, yielding fabrics that inspired more elaborate draping schemes. Roman culture saw draped garments as the mark of civilization and considered any kind of fitted garment to be barbaric. The evolution of these types of garments can be tracked from Egyptian through to Roman culture. The Egyptians had the schenti, a man’s loincloth or kilt in white linen, and the kalasiris, a women’s sheath dress. In Crete during the Minoan Bronze Age, one of the first European civilizations, garments begin to be cut to fit the body. Basic garments with minimal cutting and simple sewing were the staple of wardrobes in ancient Greece. Both men and women wore the chiton, a tunic fastened at the shoulder by a fibula pin; women also wore a wider version of the chiton called the Doric pelpos. In ancient Rome the tunic and the cloak were central. Women wore a stola, an ankle-length garment with sleeves that was girdled at the waist by the cingulum and at the hip by the succincta. The Byzantine Period, roughly from the fifth to twelfth centuries, incorporated both Greek and Roman concepts with a rich Asian opulence. The influence of this mix continues to be found during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. An important element of the look involved the concealment of body shape, often achieved through layering.

European Style

Clothing throughout the thirteenth century was very simple and varied very little between men and women. A loose-fi tting full-length gown with fi tted sleeves worn with a narrow belt and a sleeveless coat called the cyclas was the norm. Until this point, very little diverted from Roman infl uence. The fourteenth century inaugurated the Renaissance and brought the fi rst major transition from simple draped shapes to fi tted garments. Contoured seams and the start of tailoring techniques now enabled clothing to become more of a sheath around the body. Buttons and lacing allowed for an even closer fi t. Women of the time wore an ankle- or fl oor-length chemise called a cotte, or kirtle. The fi tted version of the gown worn on top, called a cotehardie, often featured long hanging sleeves. In Europe throughout this period, fashion began to change at an unprecedented pace. During the fi fteenth century Europe experienced an abundant prosperity, the growth of the middle classes, and the development of a skilled workforce. This created an appetite for extravagances. Voluminous gowns called houppelandes featured fl oor-length sleeves and were worn with doublets, high collars, and hose. Headwear became more important and was trimmed with all manner of feathers and jewels. Everything became more complex and varied by region. The sixteenth century was characterized by an increased opulence in fashion, most especially in England under Elizabeth I. Some of the atypical fashion details included the lace Tudor ruff, a hoop skirt called a farthingale, and rich surface ornamentation. In sharp contrast to the sloping narrow shoulders of the early 1500s, the Elizabethan court adopted shoulders that were high and wide with narrow sleeves refl ecting French and Spanish styles. The shoulders were further enhanced by padded and jeweled shoulder rolls and accentuated by deep V-shaped waistlines. The V shape was mirrored by skirts that opened at the front to display petticoats or heavily decorated foreparts. Fashion of the seventeenth-century baroque reveals a strong Puritan infl uence, evidenced in the natural, dark, somber colors and modest designs. Excessive ornamentation was discarded in favor of simpler broad lace and linen collars. Full slashed sleeves became very fashionable. Waistlines rose to create shorter bodices that were worn with contrasting stomachers. The period also witnessed the change from hose to breeches for men. A desire for uniformity became evident with the popularity of matching ensembles that speak to the contemporary suit. Under Louis XIV, the French began to focus on becoming leaders in the production of luxury products and fashionable clothing began to refl ect the demands of the season and comfort.

Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century saw fashion celebrated as culture. One popular garment was the contouche, a loose robe with large back pleats so often painted by Antoine Watteau that they came to be called Wattaeu pleats. Fashion icon of the day Madame de Pompadour popularized the lavish rococo style. At this point, by mid-century, the women’s torso was encased in an inverted conical corset with sleeves becoming bell- or trumpet-shaped, and the full-skirted silhouette widened further. Hoop skirts worn in the 1730s and 1740s give way to panniers, or side hoops. By 1790, although skirts remained full, the exaggerated form had disappeared, and a fashion developed for the pouter-pigeon front, with many layers of fabric pinned to a bodice. Riding habits and men’s tailoring found their way into women’s fashion in the second half of the century by way of the popular German traveling suit called a Brunswick gown, a two-piece ensemble that featured a hooded jacket with split sleeves and a matching petticoat; the caraco, a jacket-like bodice worn over a petticoat and based on the dress of servants and country women; and the joseph, a coatdress styled after the riding coat (adopted by the French as a redingote). After the French and American Revolutions fashion became politicized and austerity came to equal democracy. The end of the century gave way to an unconfined long silhouette categorized as directoire, empire or regency, with a high waistline located under the bust. Deriving its inspiration from the Greeks and Romans, this neoclassical style took Europe into the early 1800s. One figure of special note in the eighteenth century was the dressmaker and stylist Rose Bertin. Bertin, who would later became known as the Ministre de la Mode, was instrumental in generating a passion for the latest fashions thanks to her work for the French queen Marie Antoinette, whom she dressed from 1770 until she was dethroned in 1792. Through her clever self-promotion, business acumen, and transnational reach, Bertin helped to turn dressmaking toward a modern model of the fashion business. Contributing, too, to the wide dissemination of fashion trends by the end of the century was the rise in popularity of fashion plates and journals.

