It would be a disservice to the fashion industry to discuss fashion without giving due attention to its long and fascinating history.
After all, the fashions prevalent today have taken off from the dominant styles of the previous decades. In fact, plenty of the trends we see on the modern runway have been inspired by past trends and cycles.
Although the history of fashion dates back way before the start of the 20th century, we will have to limit our discussion to the previous century, as there are plenty of important topics that warrant their own space here in this learning guide.
Although still too restrictive by today’s standards, fashion at the turn of the 20th century marked the beginning of an era signified by the desire for freedom from the prohibitive dress codes of the previous century.
The characteristic silhouette of the Edwardian Era, so named after King Edward VII, is the Gibson girl.
Instead of the skewered waist-bone corsets of old, this era emphasized straight front corsets that highlight the hips and breasts, resulting in a more natural and feminine S curve.
Skirts also became softer, allowing women to move more freely in their dresses, as they shunned the tall, stiff lines of the previous decades.
Women also took to millinery to express their extravagant tastes in accessories. The 1900s is particularly known for the Plume Bloom, when women took a liking to broad feathered hats featuring bird wings or even full, taxidermied birds.
Paul Poiret, the influential fashion designer of this decade, was initially inspired by the Ballet Russes’ performance of the Scheherazade in Paris in 1910.
This led to the rise of Poiret’s Oriental pieces, of which the kimono coat is the most recognisable.
Beyond the Eastern-influenced designs, Poiret is most notable for the hobble skirt, which fell loosely down its length but narrowed down at the calf so that the wearer hobbles when she walks.
The lampshade tunic and the long-pants dress are also Poiret’s creations.
However, by the time World War I rolled around, war dictated the style of the times.
As women became factory workers, ambulance drivers and war nurses, there came a need for simple tailored suits with gentle waists for free-flowing movement.
Fabric rationing led to shorter skirts and simpler designs. The emergence of the chemise frock from Callot Soeurs is a direct effect of war on the fashions of this decade.
The Roaring Twenties, as we like to call them, saw the blooming of the fashion industry with the establishment of the first fashion house in Paris, the House of Worth by Charles Worth.
Other names came to prominence, including Jacques Doucet, where Poiret first started, Jeanne Paquin, the first woman to establish a fashion house, and Caroline Reboux, pioneer of the cloche hat, an accessory typical of the “flapper” look.
Contrary to popular belief, women did not abandon the corset in the 1920s, although it was more bearable and pleasant to wear as the precursor to girdles and modern shapewear.
The corset helped women achieve the cylindrical silhouette of the Garconne look (female boy), framed by a simple chemise with a low neckline and free waist.
The 1920s also saw the birth of the classic little black dress, pioneered by Coco Chanel, whose influence in the fashion industry remains strong to this day.
The fun-loving and light-hearted styles of the 1920s came to a halt during the Great Depression.
Fashion saw a return to more feminine forms as the free waist of the flapper dress returned to the natural position.
Skirts once again lengthened and designers used puffed sleeves, shoulder pads, and tighter belts to create the illusion of a narrow waist.
This body-conscious fashion movement led to Madeleine Vionnet inventing the bias cut, where material is cut diagonally along the grain, creating a garment that clings to the curves and flares at the hem.
Elsa Schiaparelli, considered more of an artist than a fashion designer, took inspiration from surrealist Salvador Dali and introduced unconventional designs, including the use of bright colours and the shoe hat.
Two of Schiaparelli’s most notable contributions during this era are the backless bathing suit and the use of the zip fastener as an alternative to the button.
Once again, fashion had to bow down to the dictates of war as governments issued restrictions on the use of fabric.
The utility look, as it is called, is marked by short sleeves, knee-length skirts, and the use of synthetics such as rayon to replace silk stockings.
Most fashion houses were closed at the time and governments encouraged women to repurpose old clothing.
In 1947, two years after the official end of World War II, Christian Dior introduced his first collection, Ligne Corolle, which was called the New Look by the fashion press.
The New Look hearkened back to the Edwardian Era, promoting feminine figures with full skirts, tiny waists and soft shoulders.
Also notable during this era was the arrival to the public’s eye of the bikini.
The two-piece swimsuit was available since the late 1920s, but it only became popular after its introduction by mechanical engineer Louis Reard.
