Story by Yesenia Gonzalez
Clothing styles are woven into the fabric of society. Fashion trends throughout the ages convey demographics such as social class and marital status. A simple cotton house dress indicated a woman of humble bearings, whereas an elegant evening gown showed that a woman had no need to work and could afford to dress expensively. Garments labeled their wearers.
The Tudor Period boasts an extensive timeline, between the 15th and 17th centuries, characterized by royalty’s elaborate gowns for women and extravagant coats for men. The classic late 19th and early 20th century Victorian Era is widely remembered for its constrictive corsets and waistcoats for women and men, respectively. The short-lived Edwardian Era, lasting nearly as long as the duration of World War I and overlapping the end of the Victorian Era, promoted slim-fitted dresses without corsets; upper-class men wore slim-fitted suits with elegant hats. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries mechanized the process of making clothing into a cost-effective, time-efficient task and the common citizen could afford a more extensive wardrobe. Inventions like the sewing machine and the spinning jenny, a machine that wove multiple spindles of thread at once to make textiles, came about during the Industrial Revolution. Workers, often female, were needed to operate machines at textile mills, which eventually progressed to more fashion changes.
Hairstyles and Hemlines Shorten Over Time
Women began wearing their hair up or in shorter styles during and after World War I, according to Michelle Brockmeier, professor of history at Rose State. Long, free-flowing hair, which was unfit in the dangerous textile mills and military supply factories where long hair could get caught in the machines, was a sign of girlhood. When a woman reached marrying age, she would pin her hair up, signifying the end of her youth. The working-class woman became synonymous with her pinned-up hair. Bobbed hair soon after became a sought-after style for its convenience and hygiene among nurses and female industrial workers during World War I. The bobbed style became symbolic of the rebellious, free-spirited teenage girl in the 1920s. During the Roaring 20s, flapper dresses with intricate beadwork and fringe were popularized. From the early 1900s and onward, hemlines evolved to a shorter length.
Hollywood’s Impact on Fashion
Male fashion has also undergone its fair share of changes. Brockmeier recounted how the famous 1934 film, “It Happened One Night,” starring Clark Gable, nearly eliminated a notorious item in male fashion.
“[Clark Gable] almost single-handedly destroyed the undershirt business in America,” she said.
One of the scenes of the film shows Gable’s character taking off his shirt, revealing bare skin, sans undershirt. Men’s button-down shirts have been a wardrobe staple for centuries, but have experienced changes. Brockmeier explained shirt cuffs and collars became removable so that working-class men could avoid dirtying their shirts when working. Even the color of men’s shirts became a class symbol. The term “blue-collar worker” originated from the fabric color of choice for working-class citizens. Men who had high-paying professions had no need to dirty their shirts and wore white shirts to work, paving the way for the term “white-collar worker.” Clothing defined its wearer and revealed social class details, in a way few other everyday necessities could.
“Another thing we need to remember in [Western society] is our clothing is a reflection of our personality and also, not necessarily of class anymore,” Brockmeier said.
Although the working class in America inspired trends like denim fabric, popularized because of factory workers during World War II, and bobbed hair, for much of history, royalty and the wealthy set the standards in the fashion world. In Europe, which greatly influenced American fashion even after the American Revolution, Queen Victoria popularized the white wedding gown and large, lavish dresses. According to Brockmeier, movie stars Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn furthered the notoriety of the bobbed haircut and caused a stir when they wore pants in public. Although dresses remained the garment of choice for most women in the early 1900s, it was not rare for some women to sport slacks.
“Actually, women started wearing pants, not necessarily denim pants, [wool slacks] and things like that, even as early as the 1910s,” Rose State Theatre costume designer Tamitha Zook said.
Other fashion icons include actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn, who made little black dresses—an unusual color choice seldom worn outside of funerals in the 1950s—iconic. Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s simple, regal style drew international acclaim in the 1960s. Similarly, Princess Diana became a fashion icon in the 1980s, perhaps Europe’s response to Kennedy.
Men’s wardrobes were also influenced by innovators and popular trends. Zook said she enjoys the difficult-to-work-with but beautiful textiles of the Tudor period. During that time, waistcoats were a common accessory for men’s coats. However, English fashion designer Beau Brummell invented the traditional three-piece suit for men that did not include the heavy waistcoat. Another staple during the Tudor period was a pouch mechanism to enlarge the appearance of men’s genitals under their pants, known as a “codpiece,” which King Henry VIII popularized.
Whether an intricate ball gown or a modest cotton dress, for centuries fashion has denoted the social status of wearers. Technological advances paved the way for mass-produced clothing, which gave people an accessible mark of individuality. Fashion through the ages has changed in response to social and economic factors for both men and women.