Our history begins with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and what would come to be known as the Mediaeval Period, or the Dark Ages. Wool was the prevalent fabric of the era, with more wealthy people enjoying the luxuries of embroidered velvet, rabbit, squirrel, or cat furs, and silk from Yuan Dynasty China through the Silk Road.
For both genders, both the coif, a close-fitting cap, and the chaperon, a hood or exceptionally versatile head dress that could be worn in a multitude of different ways, were highly popular. A typical unisex undergarment known as the cotehardie, or kirtle, was worn by most people. This was originally loose, full-body underwear made of linen which eventually became more prevalent among women than men due to its tight-fitting, supportive qualities in later years. Both genders also generally wore leather shoes.
Men's contemporary underwear featured linen breeches held up by a belt and a linen shirt worn next to the skin. Outer clothing was often made of wool for warmth, and included a buttoned hip-length doublet, embroidered or decoratively woven tunic, and a sleeveless surcoat worn over the top. Two different styles of hose were worn throughout the 13th Century. The earlier style covered the legs separately, and was connected together by a belt. The later introduction of shorter doublets meant that hose needed to adapt too, which led to all-in-one hose being introduced - reminiscent of modern-day long johns.
13th Century women's underwear featured the aforementioned cotehardie, as well as linen breeches. However, unlike men, women's outer clothing of the time was far more modest and restrained. The most popular outfit consisted of a loosely-fitted long gown with tight sleeves, and a narrow belt. Some more wealthy women wore a fur-lined mantle, or cloak, over their shoulders, and enjoyed beautiful embroidery adorning their clothing. The women of the time mainly expressed their sense of fashion through the styles of their hair and headdress. Most women wore a supportive chin band known as a barbette, while younger women wore a coif or a type of hair net called a crespinette. Older women and widows wore wimples and veils, some of the styles of which can still be seen on modern-day nuns.
The Renaissance is often considered the advent of modern history, characterised by cultural movements, Humanism, major technological developments, and the rapid advancement of literature, architecture, and art. This new, exciting period was reflected in the fashions of the time, with wool, linen, hemp and silk all being available in wide ranges of qualities, patterns and colours. Unlike the Middle Ages, men's and women's clothing began to segregate, and aside from the head dresses of the 13th Century like the coif, chaperon, and hood, gender-specific fashions began to vary more drastically.
Women's undergarments of the era still featured the kirtle of the previous period. However, this was supplemented by either a chemise or a smock that was made of linen and worn next to the skin, much like a vest. Outer clothing still included a long gown, but the sleeves were made to be detached and, in the cases of wealthy individuals, were also heavily ornamented or embroidered. The Renaissance period was also where we first experienced the houppelande: a full robe with a high collar and wide sleeves. Women also began to wear tight-fitting leather poulaines, or fur-lined laced ankle boots on their feet.
Men's undergarments also borrowed from the previous period, consisting mainly of a linen shirt and breeches. However, the shirts became more grandiose and fuller through the body and sleeves, which were sometimes embroidered. This was due to doublets becoming slashed or pierced, revealing more shirt fabric in public. In a similar show of wealth or fashion, hose was tightened around the legs, particoloured (multicoloured), and sometimes strikingly patterned or embroidered. While older men wore longer tabards at calf or ankle length, younger men wore shorter, more trendy tabards and doublets.
Often highlighted by the almost celebrity-like status of such outrageous, infamous monarchs as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Tudor period was one of great socio-economic progress and prosperity. Following the Black Death and agricultural depression of the late 1400s, the population began to increase, bringing with them land shortages and lower wages. This period is also a major turning point in history in the form of the Reformation and establishment of the Church of England. Rich fabrics such as velvet and ornamented, embroidered brocade came into their element during this era, reflecting an affluent period of social and religious upheaval.
Women's undergarments went through significant changes in this period, as the beginnings of modern clothing began to take shape. The only piece of clothing worn by all women, regardless of social class and status, was a washable chemise. Aside from that, women had a choice between a high-necked smock, worn beneath high-necked clothing to protect it from body oils and sweat; a warm woollen petticoat; a kirtle, which was later attached to a bodice by laces or hooks; and the first examples of shapewear for wealthy, aristocratic women: a laced corset stiffened with reeds, wood, or whale bones.
Over these numerous machinations, women wore loose or fitted long gowns, with narrow-shouldered, wide-cuffed trumpet sleeves that tightened up after the 1560s. Women also sometimes wore doublets or surcoats, like men, as well as hooded cloaks or safeguards - a type of overskirt that protected dresses from dirt and weather while riding on dirty roads. Women's fashion accessories were far from sparkly clutch bags or sunglasses, either. Perfumed leather gloves with embroidered cuffs were popular, as well as hair extensions, folding fans, and the wearing or carrying of zibellinis: small pelts of animal “flea furs” that were embroidered or inlaid with gold and jewels. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I herself received one as a New Year’s gift in 1584!
