The History of Fashion Series

Join us in a journey back through the decades as we explore the influences that shape the clothes we wear and make today, and fid out how to sew the looks from each decade of the 20th Century.

The History of Fashion 1960s Dresses

Welcome to our new history of fashion blog series, in which we’ll be rummaging through more than a century of styles to inspire today’s stitchers. Skip to the decade you love or curl up with a cuppa and read the lot!

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The 1990s

We know vintage is officially cool. From stylists combing eBay for ironic 80s sweaters to stars wearing 50s Dior on the red carpet, it has never been so ‘in’ to wear the fashions of the past.For stitchers, the history of fashion is a treasure trove of inspiration. Plus, unlike your average shopper who has to search for the perfect 40s frock, we can make our own, to fit us, in the colours and fabric we like. We can take inspiration from 1920s beading and add it to our own bag design. In short – we’re time travellers.So, buckle up and come with us as we begin our vintage inspo adventure, starting in the decade many of us can just about remember: the 1990s…The 1990s feel like five minutes ago but they’re back on the style pages and a goldmine of fun fashions, from hip hop styling to rave culture. There’s plenty for grown-up women to wear too (with or without the Spice Girls-style Buffalo trainers…).
My So Called Life 1990s fashion history

Grunge

First up: grunge. The music of the disenchanted recession generation came with its own philosophy, expressed in the clothes: ripped jeans, functional plaid shirts, thrift store-find dresses and army boots.

Ironically, the anti-consumerist movement became super-fashionable when Nirvana released their mega-hit album Nevermind and in 1992, a young Marc Jacobs dressed the hottest models (including one Naomi Campbell) in couture grunge (including ‘flannel’ shirts made from silk) – outraging pretty much everyone and losing his job in the process. Today the high street is full of grunge style, from torn jeans to pastel hair.

1990s grunge sewing patterns
Sew the look: style up this Burda slip dress with chunky boots, or keep it casual with a Grainline Studio shirt and jeans.

Alt screen stars

Claire Danes may be best known for Homeland and Romeo & Juliet, but in the 90s she was the star of cult teen drama My So-Called Life (pictured above). She was just one of a number of quirky, youthful and rebellious screen stars of the 90s: Liv Tyler in Empire Records, Drew Barrymore in flower crowns, Winona Ryder in everything – even the zany styles of Melissa Joan Hart in Clarissa Explains It All. We’re thinking: layering, waistcoats, dungarees, crop tops, scrunchies, berry lipstick and red hair dye.

1990s alt style sewing patterns
Sew the look: We love Pineneedle Collective’s DIY crop top and McCall’s comfy dungarees.

And who could forget that classic 90s hair accessory, the scrunchie? Martha Stewart’s scrunchie tutorial is an easy way to add a touch of 90s style if you don’t want to go all out.

Martha Stewart diy scrunchie tutorial
Image courtesy of Martha Stewart

Minimalism

A reaction to the dazzle of the 80s (more on that next time), 1990s mainstream fashion returned to minimalism with simple, pared-down styles in hues of black, white and taupe – silky shoulder-baring dresses, pencil skirts, high-waist tapered trousers. Pair everything with a white shirt, a thumb ring and maybe a spritz of CK One.

1990s minimalism fashion history
Sew the look: Wear Papercut Patterns’ Guise trousers with a plain tee or white shirt, and New Look’s slinky dress with minimal jewellery and a sleek ponytail (and that all-important spritz of CK One, of course).

The 1980s

Welcome to the turn of the much-maligned and joyously OTT 80s.Yes, there was a lot of bad stuff going down – shoulder pads, ultra-bright blusher, obnoxious neon prints, leg warmers – but step away from the aerobics mat and there were some influential trends that we’re still inspired by today.
Pretty in Pink 1980s fashion history
Hit movie Pretty in Pink  became a cult classic – find out more below.

Slogan T-shirts

Proclaiming your allegiances across your chest began with mid-century American sports fans and brands in the 60s and 70s, becoming super-controversial with Vivienne Westwood’s punk tees in the 70s, but in the 80s the slogan T-shirt hit the big time.