Nineteenth Century

The 1800s were a time of modernity. The needle trade grew exponentially due to technological advances. Mass production was possible because of inventions like Elias Howe’s sewing machine in 1846. Machines that specialized in sewing buttons, making button holes, and knitting made large production runs a reality. Isaac Singer patented the fi rst home-scaled sewing machine and distributed it widely. At the same time, standard paper patterns became available through mail order. Of great signifi cance, the fi rst modern department store, the Magasin au Bon Marché, opened in Paris as early as 1852; across the Atlantic, Wanamaker’s opened in Philadelphia in 1861.

By the 1820s women’s fashion had moved away from the classically infl uenced empire style and returned to the corseting and full skirts of the previous era. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, it was the bustle that defi ned fashion. The conservative Victorian era is known for a prudish societal focus on moral values, especially female purity. Ironically, the fashionable silhouette of the day, although covering most of a woman’s body, amplifi ed the hourglass proportions of the bust, waist, and buttocks, eroticizing and idealizing an extreme version of the feminine form. Some liken the allure of this extreme silhouette to the interest in a woman known as Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, who was exploited as a sideshow attraction called the Hottentot Venus. Baartman was considered an exotic curiosity because of the exaggerated scale of her posterior in relationship to the rest of her frame, a genetic characteristic of the Khoisan people of South Africa, in particular the women. Thus, a fascination with novelty and the uneasy suppression of sexuality could be seen to come together in the Victorian bustle. The early bustle of 1870s can be described in terms of the lightness of material and lack of decoration. It was often created through the manipulation of the fabric that was draped in the rear, using pleats, fl ounces, and bows. The front of the silhouette had the appearance of an apron. For a short time, from 1878 to 1883, the bustle disappeared in lieu of a more natural, fl at-backed dress. The cuirass bodice, a long-waisted bodice that extended below the hips, and the polonaise, a princess sheath dress, achieved this slim shape. The period from 1883 to 1893 constituted the revival of the bustle. This new bustle had the look of an upholstered shelf, due to its large, almost horizontal protrusion.

It was further accentuated with heavier fabrics and more ornate decoration. By the end of the 1800s, though, the bustle had been reduced to a small pad that carried into the Edwardian era. Parallel to mainstream fashion, a movement emerged in the 1860s and 1870s known as artistic and, later, aesthetic dress. In protest against crinolines and restrictive corsets, as well as the idea of mass-produced clothing, a group of artists, writers, and actors, most famously associated with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, promoted this looser, distinctly bohemian style that embraced many medieval and Renaissance sensibilities. With the decline of the bustle, sleeves gained more prominence, culminating in the mid-1890s with gigantic leg-o’-muttons offset by a tiny waist. The American artist Charles Dana Gibson captured the ideal in his satirical illustrations of the modern woman. Although she became an icon of the era, the “Gibson Girl” was meant to caricature the sense of competition, independence, and athleticism that defi ned this new woman—not necessarily traits that were encouraged for genteel ladies. The embellished blouse became a signature of the Gibson Girl, featuring details like lace inserts and trim, embroidery, appliqués, faggoting, tucks, and pleats. She also sported shirt collars with ties, bows or cravats. She wore these tops over skirts shaped like a bell or an inverted tulip. Tailored traveling suits were a fashionable and practical variation of the new look.

When Edward VII ascended to the throne of England in 1901 fashion favored the mature fi gure with ample curves and rounded bust line. The silhouette, called the S-bend or S-curve, was achieved by tight-lacing the corset, which pushed the hips back and thrust the bust forward to form a monobosom. Clothing, however, was about to give way to a new streamlined silhouette, and the Edwardian era marks the last moment in fashion history that, by today’s standards, could be regarded as costume. FASHION DESIGN Many of the precepts that we accept today as defi ning haute couture can be traced back to Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman who opened his fi rst fashion house in Paris in 1858. Often called the “father of haute couture” (history being written by and for the winners), Worth was highly successful as a designer of lavishly decorated gowns of luxurious fabrics and meticulous fi t. More lasting, however, was his impact on the industry as a businessman, a promoter, and a celebrity in his own right. Thanks to his mastery of self-promotion, he and the House of Worth are remembered for being the fi rst to show a complete collection of designs on live models. After the showing, clients would make their selections, place orders, and have custom-fi tted garments created for them—the very business model still practiced for haute couture, but an innovation in its day. Also a technical innovator, Worth accelerated the patternmaking process by developing standardized interchangeable components—sleeves, bodices, collars, skirts, and so on—that could be reused in different combinations when designing new garments. He took advantage, too, of the newly invented sewing machine for most of the production process, saving handwork for fi ne fi nishing. In another pioneering move at the dawn of the department store, Worth disseminated high fashion by selling his dress designs to other dressmakers and clothing maunfacturers for distribution worldwide. Although many of his contemporaries may have had similar business practices and most certainly contributed to the fashion of the period, Worth stands apart as a fashion leader for his embrace of a thoroughly modern way of doing business, both behind the scenes and in the public eye. In 1868 he and his sons founded the Chambre de la Couture Parisienne, forerunner of today’s Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, to establish the criteria a fashion house had to meet to be labeled couterier.