Men's fashion was similar to that of years past, but with subtly updated features. Alongside the prevalent neck ruffs, men wore matching wrist ruffs, washed with starch to keep them stiff - much like collars are today. With linen shirts and breeches underneath, men's outerwear consisted of a stiff doublet, reinforced with boning, with an optional leather sleeveless jerkin worn over the top. Hose expanded into a wider variety of styles, including shorter, padded hose called trunk hose, which were worn over knee-high fitted hose also known as cannions. Flat shoes with rounded ends were worn for general use, while boots were worn for riding.
Hip-length sleeved cloaks or capes were worn for protection from the elements, while gowns - a particularly popular garment for men in earlier periods - began to show their age. Younger men shunned gowns for military jackets called mandilions, and they became the warm dress of older men as well as the traditional dress of scholars.
Many of the prevalent styles from the Tudor period still remained during this era. The monarchy were generally the main arbiters of style, spending huge sums on the finest clothing they could afford. Some monarchs would even go as far as banning any item of clothing that was unique to an individual from their court, so as to preserve their status as fashion icons!
In fact, clothing at this time was a very powerful statement, and who could wear what was governed by Henry VIII's Sumptuary Laws (or Statutes of Apparel). This meant that what was worn by royalty or nobles differed starkly from what the lower orders wore. Dress indicated status, and dressing inappropriately for your position often meant punishment, including loss of title, property, or even life! Poor men and women were relegated to wearing brown, beige, yellow, russet, orange, green, grey, and blue jackets, cloaks, hats, and caps made from wool, linen, or sheepskin.
High status women often wore dresses or gowns made up of several separate items that could be mixed-and-matched, including a skirt split in the middle into a 'v' shape and revealing the front panel of a kirtle. Women also wore corsets, hats, jewels, shoes, and collars with ruffles around their necks.
Men would wear codpieces, tight-fitting buttoned doublets, breeches, hats, collars with ruffs, and shoes. Wealthy men and women both wore make-up for multiple reasons: not just for status, but also to hide scars from diseases like smallpox! Extravagant wigs were also worn by those of high standing.
In the early 1600s, one of Britain's most popular monarchs, Elizabeth I, sat on the throne. The Tudor period led to the Stuart period - or more specifically, the Jacobean and Caroline eras, one of the most tumultuous periods in British history. The Stuart period is marked out as being particularly bloody and violent, full of political and religious strife characterised by such conflicts as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms - of which the English Civil War is most well-known.
In many ways, the fashions of the time reflected this, as well as which side you were on! Royalists preferred fancy, luxurious garb: contrasting satin doublets and breeches, satin-lined short cloaks, high collars with lavish lace scallops, and high-heeled boots with deep cuffs. Parliamentarians were more Puritanical in their tastes (more on this in the following Cromwell period).
Of course, it is wise to remember that only the wealthy could be fashionable at the time - flax had to undergo around 20 processes before it could be worn, and handmade lace took months if not years to make. Monarchs would even go as far as to ban anything unique or novel in style in order to preserve their status as arbiters of fashion!
With this in mind, the most powerful people of the time set the trends. Queen Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I all had a significant impact in determining what was fashionable. Clothing was often slashed-and-puffed, venetians were popular, and leg-of-mutton sleeves were common.
However, as the Stuart period started to establish itself, British style changed considerably. Gone were awkward farthingales (hooped skirts) and restrictive lacing, and enter breeches, overturned boots, lace collars, wide-brimmed hats with plumage, and doublets. Women of modest means would wear patterned dresses, lace, and hairpieces.
Indeed, it can be reasonably said that the clothes of the Stuart period were considerably more comfortable than Tudor clothing. Cavalier garb was much easier to maneuver around in. However, as with the previous period, there were still ostentatious displays of wealth with yard-long dresses and the like. Such arrogant displays no doubt helped add fuel to the fire, when political tensions were at their highest.
The English Civil War eventually resulted in the dissolution of the monarchy, and Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector of a united "Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland" - Britain was, for a decade at least, a republic!
This period was marked out by persecution of dissent. The Reformation of the 16th Century had given way to the Reformed Protestant movement known as the Puritans, who sought to suppress anything deemed “un-Godly,” including theatre, art, and fashion. Attempts were made to simplify and reform the extravagances of dress, including the prohibition of lace, gold trim, lavish embroidery, puffs, slashes and bunches of ribbon. With the exception of Cromwell himself and other high ranking officials, displays of wealth or social standing were not permissible.
