The Transition Of Women's Fashion Through The Ages

Pre-Revolutionary Intricacy

Before French Rev

In the years prior to the French Revolution, fashion was characterized by an abundance of elaborate and intricate designs. Fashionista Marie Antoinette embodied such styles with voluminous hair and tight corsets. And her wide dresses and skirts became even more ornate as she spent more time in court.



Panniers, otherwise known as side hoops, were worn as undergarments in the 17th and 18th centuries to extend the width of a dress at the side while leaving the front and back relatively flat. This style allowed elaborate decorations and rich embroidery to be fully appreciated.

Louis Heels

Louis Heels

Fabric and leather Louis heels were the fashion-forward shoes of the mid-18th century, featuring curved heels with separate shoe buckles. It's said that the height of heels indicated one's economic status - the higher, the wealthier.

Simple Silhouettes

Empire Waist

Many preferred to be disassociated with the aristocracy of fashion following the French Revolution. Women chose to don simpler silhouettes that were much less intricate and complex than earlier times.

Empire Style Dresses

Josephine Bonaparte Getty Images(1)

High-waisted dressed were all the rage in the early 19th century. The "Empire style," made famous by Josephine Bonaparte, the wife of French Emperor Napoleon, featured a fitted bodice that portrayed a high-waisted appearance and a long, loosely-fitted skirt that skimmed the body.



Empire style originated as part of Neoclassical fashion, taking inspiration from Greco-Roman art that featured women in loose tunics, called Peplos, that were belted below the bust. This not only provided support, but also a cool and comfortable option in warmer weather.

1810-1820 Dresses

1810-1820 dress Getty Images

During this time period, padded hems, twills, and taffeta became the prominent style. High-waisted dresses lived on, but sleeves began to grow fuller at the shoulder with firmer fabrics. Soft colors made a statement and skirt hems also slightly widened.

Empire No Longer

1819 RegencyEmpire

Though waistlines remained high, women began to transition away from the Empire and Regency aesthetics as the years went on, taking on more conical silhouettes with heavy ornamentation along the hem.

Western 1820s

1820s fashion(1)

During the 1820s, Western fashion began to re-adopt elements from the 18th century, including full skirts and corsets that accentuated a woman's natural waist. Skirts became wider and sleeves began to increase in size, foreshadowing the styles of the 1830s. Tucks, pleats, and ruffles continued to define the bottoms of skirts.

1830s Silhouettes

1830s dress(1)

By the 1830s, silhouettes nearly reached a full transition from the Empire style by taking on an emphasis of breadth at the shoulders and hips. The bulkiness of dresses, like those with distinctive "leg of mutton" or "gigot" sleeves and full conical skirts, was intended to make women's waists appear narrower.

1840s Shoulder Lines

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Fashion in the 40s remained similar to the 30s, characterized by a natural shoulder line and exaggerated sleeves accompanied by a lower waistline. Conical-shaped skirts evolved into bell shapes and pleated fabric panels formed a triangle from the shoulder to the waist.

1850s and 60s Hoops


Fashion during this period was characterized by crinolines or hoops and the beginning of dress reform. Domed skirts of the 1840s continued to expand, made fuller by tiers of deep ruffles that gathered tightly at the top and stiffened at the bottom. Women often wore cape-like jackets over their wide skirts as well.

Artistic Dress Movement

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882; Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris)

Alternative fashion in the Artistic Dress movement said goodbye to highly structured and trimmed Victorian trends in favor of more simple designs. Women wore long-flowing gowns loosely inspired by the styles of the Middle ages, which was soon adopted for everyday dresses that featured plain fabrics with muted colors and long sleeves.

Victorian Era Silhouettes

Victorian Era

Tight-fitting and heavily trimmed silhouettes became the style of the Victorian era, featuring pleats, rouching, and frills. Form-fitting boned bodices molded women's bodies into an ideal shape, accentuating the rear. Sleeves became thinner and tighter, while necklines became higher.

Rational Dress Movement

Reform Corset(1)

The Rational Dress Society was formed in 1881 with some women protesting against the deforming corset, boned bodice, and layers of padding in favor of more practical clothing that wouldn't impede against the movements of the body, as many women began leading more active lives. Fashion began taking on more pragmatic lines with the rise of women's at the turn of the century and clothing was designed around activities like bicycling and tennis.

Early 20th Century

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Stiff collars, broad hats, and "health corsets" that created an S-curve silhouette defined the early 20th century. Embroidered bodices and bell-shaped skirts became the stars of the scene with lighter materials used to create frills. Women's suits and dresses that rose above the ankle also became more acceptable.

Huge Hats

19th Century Hats

Large, broad-brimmed hats trimmed with feathers, ribbons, artificial flowers, and sometimes even stuffed birds were the go-to accessories for many. Wavy hair swept to the top of the head was also quite popular in the early decade.

Gibson Girl

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The "Gibson Girl" hairstyle, portrayed here by Evelyn Nesbit, was made popular through the satirical illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson. This style represented the spirt of the late 19th century, early 20th century, and the visual style of the ideal woman of the time.

