A Disruptive Century to Inspire Modern Fashion Designers
The 20th century was one of the most transforming centuries that humankind has ever experienced, in every respect. This brief overview of the most iconic styles of each decade will reveal how fashion has mirrored changes in history and society, and how a good fashion designer cannot do without good knowledge and understanding of current events and global conditions.
The Roaring 1920s
While the early 20th century was defined by a conservative wartime fashion, the 1920s got rid of previous restrictions “in favour of comfort and a lighter, more natural effect” (Jayne Shrimpton, Fashion in the 1920s). With a high-waisted trousers and simple shapes, “la garçonne” look epitomised the changing fashion. Also known as the flapper, this androgynous style was reflected in haircuts, with the bob becoming the defining hairstyle of the time. The simple cut of evening dresses was however offset by extensive embroidery, lavish lamé fabrics, beadwork, sequins and pearl necklaces, reflecting economic growth and widespread wealth.
In haute couture, Gabrielle Chanel made her reputation with the "little black dress," a wardrobe essential to this day, favouring clear lines and simple elegance.
A return to the Feminine Style - the 1930s
Women’s clothing softly evolved from the boyish look of the previous decade into a feminine, form-fitting silhouette in the early thirties. While skirt length had shorted to the knee in the 1920s, hemlines descended back to ankle length and waistlines moved back to their natural place.
The new slender look was emphasised by designer Madeleine Vionnet and her curve-skimming bias-cut dresses. Elsa Schiaparelli also contributed to innovation with her wide padded shoulder, which had a major influence on fashion.
Utility and the New Look - 1940s-50s
Schiaparelli’s shoulder pads were perfect for the uniform style of the early forties. During and right after World War II, fashion was influenced by the need for practical clothes and the rationing of resources. In England, the government encouraged manufacturers to produce "utility clothing." In all countries, magazines provided advice on how to make simple clothing from old fabrics.
In France, Christian Dior defined post-war style by launching his "New Look”, a haute couture collection with a dreamy wasp waist, narrow shoulders, full skirts and high-heeled pumps, returning women’s fashion to a feminine silhouette. Other influential designers of the time included Pierre Balmain, Hubert de Givenchy, Cristobel Balenciaga, and Emilio Pucci.
Fast fashion, Miniskirts and Hippie Style – the 1960s
In the 1960s, popular culture and trends shifted towards a happy emphasis on young people. This is also where today’s “fast fashion” craze began: instead of carefully choosing quality clothing that was meant to last, people would go for cheaper pieces in bold colours, futuristic patterns or materials like vinyl.
Protesting this new form of consumerism, hippies and beatniks stood against the mainstream by mixing and matching international native costumes, like Indian blouses, Eskimo boots and Afghani shearling coats.
In "Swinging London", Mary Quant made headlines with her mini skirt, raising hemlines above the knee. At the same time, trousers became popular in all shapes and lengths, their leg growing into an increasingly wider bell.
From Hippie to Punk and Status Seekers - the 1970s-80s
The hippie look fell out of fashion by the mid-1970s, making way for a more casual everyday style. In the late seventies, anti-bourgeois punk clothing had a strong influence on fashion. In the United Kingdom, punk style was reflected in the designs of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. British punk fashion included leather jackets, rips, studs and safety-pins, patches and controversial images.
At the same time, fashion became a status symbol. Karl Lagerfeld revolutionised the fashion scene with his realistic elegance; Giorgio Armani led the rise of Milan ready to wear, while Calvin Klein launched designer jeans and underwear. In 1985, Jean-Paul Gaultier made androgyny a provocative fashion statement with his men-skirts.
Designer Fashion and Minimalism - The 1990s
In the 1990s, fashion was all about designers and luxury labels. The English Vivianne Westwood received international recognition for her daring twists on tradition. Britain saw a fashion renaissance with London designers Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Stella Mc Cartney, appointed at Christian Dior, Givenchy and Chloé, respectively. Giorgio Armani remained the master of purism, while Gianni Versace embraced luxurious neo-baroque. Miuccia Prada shaped contemporary aesthetics with her focus on making the ugly beautiful. With Tom Ford, Gucci combined purism and eroticism, also celebrated by Dolce & Gabbana with black lace and elaborate prints.
The nineties stood against the opulence of the 1980s with minimalist lines, but were also inspired by the sixties and seventies, reviving retro pieces such as flared (or bootleg) trousers and platform shoes. England saw an increase in the rave culture, with neon colours, short skirts and crop tops.
From the 2000s to The Present – Changes and Opportunities
In the early 20th century, fashion was still largely on the same page as the 1990s, but crop tops became shorter, and the waistline much lower. Other popular items included halterneck tops and bandeaus, asymmetrical hemlines, and maxi lengths with a bohemian twist.
The late 00s saw a distinct change, with high-waisted skirts, and skinny, distressed jeans paired with sneakers becoming the go-to style for every occasion. The use of leather, trench coats, and straps evoked a new age of technology and innovation.
The dissemination of fashion through technology made it possible to bring affordable versions of runway looks to the masses.
The wellness movement brought plenty of sneakers and athleisure to the 21st century. The past ten years were also momentous for diversity, streetwear and normcore with greater attention to race and gender, as well as a sharp focus on the ethical and environmental issues entrenched in the fashion industry.
As trends and society change, fashion designers are also faced with new challenges, including the development of communication strategies that keep up with the times, state-of-the-art digital design techniques and sustainable approaches to fashion production. These topics and more are covered by the Istituto Marangoni Fashion School in London, where a comprehensive range of programmes equips aspiring fashion designers and industry professionals with all the skills required by the contemporary fashion scenario.
Visit the School’s website for a complete overview of programmes to explore your opportunities and plan your career path.