Puritans themselves advocated a conservative form of fashionable attire, characterised by sombre colours and modest cuts. Women wore black gowns with low necklines hung over high-necked smocks and wide collars, black waistcoats, white shifts and coifs, simple black or white petticoats, and buckled shoes. Married women covered their hair with linen caps, and sometimes tall black hats. Men wore plain black high collared smocks, cuffs and socks, high-crowned hats, and buckled shoes. Both men and women avoided bright colours, shiny fabrics and over-ornamentation.
The Restoration period saw the English, Scottish and Irish monarchies restored under Charles II, bringing with them dramatic changes in British fashion. The suppressed feelings of those who had languished under Cromwell burst out in the form of exciting new trends. Flounces, feathers, ribbons, and curls were worn wherever they could be attached. Colours were no longer subdued, and red, green, blue, and yellow were combined in unusual ways.
Periwigs were worn by men, who shaved their own natural hair before donning a shoulder-length French wig full of curls. Men also wore knee-high cassock coats, a form of cravat called a rabat, shirt frills called jabots, and tricorne hats. Cannons, knee-length decorated pantaloons, rhinestone breeches, and capes were also worn by men.
Women also wore wigs. However, as these wigs were so high, wearing any form of headdress over the top was almost impossible. Instead, women wore chapeau bras - essentially, hats for their arms! Women of stature wore a manteau - a formal gown sporting an overskirt that was looped back and held by ribbon bows bunched over an underskirt made of taffeta. The trails of cloth hanging from a manteau often indicated the wearer’s class - the longer the trail was, the higher the woman's social standing. Petticoats and cravats were also worn by the women of this age.
Naturally, not everyone was wealthy. Those from less well-off backgrounds would wear more plain cassock coats, and aprons became a part of everyday wear. However, well-favoured servants with benevolent or egotistical masters often wore discarded second-hand clothing to accurately demonstrate their benevolence - and, of course, modesty.
The Restoration was in full swing throughout the Jacobean era, so many of its clothing styles carried over into this period. However, as the Civil War effort almost bankrupted the monarchy, fashions among the upper classes became slightly less gaudy. Jewels were replaced by fine lace and ribbon, and elegant embroidery replaced slashing and puffing. Highly decorated and embroidered fabrics were replaced by rich silks.
Many of the concepts found in Baroque art, such as power, triumph, and control, were reflected in the fashions of the upper classes during this time. Women still wore manteaus, but sleeves became larger and more ruffled as the decades rolled on. Dresses became more understated in terms of decor, and clothing started to match a lot more. Bodices, sleeves, jackets, skirts, and breeches became ensembles of their own, rather than separate pieces designed to mix and match. Women’s fashion was often a code. Many ladies of the era, particularly young girls, would wear fine lace and white pearls as a symbol of their purity and virginity. Corsets, wide dresses and peaking underskirts were also among the big trends of the Jacobean era. This period saw clothing’s steady transition to “en suite” - the forerunner to the modern suit.
Men's fashion began to see different pieces being phased out. Jabots were replaced by steinkirks, a type of lace scarf. Breeches became more close-fitting, as well as tied or buckled at the knee. Waistcoats were introduced, and coats grew long, adorned with embroidery and braid-trimmed buttonholes. Wigs grew in size and were powdered white. Baldrics - sashes worn across the body, usually holding swords - displayed status. Square-toed, high-heeled boots became popular among men.
The middle classes of this era tended to wear less elaborate versions of courtier and upper class fashion. Lower classes wore simple coats, pantaloons, and any castoffs given to them by their masters.
The Georgian era is highly regarded as one of the greatest periods in design history, and the fashions of the time reflected this. Although seasonal clothing had already been introduced during the Jacobean period, the Georgian era saw it start to become more fully established as a concept. Day and evening clothes were also growing more commonplace.
Men's clothing started to resemble the three-piece suit we see today. Summer suits had plain, tight-fitting coats with embroidered sleeves, plain waistcoats, and tighter breeches fastened around the knee. Shirts were frilled around the cuff, coupled with muslins or cravats adorning men’s necks. Wigs and silken, heavily patterned waistcoats were saved for special occasions. As the years passed, men's suits became less embroidered and more loosely fitted, and cravats slowly fell out of fashion.
Ladies of the Georgian period wore “sack back” dresses, featuring designs based on the flowing gowns of the 1600s. The dress was supported by a stiff corset and cane side hoops. Round muslin caps were also worn, as were frilled muslin kerchiefs around the neck. Gradually, ladies started wearing riding coats and false rumps under their dresses to achieve that unmistakeable 1770s silhouette. Hats were wide-brimmed and sported plumage. Ladies' formal wear was based on the draped classical styles of Ancient Rome and Greece, including white gloves and light-coloured bodices, skirts, feather-trimmed turbans, and petticoats. Evening dresses were worn with high, uncorseted waistlines.