1920s Modern Era

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Fashion entered a new era in the 1920s, the decade in which women began abandoning restricting fashions of earlier time periods and starting wearing shorter skirts and trousers. Bobbed hair and "shift" type dresses with no waistline quickly emerged as well.

Totally Tubular

Flapper Getty(1)

Tubular dresses evolved into silhouettes that sported pleated and gathered skirts with slits to let the ladies move more. Undeniably, the "flapper" look became the hottest trend of the "Roaring 20s." Dresses were designed for function and fun, which ultimately flattened the bust line.

Hollywood Escape

Jean Harlow Bias Cut(1)

Hollywood became an escape during the golden age of glamour as the Great Depression welcomed harsh realities and empty pockets for many. The bias cut made of silk or satin donned by Jean Harlow, for instance, became a popular style that highlighted the desirable feminine figure.

Major Innovations

Coco Chanel(1)

Other innovations during the Great Depression, like zippers and costume jewelry made popular by Coco Chanel's faux pearls, became more affordable. Her "little black dress," a staple in all of our closets today, took off in the 1930s as well.

World War II

1940s fashion Getty Images(1)

Rationing during World War II limited the amount of new garments people could by until after the war's end, and though prices rose and materials like silk were no longer available, fashion didn't die. Women began taking on a sharper, military-style look with a slimming appearance that maintained both style and function at a low price.

Mixing And Matching

1940s Separates(1)

Mixing and matching became a hot trend among women during the 1900s, as the idea of separates meant one could own fewer items of clothing while maintaining the importance of variety in fashion.

Working Women Safety

Katharine Hepburn 1940s Pants(1)

As women began joining the working world in factories during the war, they looked towards clothing that wouldn't snag on machinery. Men's pants inspired the high-waisted trouser popularized by Katharine Hepburn. Many also adopted headscarves or "glamour bands" to bring a flash of color and, more importantly, safety so one's hair wouldn't get caught in machinery.

Haute Couture

Dior New Look 1950s Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images(1)

Haute Couture followed the war and the sharp, military look that became so poplar was replaced by the soft femininity of Christian Dior's "New Look" silhouette. The nipped-in waist and skirt that fell just below the mid-calf was adored (or should we say adiored) by many!

Maternity Wear

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Iconic television star Lucille Ball was one of the first women to appear on the screen donning masculine pants and maternity wear. Pregnancy was so out of the ordinary for television that the term "pregnant" was censored in the episode in which she revealed she was expecting! Her full and frill dresses and shirts brought new attention to maternity wear for women everywhere.

1960s Diversity

Jackie Kennedy Hat 1960s Getty Images(1)

The 1960s saw widespread diversity in fashion, undeniably so with the ever-so-popular looks of style icon Jacqueline Kennedy. From her pillbox hats to her geometric suits, she mirrored social movements of the time, shaped fashion history, and guided women away from tight waists and over-the-top hairstyles to more natural approaches to fashion.

Mod Chic

Twiggy Getty Images(1)

Just like everything else about the 60s, mod fashion was innovative, bold, and brash. People saw a time where "do your own thing" applied to fashion, driven by youth in the streets rather than in couture houses. Flat shoes, pops of bright and bold colors, and sleek lines took the stage!

Hippie Counter Culture

Hippie 1960s Getty images(1)

The hippie lifestyle represented the counter culture, fashion almost opposite that of the mod look. Many opted for comfort and flow and used fashion as a means of self expression emphasized by long hair and loose-fitting clothing, like bell-bottom jeans and peasant blouses, with bright colors and psychedelic patterns. Anything handmade with cotton or hemp was a desirable piece.

Disco Days

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The 1970s welcomed the age of disco with open arms! The wrap dress, a knee-length dress with a cinched waist originated and popularized by Diane Von Furstenberg, was every woman's staple piece for the office and a night out at the club. Clothing was designed to show off the body and shine under lights on the dance floor. Tube tops, sequined shirts, spandex shorts, and max dresses were just some of the go-to items worn by many.

1980s Pop

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Pop culture infiltrated the 1980s and stars like Madonna became fashion icons of the decade. Women began wearing bouffant and heavily-styled hair, bright and heavy makeup with pops of color, tight mini skirts, leotards, headbands, and laced or fingerless gloves. And those bra straps and underwear? Visibility was the way to go.

Bigger And Better

Power Dressing 1980s Dynasty(1)

As people began earning more money and ditching the hippie scene and values that inspired the previous decade, fashion shifted to shoulder pads and power dresses popularized by shows like Dallas and Dynasty. Many women revisited styles of shoes with pointed toes and spiked heels that were popular in the 50s and 60s as well.



Grunge was the look of the 90s that brought a minimalist, unkempt look to mainstream. Ripped jeans, combat boots, band t-shirts, oversized sweaters, and long skirts and dresses were staples in closets everywhere. Token grunge girls steered away from bright colors, opting for earth tones and dark plaid.