Designer Katherine Hamnett wore hers to meet the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher – and a striking way of spreading a message was born. Via Wham’s ‘Choose Life’ and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ T-shirts, slogan tops became a mainstream way to protest – or simply look cool.

While the passion for declaring your love of brands died a few years ago (remember those FCUK tops?) we say creating your own message is the way to go now.

1980s slogan tees
Sew the look: Stencil your own slogan tee with this tutorial from The Homesteady, or use these iron-on letters from Hobbycraft.

Goth

One of the most influential style cultures of all time flourished in the 80s. Inextricably linked with music, including Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine and The Cure, goth emerged from the foggy streets of London with the clothes to match – lots of black, lace, net, corsets, velvet, studs, crucifixes and pentagrams, and even a cape or two.

It was a super-creative time and the goth style has remained, well, undead – think The CraftThe CrowTwilight, and more recently Rick Owen’s gothic vibe, Illamasqua’s new In Disciple Deep Navy lipstick and this winter’s Dark Victoriana look.

Nettie Dress Sewing Pattern
Sew the look: Stitch Closet Case Files’ Nettie pattern in black-as-night fabric for a goth vibe.

80s style icon: Molly Ringwald

The star of 80s teen classics The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink sparked a fashion revolution that we haven’t quite got over.

Spurning the severe and ostentatiously prosperous look of the ‘Greed is Good’ generation (we’re thinking power-dressing suits, gilt buttons, massive hair), Molly had her own quirky style.

She mixed and matched feminine skirts and pirate boots with masculine bowler hats, oversized blazers and houndstooth check. Plus, of course, she took part in any sewist’s favourite cinema moment: the prom dress up cycle in Pretty in Pink.

We would go so far to say that she sparked the trend for vintage – and our 21st-century love for seriously massive spectacles.

Houndstooth 80s fashion
Sew the look: Make Burda’s oversized boyfriend blazer in the ultimate 80s print, houndstooth, and channel Molly with this pink wool from MacCulloch & Wallis.

The 1970s

Before the big shoulder pads and even bigger hair of the 1980s, there was the eclectic 1970s. As author Tom Wolfe said: “If the hippies had one irrevocable effect on culture, including fashion, it was to destroy every rule except the injunction to please oneself.”
This lead to a decade of mismatched styles, from glam, disco and classic, big-haired Americana to the nihilism of punk. The era is making a comeback on the high street, so there’s no better time to add a 1970s vibe to your sewing. We think these styles are pretty far out, man…
1970s fashion history
Bess Georgette via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Tassels and fringing

In many ways, 1970s fashions were a bit of a bohemian free-for-all rolling on from 1960s flower power (think Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and the flowing designs of Thea Porter). Suede, beads and embroidery made their way from catwalk to high street, while we love a bit of fringing and tassel action (check out Kate Moss and Cara Delevingne for Mango).

Fringing fashion history
Sew the look: Head to Josy Rose for this festival fringing, or make your own fringed top with this DIY by Mr Kate.

Flares

Bell-bottoms were first worn by sailors in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that they became cool (at least for the young and trendy). By the 1970s, everyone from pop stars to newsreaders had a pair of these unisex trousers. Until punk and drainpipes turned up in 1977, a bit of swag was the look. Today, flared jeans have seen a revival – mainly on boho stars like Sienna Miller (and the occasional daring chap).

Flared trouser sewing patterns
Sew the look: We like Closet Case Files’ new jeans ebook, which teaches you to add some volume to your trousers. Or perhaps try this DIY by Honestly WTF from 2011 (flares were ‘back in’ then, too…)

Stripes

The 1970s was also the decade for graphic stripes. Adidas trainers and sporty knee socks (worn with roller boots) and rainbow stripes were in – think Mork’s braces in Mork & Mindy and Missoni’s famous zigzag knits.

Rainbow-stripes-sewing-patterns
Sew the look: Stitch yourself a Grainline Scout tee, swapping your tasteful navy-and-white Bretons for colourful striped jersey from MyFabrics, 70s-style.