Regency fashion is often thought of as the quintessential English style, reminiscent of Jane Austen's novels. This period, being an extension of the Georgian era, is still highly-regarded the world over for its design prowess to this day. As a result, this era of British history is a major aspect of how other cultures perceive our own.
The Regency period also brought about significant changes in attitudes towards clothing and fashion. There was suddenly a greater emphasis on “natural” style, where the comfort, function, and versatility of clothes was held in higher regard than just the style itself - much like Revival Style! Clothing became more based on personal lifestyle and daily routine. Accessories became less vital, and the clothes themselves displayed individual personality.
The combination of rapid industrialisation and the move towards more hygienic living allowed for the production of clothes in greater volumes - clothes that were easier to repair, replace, and clean. The impact of the French Revolution also meant that looking like nobility was not only unfashionable, but potentially dangerous in the wrong countries!
Women's fashion changed significantly as a result of all of this. Circassian robe style ball gowns were popular evening wear, with bodices adorned with ribbons. Day clothes consisted of cropped dresses amongst women of all classes, as well as tailored jackets and waistcoats modeled on men’s fashion. White-on-white gowns embellished by tambour work, parasols, chemisettes, and petticoats were also common appearances.
The Regency period also saw many changes in men's fashions. Gone were the embellishments, the fancy embroidery and lace adornments, as the cut and tailoring of male garments became more important. Coats were cut away at the front with long tails at the back, and had tall standing collars with M-shaped lapels. These coats were completely unique to this period.
Tight-fitting leather riding breeches were replaced by pantaloons or trousers. Shirts were made of linen, had attached collars, and were worn with stocks or wrapped in a cravat. Double-breasted waistcoats came in a variety of styles, and were square at the bottom with wide lapels. Overcoats, greatcoats and coachmen’s coats - or garricks - also made a fashionable resurgence, and Hessian boots became popular following the Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington in 1815.
The Early Victorian period immediately saw a moving away from the slender, svelte silhouettes of the previous decades towards more of an emphasis on breadth - particularly in the shoulders and hips. Despite the relatively modest nature of the new monarch, William IV, these early Victorian years saw the rapid development of a revolutionary new technology: photography. This kickstarted the need for fashion of a more grandiose nature, ushering in the widest, most elaborate sleeves, hats and hairstyles ever seen before or since.
Much like the popular decades of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, fashion in the 1830s and 1840s projected somewhat of a mishmash of styles from previous eras. Neck ruffs, bejeweled headbands, or ferronnières, and pleated, wide sleeves were all popular, but were updated by new, more precise printing innovations such as roller printing. Light floral prints became all the rage!
The female figure was celebrated during this period, and the latest fashions reflected this. Sleeves were widened and puffed up with wide sleeves accentuated by horizontal pleats to make them appear even wider, and met with mid-length gloves. Waists were tightened up with belts and rigid corsets. Shoulders sloped, busts rounded and hips were highlighted by the cut and trim of dresses. Full conical skirts supported by starched, stiff petticoats, tight corsets, narrow cuffs and wide belts accentuated the female form even more. This all combined into an overall top-heaviness with the sole purpose of emphasising ladies’ figures. High-waisted, massive-sleeved jackets with high necklines were worn when riding, along with shawls, veils, and warm mantles from previous periods.
Centre-parted hair was braided, dressed in elaborate curls, or top-knotted. Women wore laced bonnets outside, with older or married women preferring linen caps underneath. In the evening, women adorned their barnets with combs, flowers, jewellery, or ribbons.
Men's fashions hardly differed from women’s during this period, with silhouettes cutting a slender, top-heavy figure of broad shoulders and narrow waists. Calf-length, double-breasted frock coats suited outside, informal day wear. The most resplendent of these sported padded chests and shoulders: a precursor to the prevalent power shoulders of over 150 years later! More formal evening wear required cloaks, or wide-sleeved greatcoats. These were worn over tight-waisted waistcoats or vests, with rolled shawls or notched collars. Waistcoats were sometimes worn two at a time in contrasting colours.
Trousers began to sport the more modern front button fly, replacing fall-front breeches - though these were still worn for British court formal functions, as well as horseback riding. Smart, tapered sideburns, moustaches, and side partings were also popular during this period.
By this point in Britain's history, the Industrial Revolution was well and truly underway, and the resulting mass production meant the majority of clothing was made in factories and sold in department stores. Artisan sewing, knitting and weaving still existed, but was in decline, as the advent of the sewing machine simplified home and boutique dressmaking. Chemical dyes began to replace the more expensive and inconvenient animal or vegetable dyes.
