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Photo by Toni Frissell

There’s no denying that clothing has changed a lot over the past 100 years. But when it comes to what we wore then versus what we wear now, just how great is the difference? We all know that many trends are cyclical; the trendy stuff grows boring and overdone, and what was old becomes new again. Fashion can be simple or complex, beautiful or ugly, but it’s always changing.

We’ll be looking at some of the most popular looks for women over the last century and comparing them to today’s styles to see what aspects of history are repeating themselves… or not.


About the look: This was just after the Victorian era, and the styles remained relatively conservative, so women were expected to remain largely covered up. There was a trend toward simplicity, with a reduction in the ribbons, trimmings, and lace that had characterized earlier years. During the day, women would usually wear a button down top with a long skirt (showing your ankles was acceptable, but no shorter) and a jacket. A hat decorated with flowers or feathers and a pair of boots would complete the ensemble.

Is it in style today? Longer skirts have made a comeback, although they’re much tighter today. Blazers are also quite popular now, although today’s versions tend to be shorter, hitting the wearer at the waist instead of below. Tops with high necks are also trendy lately, though they tend to be featured on sweaters more often than button-downs.


About the look: Post-World War I America was a society seeing major changes, and accordingly, so was women’s fashion. Corsetry changed significantly as women adopted a more boxy look that deemphasized curves. Skirts also raised to just below the knee, and the new exposure of legs made hosiery a bustling field. One of the biggest changes was in hairstyling: the voluminous updos of the 1910s were dropped and cut into short bobs. To accommodate these short new coiffures, hats changed to be lower and tighter around the head; these were called cloche hats.

Is it in style today? There’s not much about this era that I would say is fashionable today. Curves are definitely popular now, so the straight lines of the 1920s certainly wouldn’t be en vogue. However, “The Great Gatsby” has seemingly become the go-to theme for adult parties in recent years, probably thanks in part to the grandiose 2013 film adaptation.


About the look: The 1930s saw some backlash against the previous era, and there was a return to more feminine styles. Flowy dresses in pastel colors were popular, and they were frequently paired with cropped sweaters called boleros.High heels remained the shoe of choice, and they got higher and more elegant. Wearing gloves was a must, and pairs with delicate details like lace and embroidery were especially well-loved. Hats were also worn often, and many styles were popular; unlike cloche hats, they sat higher on the head.

Is it in style today? I would argue that some of the foundations of contemporary styles were created in the 30s. As you can see, this decades’ heels look far more modern than the 1920s, and the clothing generally flatters the figure more. Also, the idea that clothing should enhance the wearer’s beauty was a change from the 20s, which were very much about being trendy and contemporary, or the 1910s’ focus on propriety.


About the look: World War II proved to be a unifying force in America as men went off to fight and women took up the industrial jobs they’d left behind. Much about this decade’s fashion was influenced by the military; women began wearing suits that contained shoulder pads and took styling cues from soldiers’ uniforms. In addition to hats, women also wore snoods, meshes made from cloth, which were necessary for safety in factory work and then became fashionable. Even lipstick was styled after bullets.

Is it in style today? Shoulder pads aren’t very popular anymore – in fact, the direct opposite, tops with the shoulders cut out, are trendy. Women’s suiting today definitely still follows some of the principles developed in the 1940s, although today’s versions generally have a more streamlined design. Snoods aren’t too widespread anymore; in fact, many people don’t even know what they are. I’d guess most factory workers with long hair today would just opt for a top-knot.


About the look: A new style debuted in the 1950s: the New Look, created by Christian Dior. It called for an end to wartime fashions and a new emphasis on femininity and luxury. Small waists and longer, wider, flowing skirts were the choice pieces. Heels became higher and thinner, more like those we see today, and the enduringly-popular “cat eye” sunglasses became common. Now that the country was at peace, there was the idea that everyday life could be beautiful and glamorous.

Is it popular today? The 50s are often looked back upon as one of history’s most chic decades. The ideals for beauty and femininity of the era continue to be reflected in contemporary clothing, especially formalwear. In fact, many of the gowns chosen by celebrities for red carpets have been visibly influenced by 1950s design. The figure encompassing a small waist and hourglass shape has had a major resurgence in recent years, too.


About the look: The 1960s saw an unprecedented change in the fashion world: the trendsetters became younger people, known as Youthquakers, who had grown bored with the traditionalist styles of the previous decade. The idealized femininity of the 50s was seen as old-fashioned, and a brand new trend garment emerged: the mini-skirt, which symbolized liberation for women and the subversion of outdated mores. Heels became lower and blockier, another rejection of exaggerated femininity. In general, people became more experimental with clothing and used it as a way to express themselves.

Is it popular today? The trend these days is usually for longer hemlines or pants and much higher heels, but the 60s have to be credited for making mini skirted clothing a possibility for women. Mod fashions were seen as highly contemporary and youthful; when looking at them today, some of the looks have a timeless appeal, while others would appear too costumey in the 2010s.