The 1960s

On our journey through the history of style, we’ve stopped by the minimal 1990s, garish 80s and hippy-chic 70s – and now it’s time for us to take a look at one of the most iconic decades for fashion, the 1960s, when Beatlemania was at its peak, skirts were the shortest they’d ever been and the world watched with bated breath to see if man really could land on the moon.

So iconic are the fashions of the 1960s that they never go out of style, so here’s how to add a few swinging 60s makes to your handmade wardrobe for instant cool. Groovy, baby!

Keep it smart

It took a long time for the ultra-feminine fashions of the 1950s – corseted underwear, smart suits, hats and gloves and structured dresses – to fade. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that things got really swinging.

Many women around the world were (and still are) influenced by Jackie Kennedy, with her youthful twist on conservative dressing – especially her signature straight, short-jacketed suits and matching pillbox hats.

Joan-dress-sewing-pattern
Sew the look: Make a 60s siren frock with Sew Over It’s Joan pattern or have a go with a real vintage pattern like blogger Karen Ball.

Mini skirts

A signifier of the social revolution that swept the Western world, the mini skirt suited a generation of women that was more sexually liberated, confident and powerful.

King’s Road boutique owner Mary Quant and French designer André Courrèges were both credited with raising hemlines, but Mary said: “It wasn’t me or Courrèges who invented the mini skirt anyway – it was the girls in the street who did it.”

The mini skirt’s boom went hand in hand with the US invention of pantyhose in 1959, which allowed women to ditch stockings and suspender belts for easy-to-wear tights.

1960s inspired mini skirt sewing patterns
Sew the look: We’re fans of this flirty number from Burda and we also love Tilly & the Buttons’ Arielle skirt.

PVC

Neil Armstrong didn’t land on the moon until 1969, but the whole decade was preoccupied with space travel, which had a strong influence on fashion – think silver, black and white and Op Art patterns. This was also the era of experimenting with man-made fabrics such as nylon and polyester.

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Wet-look PVC in crazy colours, and even transparent, suited the futuristic mood and was everywhere, from Diana Rigg’s catsuits in The Avengers to shiny raincoats.

Sewing-with-vinyl-pattern-ideas
Sew the look: Make your own vinyl raincoat with this designer-inspired DIY and follow Melly’s tips for being fantastic with plastic.

The 1950s

For couture lovers, the 1950s are perhaps the most exciting decade of all. These were the post-war years when people were slowly emerging from deprivation, rationing and uniforms – and many women wanted to enjoy luxury and femininity again, with full skirts and cinched-in waists to create the coveted hourglass shape.
That’s not to say there wasn’t room for a bit of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, though…
1950s fashion history
Bess Georgette via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

All dressed up

Christian Dior, inventor of the wasp-waisted New Look in the late 1940s, declared that clothes were there to “save women from nature”. Designs ranged from figure-hugging drapery to shape-squeezing corsetry. While Coco Chanel continued to argue for ease of dressing for women (and her trademark straight collarless suits), the silhouette was often one of tiny waists, bell-shaped skirts and the essential hat and gloves.

50s tea dress sewing patterns
Sew the look: For the 50s social whirl, the cocktail dress was de rigueur. Make your own with this Vintage Vogue pattern, or for daytime try the youthful Emery Dress from Christine Haynes.

Power blouses

Although the 50s is known as the decade when women were championed as ‘homemakers’, many in fact were heading into the workforce (and returning after marriage) and thus required more professional attire. The blouse (the equivalent of a man’s work shirt) had a resurgence – the 50s blouse had soft shoulders, demure collars and a variety of sleeve shapes, and was worn smartly tucked into a pencil skirt.

1950s blouse sewing patterns
Sew the look: We love the cute little bow and flattering shape of the summery Sencha blouse from Colette, or why not go a little seductive with this lace wrap-around blouse from Burda?