Women's dresses at the time were often plain and simple, with wide, puffed sleeves, and flower-patterned trimming. Evening dresses had a lower neckline and were worn off-the-shoulder, with accessories like fingerless lace, short gloves, or crocheted mitts. Day dresses were a more modest, high neckline affair worn on-the-shoulder. Petticoats, corsets, and chemises were often worn under gowns, although petticoats were replaced by the crinoline during this era, expanding the size of skirts to the flat-fronted, projected behind numbers seen by 1860. Poke bonnets were the most popular headwear for Victorian women.
Men's fashion changed in minute details rather than radical overhauls. During the 1840s, men wore tight-fitting, half-length long coats, waistcoats, breeches, and linen shirts with cravats. By the 1850s, men started wearing shirts with upstanding or turnover collars, and neckties were more commonly seen. The 1870s saw the increased popularity of the three-piece suit, and both frock coats and sack coats became shorter. Top hats were worn by the upper classes, bowler hats by the less affluent.
The Late Victorian period is when the truly gut-busting dresses started appearing. These are the typical “poster dresses” of the period, featuring extremely tight-corseted waistlines, as well as thigh and torso-hugging skirts. Bustles replaced the crinoline, with women of the period generally striving for a slimmer style. Women wore small hats perched towards the front of their heads, with hairpieces like scalpettes or frizzettes adding volume to their hair.
Un-corseted tea gowns allowed for some freedom of movement at home, but everything else was getting slimmer and slimmer towards the end of the period. High collars and stiff steel boning in long line bodices created wasp waistlines by the 1890s. Duster jackets were worn if out riding.
For men, the popularity of the three piece suit grew and grew, with the contemporary garment introduced in the 1870s manifesting into the more informal tuxedo and dinner jacket varieties - worn for more informal occasions as opposed to the typical top hat and tails, or white tie dress. These were worn with knee-length topcoats with contrasting velvet or fur, and calf-length overcoats. The blazer was introduced in the 1890s, and worn for sporting activities, alongside the Norfolk jacket and tweed or woolen breeches for other outdoor pursuits - a far cry from the tracksuits of today! Men's shoes generally had high heels and narrow toes.
Prior to the 1890s, full beards, trimmed moustaches, and sideburns were popular, with hair often being cut short. By the 1890s, it was more fashionable to be clean-shaven.
Edwardian fashion saw many of the trends of the late Victorian period continue. Tall, stiff collars, broad hats adorned with flowers, lace, feather and ribbons; and Gibson hairstyles for women. Much of high class fashion had a distinctly “Art Nouveau” feel to it - intricate linear designs and complex curves inspired by natural forms.
Corsets were still around, but had started to lose ground over the course of the 1900s. S-bend corsets were fashionable in the 1900s, and these types of corsets were far less tight across the abdomen in comparison to the corsets of the past. S-bend corsets also lent to the distinctive “S” shape seen to dominate ladies' fashion throughout this era, with hips thrust backwards and chest forwards in a pouter-pigeon shape. Skirts were fitted over the hip, with shallow grooves flowing towards the hemline. Puffed, frilly blouses, lace collars, and broad ribbon ties were also commonly worn.
As for men, three-piece lounge suits with bowler hats or cloth caps, starched, upstanding collars with downward pointing corners, and moustaches - or beards for older men - were common. Men's fashion also started to become more modern, with knotted ties and turned-down collars with rounded edges appearing throughout the era.
The decade that saw the horrendous watershed of the Great War carried over many of the same styles as the 1900s. Due to the conflict, fashion became simpler by necessity, with both men and women donning overalls, and military uniforms between 1914 and 1918. Outside of these years, puffed, frilly blouses and fluted skirts continued to be popular, amongst women, with wide-brimmed hats trimmed with feathers, ribbons and flowers.
The decade was a conflict of past customs and present day needs. Young people did not have a public invoice, they served their country or their family. Teenagers were still considered children in the upper classes where they were not required to go out and work. Perhaps in retrospect this decade was a huge turning point in fashion, but its contemporaries probably wouldn’t have recognised it as such.
Before and after World War I, men's fashion differed very little from the previous period. Uniforms, three-piece lounge suits, bow ties, and starched collars turned up or down were still the main fashion trends. Older men sported beards, while younger men had trimmed moustaches.
Fashion for women changed dramatically in the 1920s. Gone were the cumbersome dresses, puffy shirts, overly-layered clothing, and stiff collars, making way for a truly modern revolution in contemporary women’s fashion. The stifling S-curve corsets of yesteryear gave way to an effortless look becoming of the girl who was shaking of the past and defying convention. The Flapper was in.
High-waisted, barrel-shaped outfits dropped down to the hips, obscuring natural curves and creating a more tubular, distinctly androgynous look. Shorter skirts that showed the ankles, four-tiered dresses, and even men's shirts were a part of the now-timeless women’s Roaring Twenties style.
