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An outer garment for women, consisting of bodice and skirt in one piece.
Dresses have always been the piece of clothing women and girls turn to every day, for any and all occasions. But did you ever wonder how dress styles and trends came to be? Why have certain dresses caused such a stir that women all over the country start wearing the same styles at the same time?
Fashion trends are heavily influenced by pop culture, especially by Hollywood, politics and economics. We took a deep dive through decades of dress design to find out the role they played in history.
Known as Roaring Twenties, it was a time of economic prosperity. Fashion became glamorous. Women were pushing away from conformist Victorian styles. Jazz was in the ears of most. Cars, planes and telephones were new on the scene.
For dresses, simple shapes took over, silhouettes were loose, and hemlines were shortened. Flappers were considered rebellious. They left the corset behind and wore dresses which exposed their arms and legs. Women flocked to this look.
You can find these dresses in “The Great Gatsby”.
As Americans were battling The Great Depression and the stock market crash, fashion returned to conservatism. Because of the economy, duties were imposed on all dress imports, including original designs and knock-offs, from Paris and elsewhere. This created a great democratization of fashion.
Every woman started making her own dresses or buying similar looks locally, like the ones she saw on Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo in “Romance” and Bette Davis in “All About Eve”, who quickly became style icons.
At this time dresses became sleeker and more streamlined. Fabrics were cut on the bias giving them a bit of stretch. Hemlines fell to ankle length and waistlines moved back up.
World War 2 made a huge impact on the fashion of this era. Clothes took on a utilitarian appeal. Dresses were simple and practical. Details were “borrowed from the boys” like statement collars and pockets appeared on dresses for the first time. Wool and silk were in high demand for the war in use of uniforms and parachutes.
To conserve fabric, hems got shorter, and silhouettes got slimmer. After the war, America led the sportswear revolution and dresses got sportier. Think of Katherine Hepburn, who epitomized wearing dresses with a sporty appeal. “Desk Set” shows her practical work dresses at their most stylish.
While most think poodle skirts defined the fashion of the Fifties, there was much more to it than that. Style showed both the yin and the yang of design which included both glamorous and conservative dresses.
The key shape for the decade was the famed hourglass silhouette created by cinching the waistline which accentuated the hips and gave the bustline more prominence.
Today, we call those dresses fit-and-flare. Women opted for everyday elegance, and perfectly matched accessories. “America Graffiti” shows this 50’s sock hop style perfectly.
Fashion in the 60’s became more progressive and was marked by vastly different styles. Dresses followed three broad trends. There was a continuation of ladylike elegance in the earlier part of the decade. Slowly, London’s Carnaby Street imports were mainstays in every young American woman’s closet as the Beatles were playing on her radio.
Shift dresses were everywhere. Bright colors, “sock-it-to-me” patterns paired with go-go boots were mod and de rigueur. Finally, hippie style became an everyday look with peasant-designed maxi dresses featuring embroidery and lace. Headbands and granny boots were the accessories of choice. This is what you found on the young women at Woodstock.
If you love these retro looks, “Palm Springs Weekend” is a movie to stream. It’s a zany rom-com filled with mod fashion.
The 70’s started with a continuation of 60’s design. While jeans and pantsuits were at everyone’s front door, the country took a giant fashion turn when the Vietnam War ended. Disco replaced folk music and quickly enveloped the nation. Bold, vivid color took over and large patterns took center stage.
Dresses harkened back to the 1940’s by day and pumped up the glamour by night. Women wore sequins, feathers and fur scarves whenever they felt like it.
Long dresses with dolman, batwing sleeves became the thing to own. “Saturday Night Fever” is the definitive movie showing this fashion craze.
The bigger, the better is what defines the 80’s. Pure excess. It was a reaction to feeling liberated and finally breaking out of conservative female norms. Nothing was too much. And that included everything from hair and shoulder pads (which were in every dress).
Mid-length, brightly colored dresses were the most fashion-forward. Women were finally crashing glass ceilings and were stopping at nothing. There was nothing understated in the 80’s. Power colors and strong, shapely style gave them the confidence to move ahead in their careers.
Melanie Griffith portrays this strong female aesthetic in the movie, “Working Girl.”
As the 20th century began to wind down, women’s fashion became more casual. Early on, grunge dressing hit the streets. It was likely a rebellious reaction to 80’s excess.
As the decade progressed, however, minimalism became the norm. Thin spaghetti straps and long shapeless dresses marked the decade. Streamlined dresses were favored with delicate accessories, if any.
"Romy and Michele’s" pink and blue minis are representative of this trend.
As the new millennium started, fashion returned to conservatism. With the rise of new technology, fast fashion spread throughout the country, making trends cheaper and easier to buy.
Hollywood again played a key role in women’s fashion choices as starlets’ images were shared through the internet with incredible speed. Empire waist silhouettes and halter necklines were must-have dresses.
Miniskirts from earlier on were replaced with babydoll and sweater dresses. Pink was a key color of the decade. Neon colors and animal prints were also adopted as favorite trends.
Reese Witherspoon captures these looks in “Legally Blonde”.
A turn to casual fashion marked this decade. Starting from a need to be healthy and fit, the most comfortable fashion trend emerged… athleisure. While this started in the gym and yoga studio, it slowly moved into everyday life in all clothes including stretch dresses.
Dresses were designed with cutouts, cold shoulders, plunging necklines and scooped backs… all intended to show off women’s fit shapes. The “me-too” movement began and gave women confidence and courage to dress the way they wanted.
Designer labels and logos were also coveted. As a result, normcore evolved. This trend put an emphasis on average everyday looks that were interpreted as anything but stylish.
Dakota Johnson shows off these styles in “How to Be Single”.
In response to the global pandemic, WFH (working from home) became commonplace. Traditional styles quickly evolved into “whatever’s comfortable”. Yoga pants, loungewear and joggers replaced everything else.
After two years, fashion finally reemerged with a new lease on style. Workplace dress codes have eased, but women yearned to dress up once again. Designers have created dresses that are comfortable and easy-to-wear, but still maintain great style and on-trend details.
Hemlines have plummeted. Midis and maxis have taken over the runways. Sleeves are back for those who want them, wrap dresses and halter dresses are making a fresh, new mark. Click the above image to see all the dresses from our infographic.
Social media platforms are mainstays for fashion designers to reach the public. They collaborate with influencers to promote individual styles. Dresses are becoming size inclusive, making any style, any trend, accessible to all women. You’ll see these trends in “The Prom”.
Here's the full infographic, inspired by Glamour's video 100 Years of Dresses. If you're interested in one of the dresses we're promoting on the infographic - we've put those in a collection for you to easily find - click here.
Please feel free to share the infographic on your own site or publication... we ask that you simply provide us credit and a link back to our site.