Beats

It wasn’t all suits and structured styles, though – the 1950s was also when rock ‘n’ roll went mainstream and rebellion simmered. The Beats, described by Jack Kerouac as “a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters”, rebelled in their literature, lifestyles and fashion. Kerouac himself once shocked an audience by wearing black jeans, ankle boots and a checkered shirt – a look we still want to wear today.

1950s beatnik sewing patterns
Sew the look: Beatnik women rocked slim-cut trousers – in black, black, black (think Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face). Try the Maurice Trousers from Republique du Chiffon. Pair with a breton top like Tilly and the Buttons’ Coco, shades, and a touch of anti-establishment sass.

The 1940s

We’ve been travelling back in time through some of the fabbest fashions of the past century, and now we’re heading to the war-torn 1940s.Practicality was an essential as women took on ever more challenging roles in the fields and factories, and fashion made way for uniforms, rationing and make-do-and-mend as the Second World War rumbled on. The U.S. National Archives via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictionsBut it was also the era of movie star glamour and swing-dancing sass – whatever they wore, inventive women added style to their outfits with elaborate hairdos, ruby red lips and, of course, a touch of Blitz spirit.

The Little Dress

Clothing shortages and rationing had a big effect on design. Worn by most women across Europe, La Petite Robe, or The Little Dress, saved fabric with its shorter hemline and narrow shape – but it was also pretty, often made with polka dot or print fabrics, while couture versions added embroidery and matching boxy jackets.

1940s sewing patterns
Sew the look: Make a tempting tea dress like blogger Mode de Lis, using Simplicity 1587, or try Burda’s fitted dress with a hint of 40s style.

The Siren Suit

The Siren Suit was an all-in-one garment that women would pull on over their nightwear if they had to head down to the air raid shelter on a chilly night. Though they were meant to be warm and functional rather than glam (even if Parisian couturiers offered luxury tailored versions with built-in capes) we think that made with the right fabric they can be rather slinky.

jumpsuit sewing patterns
Sew the look: Try this summery take on the all-in-one with Republique du Chiffon’s Dominique Jumpsuit 0r go for laid-back chic with this casual McCall’s pattern.

The wide-leg trouser

Since the 1930s, trousers had become ever-more acceptable for women to wear, with movie stars like Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich donning strides. By the time women were taking over men’s jobs during the war, many of them were in fact literally wearing their husband’s trousers -when these wore out, there was a boom in demand for ladies’ trousers – high-waisted, wide-legged and worn with blouses, knitwear or halter tops for dancing.

1940s-trousers-sewing-patterns
Sew the look: Make your own flattering wide-leg trousers with Colette’s Juniper pattern or grab some corduroy and go for the land girl look with Vogue’s button-up 1464 pattern.

The 1930s

The 1930s have sometimes been a bit overlooked in terms of fashion, following the razzle-dazzle of the 1920s and overshadowed by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the following Depression. With another war on the horizon too, it’s not hard to think that this decade was all doom and gloom.
1930s-fashion-history
x-ray delta one via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
But there is plenty of fashion inspiration to take from the 1930s – this was the era when Hollywood started to take over from the couturiers and high glamour was in, with screen stars like Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford upping the style stakes. For day-to-day wear, think cardigans, tea dresses, wide-legged trousers and elegant longer skirts. The flapper gal was all grown up…

Super-slinky

The 1930s is known for the seductive bias cut (think Keira’s emerald green dress in the film Atonement). This is when fabric is cut diagonally rather than along the cross or straight grain, resulting in garments that drape easily and cling to the body.

Couturier Madame Vionnet was known as “queen of the bias cut” with her gowns influenced by ancient Greek costume. Hollywood gobbled up the trend too, wrapping its stars in sinuous full-length gowns – often halterneck, backless, and lacking in noisy ornamentation: which meant they would be ‘silent’ during filming.

1930s sewing patterns
Sew the look: Sew a classic bias-cut blouse with Colette’s Jasmine pattern, or try this contemporary twist on 30s-style bias cut dress from Burda.