A notable change in fashions was the introduction of popular cosmetics that became widely available throughout the decade. Information and even advertisements heightening the popularity were disseminated through women’s magazines that were widely circulated during this time. These were often illustrated, as photography was not yet prevalent. The popularity of make up amongst girls also fed the desire for small and elegant evening bags. Fashionable ‘It Girl’ bags were highly coveted items.
Men's fashion in the 1920s was similarly contemporary. In fact, many of the outfits were so timeless, they wouldn’t look out of place today! Lounge suits were narrow-cut, with pointed collars turned down and simply patterned ties. Cloth caps were worn by the working classes, while trilbies or homburgs adorned middle-class heads.
1920s androgyny gave way to a delightfully elegant women’s style during the 1930s. Think long, flowing dresses with scooping backs and slinky satin evening gowns. Shoulder-padded wool suits coupled with knee-length skirts were popular, as well as fox fur collared jackets and shawls. Small floral hats were commonplace, sometimes decorated with single feathers. The women’s hair underneath was often short-cut with a waved fringe or finger waves on the hairline.
In this decade we saw the heights of Parisian Haute Couture. The notable designers of the day included Chanel and Shiaparelli, two rival fashion houses that dominated the couture world - anyone who was anyone had to be seen in the latest fashions, including the emerging stars of the new film studios in Hollywood. However, these Paris fashion houses were a far cry from the everyday experience of average or low income families.
Even though three-piece suits were de rigueur in decades past, the 1930s saw informal wear begin to become common daytime wear for men. Knitwear, including cardigans and tank tops, began to make an appearance, while suits slowly went from being three-piece to two-piece, and worn only for more formal occasions. Shirts were soft-collared and more casually open-necked, and for the first time in decades ties were not obligatory. Men went clean-shaven, and bowler hats became a staple for businessmen working in the city.
Notable changes in womenswear were happening in what women wore beneath their clothes. This was the advent of the modern day brassiere, now popularly referred to as the bra. Bras actually became supportive and superior designs made them more comfortable, as several companies including Maidenform, Triumph and Gossard became household names and fiercely competed to win women’s business. Gone was the necessity for corsets and paraphernalia necessary for a lady. Women were now making decisions on what best fit their needs and towards the end of this decade we also begin to see women wearing trousers.
With the increase in holidaymaking, both domestic and abroad, beachwear and tans also started to become popular for the first time during this decade.
World War II hit Britain hard during the 1940s. Rations were a reality, with regards to fabric as well as food and drink. As a result, clothing for both men and women was fashioned from as little fabric as possible, with few pleats and less trim - this made the skirts and dresses shorter than in the the 1930s. Utility clothing was prevalent and similarities are often drawn between it and military uniforms. Even civilian wear had its own number - notably the stamp “CC41”, short for “Civilian Clothing Act 1941.” During the war years, men and women often wore military uniform of some description, no matter the occasion.
However, there were times when informal clothing was desirable. Accessories like bags became affordable due to necessity, and platform shoes, sandals, and tall, flowery hats became fashionable for women. Men, on the other hand, wore lounge suits with broad shoulders and wide trousers belted up high on the abdomen. Simple suits were worn both during the war, and throughout the decade as a whole. Once the war was over, decommissioned officers were issued with suits consisting of a double-breasted jacket, loose-fitting trousers, and a shirt and a tie.
Although World War II’s rationing resulted in a more traditional British minimalism, fashion in the 1940s was anything but boring. Cinema was at its height of popularity, and in the Golden Age of Hollywood film stars gained notoriety and influence. Until now the world had looked to the fashion houses of Paris for the latest designs, but with Europe decimated by war, America came to have a much greater impact on popular trends. This was particularly emphasised by the technical advances making news and popular media faster, further reaching, and more accessible than ever before.
Wide padded shoulders, nipped in high waist tops, and knee length A-line skirts created an everyday hourglass figure with broad shoulders, tiny waists and full hips. Towards the end of the decade, 1947 saw Christian Dior introduce his “New Look,” making use of an abundance of new and colourful fabrics. Rayon and American cotton were used to craft light, airy skirts and dresses that were longer than before, hats grew wider and more saucer-shaped, tops became less boxy, and shoulders sloped more. Despite the recession, the fabric drought of wartime was over - and fashion celebrated.
The spectre of war and the threat of Communism still loomed in the 1950s, but rapid technological progress and the eventual easing of rationing meant hope was on the horizon for many. The fashions of the time reflected this.
Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ showcased in 1947 had a dramatic impact on fashion which carried on into the fifties. Full skirts in floral and plain patterns, cinched waists, and sloping shoulders were all the rage. Tights, cardigans cropped at the waist, and single or double breasted jackets in tweed or check became a common sight, along with wide-brimmed hats. Most importantly, the narrow pencil-skirt look began to form! The female silhouette was now dramatised and applauded in fashion, film, and the media. Hair was cropped and curled.
