A Brief History of Western Fashion 1900-1950

This week, we’ll examine the next 50 years of Western fashion. If you haven’t read the previous blog post, you can read it here.

1900s

The 1900s was the first full decade of the Progressive Era. A number of issues affected people of this time, including: industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and political corruption. It was also a time of innovation. The Wright Brothers made their first flight and more attention was turned to women’s suffrage. Prohibition (of alcohol) also became a popular ideology.

Skirts became tighter around the hips with a flare towards the bottom of the dress. Trains were popular in the early part of the decade, but the hemlines would later rise to ankle-length, signalling the changes that would come in the following decades. The S-shape corsets were still en vogue and to create a pouter-pigeon shape, blouses with a puffy, frilled front were popular. The ideal beauty was the Gibson Girl. To achieve this look, women would pad and use false hair piled high on their head.

Bowler hats were no longer confined to working class men. Jackets became narrow with smaller lapels. Three-piece suits no longer had to match - they would sometimes have contrasting pieces. The blazer appeared at this time, worn mostly for sports and casual activities. Modern ties also gained popularity beginning in this decade.

1910s

The world began to change in the 1910s. The beginning of the decade saw one of the worst maritime disasters in history: the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The decade also saw the rebirth of the KKK, the institution of Prohibition, increased campaigning of women’s suffrage, the first major Red Scare, and World War I.

Social changes began to be reflected in women’s fashion. Hemlines get higher, women pop their hair, corsets begin to fall out of favor. During this time, bold women also begin to wear pants. Harem pants, made popular with the rise of Orientalism in fashion, were the popular style of pants. The sacrificing of the corset was only replaced by the brief popularity of the hobble skirt, which made it difficult for women to walk. Emphasis was still on the bust, but was achieved through empire waists (the waist of the dress being just under the bust).

For men, too, hemlines rose. Trousers now were ankle-length, often with cuffed legs and a sharp crease in the front. Due to the war, the trenchcoat now became popular for both men and women.

1920s

Women now had the right to vote. Cars proliferated the streets. Prohibition caused the invention of the speakeasy. The economy was booming and women were celebrating new freedom and independence. It was the Roaring Twenties - the high times before the fall in 1929.

Androgyny was now the fashionable look. The silhouette of dresses was cylindrical, with shorter hemlines and dropped waistlines. Undergarments helped women achieve a boyish figure. Bobbed hairstyles were fashionable, usually accented with a cloche hat.

In women’s and men’s fashion, simplicity became more important. Men no longer needed to wear three-piece suits. The starched collars of the previous decade gave way back to the soft collar of a few decades prior. Suit jackets were reduced to one or two buttons. Pinstripes, tweed, and flannels were popular materials and patterns for men. Trousers became wide-legged.

1930s

After the Stock Market Crash of 1929 came the Great Depression, a time of rampant poverty and unemployment. This hit Germany particularly hard, which was recovering after losing WWI. World War II would begin in 1939.

The United States and Hollywood had become the fashion center of the Western World with styles mimicked across Britain and Europe. The androgyny of the 1920s turned into femininity in the 1930s. Bias cut, man-made fabric dresses skimmed over the curves of the body. Satin evening gowns with low backs were popular. This look was paired with short hair styled into soft curls.

Men no longer wore three-piece suits outside of formal occasions. The vest was no longer a necessary component of men’s fashion. Men’s fashion became more diverse - they could wear knitted cardigans, they no longer had to wear a tie, they could wear open neck shirts and tank tops. Trousers were extremely wide-legged with turned up cuffs and sharp front creases.

1940s

The war changed fashion. Rationing of fabric created the need for different styles of dresses and skirts. Pleats and long skirts disappeared. Instead, women wore straight, knee-length styles with simple tops. Increased participation in the military and women’s corps for each segment of the military meant more women wore uniforms. After the war, Dior’s “New Look” brought back long, voluminous skirts.

Due to the war, many men wore military uniforms. Most men were cleanshaven and had short hair with the sides of the head shaved, mimicking a military style. Civilian clothes for men meant wide-legged trousers from the previous decade and double-breasted suit jackets.

After the 1940s, counter culture catches on in a much more significant way and we start seeing many more deviations in mainstream fashion - from greasers to hippies to punks to goths. Fashion becomes a very significant aspect of one’s identity as a result of mass production and globalization. Fashion subcultures increase in number over time and create a much more diverse sets of looks for each decade of fashion.