The bikini was so skimpy at the time, owing to the fabric rationing imposed by governments during the war.
Fashion lines in the 1950s were largely influenced by Dior. His A-line dress, characterised by a widening at the hem, is still used in modern styles, and so is the Y-line, where dolman sleeves taper down to a slim skirt.
When Dior died in 1957, the House of Dior was taken over by Yves Saint Laurent.
Saint Laurent debuted the tent dress, a figure-defying dress that hangs loosely from the shoulders down to the hips, eliminating the waist altogether.
Also influential were male designers Cristobel Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy and Emilio Pucci.
It was not until Coco Chanel reopened her fashion house that Dior’s stiff lines were challenged by Chanel’s loose jackets and flared skirts.
The traditional fashion houses of Paris saw a major upheaval during this decade as they saw waning influence with the rise of other sources of fashion trends.
Newer styles from around the world gave rise to multiple possibilities, and a new brand of youth-oriented fashion opened to younger generations what was once a market solely for older women.
A preference for girly swinging skirts and shorter lengths arose, and this era saw the birth of the miniskirt, generally credited to designer Mary Quant.
With the arrival of the miniskirt also came women’s pants, which progressively saw wider legs below the knee and eventually came to be known as bell-bottomed pants.
Also prominent during this era was the flower child movement, which gave rise to the hippie “anti-fashion.”
Of course, as the definition of fashion goes, the hippie look of hand-painted shirts, fringed accessories and long, flowy skirts is also a style of fashion.
The 1970s began with a continuation of the hippie look of the late 1960s. Frayed jeans and tie-dyed shirts were still in style during the early part of the decade.
However, the years progressed with very little direction from the major fashion houses. This was the decade of “anything goes.”
Women’s clothing emphasised individuality, originality, and identity more than anything else.
Skirt lengths varied from mini to midi to maxi. Pants ranged from knickers to culottes, harem pants to caddy pants, and drain-pipe trousers to bell bottoms.
The late 1970s saw the emergence of punk, which used elements of brutality to create a shock effect. It was not unusual for punk fashion to include ripped jeans, razor-blade accessories and glaring, bright Mohawk hair.
As more women joined the workforce, the day’s fashions were dictated by the need for women executives to “dress the part,” thus giving birth to the power suit.
A jacket with padded shoulders and pants or a knee-length skirt over black opaque stockings was the quintessential business ensemble, and women looked to fashion as a prestige symbol, with preference for luxe materials such as leather and gold.
Within the exclusive circle of fashion houses, however, there was a preference for body-conscious alternatives.
Karl Lagerfeld became the designer for the house of Chanel and simplified the Chanel suit of the 1920s to create a more flattering silhouette.
Other designers followed suit with corset suits from Thierry Mugler, skin-tight velvets from Jean-Paul Gaultier and clingy lace clothing from Azzedine Alaia.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, American designers Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan gave rise to clean, chic sportswear and Calvin Klein “invented” designer jeans.
Branding rose to the top of the priority list of fashion houses in the 1990s.
Fashion designers collaborated with celebrities to promote their brands.
Supermodels Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell worked with fashion houses, while Jean-Paul Gaultier succeeded in marketing underwear with Madonna.
However, despite the growing importance of branding in haute-couture, everyday fashion leaned toward more minimalist, comfortable styles.
Women began wearing faded jeans and tucked t-shirts, baggy sweaters over opaque tights, and florals everywhere.
Even on the red carpet, Hollywood A-listers preferred the no-frills look as they donned their simple, bias-cut slip dresses.
The signature grunge look of band t-shirts, faded jeans, Converse shoes, and plaid everywhere also arose in the 1990s with the influence of musical artists such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
The new millennium gave way to the mash-up decade of fashion, during which there was no single style that dominated.
The era was a continuation of the minimalist, simple style of the 1990s, although with more refinement.
By the mid-2000s, Roland Mouret debuted the Galaxy dress, by far the most recognisable dress of the decade, with modern-day fashion icons such as Victoria Beckham, Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian donning the corset-style, figure-hugging dress at some point.
Diane von Furstenberg’s signature wrap dress also made a comeback, with Michelle Obama popularising the demure but flattering dress from the 1970s.