For men, suits remained the mainstay of wardrobes. However, a “casualisation” of clothing took place, making it no longer necessary for all of a suit’s pieces to match. Tweed and checked jackets were paired with non-matching trousers. Open-necked shirts became acceptable for informal occasions, with the classic grey flannel suit with shirt, tie, and pocket handkerchief being common for business, soirées and other formal dos.
The 1950s was also the era of the teen. Rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and soul invaded Britain from overseas, and cross-cultural pollination thanks to the rise of radio and film influenced British fashion massively. The smart, Edwardian Teddy Boy dandy style was a stark contrast to the greasier, blue jeans and white t-shirt look of the rocker. Creepers and drainpipe trousers were also commonly worn.
The growth of teenage subcultures in the 1950s had an incredible impact on British fashion. This, combined with increased job security and post-war income, allowed the designers of this iconic decade to begin creating and marketing clothes specifically for young people.
Stores such as Biba became hugely popular as they catered for young womens increasingly fashion conscious needs.The mini skirt made waves, and dresses also became shorter. Makeup, including false eyelashes, mascara, and kohl became more prevalent, and hair was either worn long and straight or short and bobbed.
The bohemian styles that crept in during the 1950s gave way to the famous 60s hippy culture, and women's clothing became more colourful and elaborate as a result. Colours, patterns, and textures from non-Western cultures started appearing in younger wardrobes, although older women dressed more conservatively.
Menswear underwent a seismic shift in the 1960s. Suits and sombre colours had dominated men's clothing for the last 150 years, but that was about to change. Now, men could wear a far wider range of clothing than ever before. Hippy culture and the import of cultures and styles from Asian and African countries added a whole new dimension to men's clothing. Collarless Nehru jackets, wide and slim-fitting trousers, frills, and cravats became almost as prominent men's fashion features as they were women's. Shirts became vividly printed, and clothing had become progressively more unisex.
Skinhead and rude boy subcultures also began to bloom, characterised by distinctive braces and turned-up jeans, smart harrington jackets, Fred Perry polo shirts and Doctor Marten's boots. This timeless look would influence many other styles for decades to come.
The hippy movement may have begun to taper off by this decade, but it still had a significant impact on the styles and attitudes of the 1970s. Mini skirts, bell bottom trousers, and the overt androgyny prevailed, punctuated by Indian, Native American, and floral patterns. Folk embroidery, headbands, floppy hats, ponchos, and accessories crafted from natural materials like wood, shells, and feathers were popular.
The 1970s essentially saw an explosion in fashion. Youth cultures widely identified themselves based on their attire. Punks wore ripped t-shirts sporting band names and political slogans and bondage gear-style strapped trousers. Rockers wore tight t-shirts with loose-fitting bell-bottomed jeans. Worshippers at the Church of Disco wore shiny, synthetic suits with flared bottoms and wide lapels. Glam fans wore anything sparkly, makeup, catsuits, stripes, stars, sports coats, Royal Stewart tartan, shawl collar tuxedo jackets… and much more besides!
Women wore hot pants, fitted blazers with wide lapels, and glamorous vintage dresses from bygone eras - mainly the 1930s, 40s, and 50s! Most of these were inspired by stars from the silver screen, such as Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis. Biba, the store that had defined the sixties, finally closed in the mid seventies.
For more casual looks, women wore sweaters, T-shirts, cardigans, kimonos, jeans, khakis, and even workmen’s overalls. Men had a wider selection of clothes than ever before, including the likes of bell bottom jeans, tie dye shirts, and military surplus clothing, tweed sports jackets, chinos, chunky sweaters, storm coats, flannel shirts, pullovers and sweater vests. The “laidback” look was well and truly in, as the silhouette of the era - tight on top, loose on bottom - lent itself well to t-shirts and loosely fitting trousers.
The earthy tones of the sixties and seventies were replaced by glamour, garishness, and vivaciousness during this era.
Women's fashion in the early 1980s retained some similarities to the previous decade, but it was far more subdued, tending to be more minimalist. Spaghetti-strapped dresses in plain colours like tan, brown, and orange were popular, as were simple crew neck and turtle neck jumpers. Jelly shoes and jelly bracelets - inspired by Madonna - would also be seen in this decade.
By the mid-1980s, women's clothing started to become more colourful, with big, bouncy hair and Dallas-inspired power dressing: fur-lined puffer jackets; tunics; faux-fur coats; velvet blazers; trench coats, long flared skirts, jumpsuits, and spandex. The late 1980s saw the rise of consumer-friendly fashions, and shoulder pads reduced in size. Women also showed more skin, as the mini skirt became the only skirt length supported by fashion designers - combined with crop tops and tube tops. Tracksuits were also in vogue throughout the decade, with the aerobics craze carried over from the 1970s inspiring the wearing of shell suits and - oh my goodness - velour.
