The Most Influential Fashion Trends, Decade by Decade

Posted by Rebecca A. Bolden on

In the course of history, 100 years isn't a particularly long time. But in the course of fashion history, it's the difference between trying to get around in a bone-cinching girdle and ankle-length skirt and easing into the Nike leggings and Vans sneakers you're probably wearing today. In the intervening years, there have been major shifts in technology, politics, culture, and social norms, and fashion has reflected that in its ever-changing cycle of trends. From the sky-high platforms of the '70s to the high-waisted bikinis of the '40s, we see plenty of the popular looks of decades past serving as inspiration for designers today. Below, take a look back at the most influential trends from the 1900s through today (and see which ones you'd actually still consider wearing).

 

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The Edwardian period saw the introduction of the "S-bend" or "health" corset, a style that altered the wearer's posture and (shocker) was no more healthful than its predecessors. Toward the end of the decade, the fashion shifted to girdles and away from the dramatic hourglass silhouettes that had been demanded of women for decades. Leisure apparel was also introduced, with options like blazers, long skirts, and wool sweaters becoming part of many women's wardrobes.

Finally, hemlines crept up slightly past the ankle, making walking less of a chore—unfortunately, this coincided with a trend for "hobble skirts," a style popularized by designer Paul Poiret that was narrow through the ankle and sometimes banded below the knee, constricting women's movement and sometimes leading to injury. While this fad mercifully did not stick around for long, the more practical duster coats and lace-up boots of the era are echoed in fashion today.

Flapper ensembles are instantly recognizable as the look of the '20s, and it's easy to see why: With their relaxed drop waists, ornately beaded designs, and feathered accessories, the trends of the era have enduring appeal. The most influential style, however, may have been a subtler one. According to The Dictionary of Fashion History, it was in this decade that Coco Chanel introduced the little black dress: "It offered simplicity and elegance, and instead of being a color associated with servants or widows, black became chic."

 

 

While the American public was reeling from the Great Depression, the silver screen became a welcome site of escapism. There, film icons like Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford dazzled in glamorous gowns and tailored skirt suits. The silhouette was long and lean, in part thanks to the popularization of Madeleine Vionnet's bias cut, a technique that allows fabric to drape over the body

One of the less predictable consequences of wartime was the increasing popularity of the two-piece swimsuit, a result of fabric rationing enforced by the U.S. government beginning in 1943. Three years later, French designer Louis Réard introduced the bikini we know today, naming it after the site of American nuclear tests and daring to cut it below the belly button—a style that wouldn't fully be embraced until decades later.

Fashion by the Decade: 1950s

 

In 1947, Christian Dior debuted the "New Look" silhouette that would shape the decade to come: With its nipped-in waist, structured bust, and voluminous taffeta layered skirt, it was the antithesis of wartime outfits. Even the lighter garments that eventually became common fare among middle-class women stateside retained much of this femininity: cinch-waist dresses, full mid-calf skirts, and sweater sets.

Fashion by the Decade: 1960s

 

Hemlines crept ever northward in the '60s, and ground zero for the shift was designer Mary Quant's London boutique, Bazaar. ''If I didn't make them short enough, the Chelsea girls, who had wonderful legs, would get out the scissors and shorten the skirts themselves,'' she later told the The New York Times. At the time, they were controversial, but clearly the naysayers were ultimately overpowered. Additionally, two of the most popular hues of the Space Age were—appropriately—white and silver, two color trends that were the result of advancements in fabric technology. André Courrèges's signature optical white, for instance, was enabled by the introduction of a new bleach in the late '60s, according to historian Valérie Guillaume

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