Neck-and-neck

Necklines got super pretty in the 1930s – we’re talking mandarin collars, boat necks, square necks and deep V-necks for evening (sometimes with a false vest underneath for modesty). Extra interest was added with corsages of fabric flowers, ruffles, bows, pleats, scallops, collars, ties and embellishments. If you couldn’t afford a new dress, it was easy enough to switch up the detailing (while waists stayed slim and shoulders grew ever wider during the decade).

Scalloped collar sewing pattern
Sew the look: Try making your own blouse with matching collars and cuffs: blogger Eskimimi whipped up one from The Great British Sewing Bee: Sew Your Own Wardrobe book. Or upcycle an old shirt with this scalloped collar DIY.

Button up

Gals in the 1930s were nuts about buttons – especially novelty buttons made from bakelite or a polymer called catalin. The fashion for button-up frocks, jackets and blouses meant it was easy for home dressmakers to spruce up their look in a jiffy. Buttons were sold in themed sets, sometimes with matching belt buckles – in every shape from swirls, birds and flowers to rows of vegetables, Disney characters and – a big fave- Scottie dogs. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli was known for adding a Surrealist touch with huge hand-painted buttons shaped like pianos, mermaids and  acrobats made from metal and enamel.

Button-details-fashion-history
Sew the look: Add some spring sweetness with these cherry buttons from Cloud Craft or try a touch of Art Deco glitter with these octagonal buttons from Josy Rose.

The 1920s

Hurrah, it’s time for us to head back to the 1920s – one of our all-time favourite decades for style. We’re thinking The Great Gatsby, we’re thinking Boardwalk Empire, we’re thinking Downton Abbey season five.
Louise-Brooks-1920s fashion history
© Thefoxling via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Famously, these were the years when young people danced away the horrors of the First World War, and women especially enjoyed new freedoms – which were reflected in the Flapper fashions for bobbed hair, raised hemlines and even a cocktail (or three).
1920s-drop-waist sewing patterns
Sew the look: Copy chic 1920s style with Burda’s series of Roaring Twenties dresses – we love this bow-fronted frock. Or try the sleek Anita top from Lisa Comfort’s book Sew Over It Vintage © Lisa Comfort: Tiffany Mumford

Get the silhouette

By 1920, women’s fashion was already beginning to change forever from the restrictive skirts and corsets of the past. The free, young Western woman of the Roaring Twenties needed a dress to go with her more liberated lifestyle – Chanel, Lanvin and Patou were among the designers championing simple, straight styles with shorter skirts, dropped waists and flat bodices, influenced by the popular passion for sport.

Sequin-sewing-patterns
Sew the look: Pare down the razzle-dazzle for an updated 1920s look. Simply add sequins to a T-shirt for a modern touch of sparkle, or try a glittery collar in a 1920s-style deep-V shape.

The need for bead

The popular straight, flat silhouette meant every woman wearing it became a walking canvas for designers to get busy – especially when it came to couture. Intricate beading was used to decorate these simple shapes – with trends varying from Art Deco zigzags to layers of fringing which added extra sparkle and movement: perfect for doing the Charleston in!

1920s-glitzy-sewing-patterns
Sew the look: Try Guthrie Ghani’s tips for creating a glitzy top, or why not go for gold with this stretchy jersey lame – ideal for leggings or a daring skirt.

Gold digger

In 1923, Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered, sparking a hysteria for all things Egypt – this meant patterns and prints influenced by hieroglyphics, ankhs, scarabs and lotus flowers. It also inspired acres of shimmering embroidery and a passion for gold and silver – especially lame fabrics for eveningwear.

1910 fashion history
Photograph = Infrogmation via Source / CC BY

The 1910s

The 1910s was a dynamic era for fashion, with plenty to inspire the modern-day maker. Things were changing rapidly, with women’s fight for the vote, the early days of modernism in art – and, of course, the looming First World War, which was to change society forever.

Seeking new freedoms (and entering the workplace in huge numbers), women began to wear ever more practical clothes: skirts were no longer trailing along the floor, corsets were on their way out and the Jazz Age was just around the corner…

Wrap sewing patterns
Sew the look: We love Closet Case Files’ version of Named’s Asaka kimono pattern and this nifty DIY, or try our own beach-ready kimono project.