Men's clothing can be split into various different looks. New Wave was punctuated by striped t-shirts, slim-fitting suits and trousers, and members only jackets. The typically athletic look sported tracksuits, sports coats and expensive trainers. The preppy, “Ivy League” look, inspired by the late fifties style of the same name, featured Oxford shirts, turtleneck jumpers and sweater vests. The “Magnum P.I.” or “Miami Vice” look came with a range of Hawaiian shirts, expensive suit jackets over t-shirts, and sports coats. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, inspired styles that featured matching red and black leather jackets and trousers, fingerless gloves, and sunglasses. Of course, the iconic “go getting 80s business guy” look thrived in the City, as Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Anne Klein introduced double-breasted suits with wide pinstripes and narrow lapels, low-worn waistcoats with four buttons, and wide, striped neckties.
The early 1990s saw many styles of the previous decade carry over, as parachute pants and the neon rave styles of the late 1980s were still worn. This was very short-lived, as by 1994, everything about the previous decade was frowned upon. Hairspray was “so eighties,” too much makeup was “so eighties,” and fashion needed to change. The rise of grunge and the “casual chic” look brought forth Minimalism, with both men and women opting for checked flannel shirts, long, washed out jeans, hoodies, trainers, and a generally anti-conformist approach to fashion. Tattoos, piercings, and body modification also became more popular than ever before.
The 1990s also brought with it the “style mash up” concept still prevalent in today’s fashions. Recycled styles from other decades, made resurgences, most notably the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, with Mods, Teddy Boys, Punks and Bohemian styles all coming back into fashion. It was the original throwback era for many, and remains so today: young teenagers were wearing the clothes their parents had worn the first time around, with tie dye shirts, bell-bottom jeans, long, straight hair and homemade jewellery forming the hottest mid-decade looks. Oh, and denim was everywhere.
Women’s fashions took an ill-fated turn towards “heroin chic,” with only the skinniest of models on the covers of the major fashion publications. However, they became healthier and more glamourous and fitted towards the end of the period. Flannel was well and truly out, and sexy was in. Baby doll and slinky dresses, mini skirts, tight blouses, skinny jeans and the “sexy schoolgirl” look - popularised by the likes of the Spice Girls and Britney Spears - all formed a major part of a young lady's night out wardrobe.
The early 1990s saw men's clothing consist of high-waisted jeans with matching denim jackets, polo shirts, Hush Puppies shoes, sheepskin coats, trapper hats, baseball jackets, trainers, and flannel shirts. Much like with women, the middle of the decade saw a sharp move away from these looks, and skate, rave culture, and streetwear took over, giving rise to chain wallets, denim shorts, massive Avirex jackets, and bandanas. Brand name designers and “dress casual” began to dominate, with blazers, leather jackets, bowling shirts, loose-fitting flat-front khaki chinos and untucked shirts all becoming fashionable following the 1996 cinema sensation Swingers.
Business wear also evolved, with single-breasted notch lapel suits in replacing the 1980s power suits. Wide neckties remained, only in darker colours. Tweed houndstooth went out of fashion. As for shoes, these included chelsea boots with rounded or square toes, wingtips, and monkstraps - all in black.
The 2000s are often seen as a style mash-up. Fashion from previous decades have been fused together, and advances in worldwide delivery logistics, the Internet, and global tariff reduction mean more ethnic and diverse styles are seen more often. It is the era of mass technology, characterised by the advent of The Matrix, the Apple iPod, smartphones, and carbon fibre. Early 2000s fashion saw the impact of these depicted by heavy blacks, reflective materials, greys, straps, and buckles.
The 2000s as a whole could be seen as two decades of carry-ons from previous eras, with modern twists. Fashion has changed so rapidly over the past sixteen years, and with so many subcultures and the internet, the fashion world has grown smaller. Youth fashion continues to be influenced by music and celebrity culture. The likes of hip hop, punk, rockabilly, and indie genres have influenced their own particular styles, and many celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Victoria Beckham, and Emma Watson have become modern day fashion icons.
Not a great deal has changed in the fashions of the last 20 years, with many wardrobes suggesting evolution rather than revolution. Many of the styles that were popular by the mid to late 90s can be seen even today, albeit with slight updates. Though the jeans have generally become far less baggy and the multiple belts and chains are long gone, the band t-shirts, hoodies and other hallmarks of the 1990s still exist in some shape or form. This era has also seen a revival of 1980s fashions, with boho-chic making a comeback towards the mid-2000s.