Wrap stars

110 years ago, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes premiered Shehezerade – a ballet which had a massive influence on contemporary fashion, albiet more for couture and evening gowns than everyday wear. Designed by Leon Bakst, the costumes were a riot of lush colours and flowing, wrapped fabrics inspired by the exotic East.

The modern trend for kimono tops could be traced back to Bakst’s beautiful designs – we’re thinking bold prints, wide sleeves and wild colours such as violet, orange, peacock blue, gold and yellow.

Tunic tops sewing patterns
Sew the look: How gorgeous is this tunic top, complete with 1910s-style belted waist, or try this soft v-neck tunic dress with a hint of an Empire line.

Tune in

The strict, corseted style of the Edwardian era was fading away thanks to visionary designers such as Poiret and Chanel. Along with the craze for hobble skirts, this brought a boom in more practical and wearable styles for women who were taking over men’s roles in the worksplace – wider, shorter skirts, durable tweed and wool and shades of khaki, grey, brown and dark blue.

Also popular was the tunic – a T-shaped, flat garment with roots in the Middle Ages. Worn over skirts or even harem trousers, the comfortable, stylish tunic soon became a dress in its own right.

Capelet jacket sewing pattern
Sew the look: Feeling adventurous? Try this flirty capelet jacket from Papercut Patterns or button up with Tessuti’s short New York Cape.

Trench coat

As can be guessed by the name, the trench coat really came into its own during the First World War – an invention from the turn of the century made from the new waterproof gaberdine, the coat’s iconic features include a double-breasted front, wide lapels, belt and shoulder straps. Originally worn only by officers, the trench coat became a symbol of patriotic pride and has influenced both men’s and women’s fashion ever since.

The 1900s

1900s-fashion-history-beach-style
George Eastman House via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions

If you’ve made it this far, then you’ve followed fashion history from the 1990s all the way back to 1900! It’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it?

After 63 years, the age of Victoria was about to end and the wheels of fashion were slowly turning to reflect women’s changing lives. You might not guess it at first glance, though – Paris and haute couture ruled, and women (of the middle and upper classes, at least) were still changing dress several times a day, their bodies shaped by the fashionable S-bend corset, which paired a tiny waist with a squashed-together ‘pigeon’ bust.Yet over the decade the silhouette became straighter and slimmer, thanks to designers like Paul Poiret and even the avant-garde dancer Isadora Duncan, who scandalised the world with her sheath dresses.

Ssshiffon

At the beginning of the 1900s, upper-class women’s dresses were extremely elegant, made of chiffon, net and silk in shades of the palest pink, yellow, blue and white. Things got even rufflier towards the end of the day when they were permitted to ditch the corsets for lavishly lacy tea gowns.

1900s-fashion history
Sew the look Add some Edwardian romance to your outfit with Named Clothing’s Marie blouse or Papercut Patterns’ swishy Adrift dress.

Button up

Women were beginning to enter the professional workforce (and the braver ones were zipping around on bicycles) and that called for a smart, practical and distinctly more masculine look, including collared shirts and ties and tailored jackets.

1900s Vintage-inspired-sewing

Sew the look:  A jacket is a real investment make, and looks equally lovely with a nipped-in waist or casual with jeans. We love this glam lurex version of New Look 6321 from Erica, and this swag jacket from Guthrie Gahni in a rather Edwardian tweed.

Hello, sailor!

Our love for the Breton stripe could have its roots in the Edwardian passion for nautical fashion, from children’s sailor suits to voluminous swimwear.

The look had already began to edge into women’s fashion – sailor collars and blue-and-white stripes were en vogue – topped with a saucy straw sailor hat, of course.

Fashion-history-sailor-style
Sew the look: We like this Liesl blouse and this cute sailor top from We Sew Retro

Katie Allen is a writer, content editor and crafter based in London. She is the author of craft book Just Sew Stories and also runs ethical clothing business Plum. She loves reading, writing and all things kitty. Follow her at @KatieFQ.