Tuesday, November 1, 2011

{Vintage for Beginners} 20th Century Fashion Eras

Following up from my So you want to do vintage? post, I thought I'd continue my Vintage for Beginners series with a quick-reference guide to the key features of 20th century fashion eras. We'll refer back to this when we come to cover the topics of Building a Vintage Wardrobe and Dating Your Clothes.

Vintage clothing is generally categorised by decade. I do it too; it's the easiest way. But it doesn't really make sense since just about every decade in the 20th century saw major style changes and innovations - a frock from 1941 could hardly be more different from a late 40s New Look number, and an early 60s dress is poles apart from a 1968 mini or tunic-and-flares ensemble. Even the fifties, so closely associated with the hourglass shape, had already started moving away from Dior's 1947 New Look and towards boxier 60s styles by the middle of the decade (Dior launched his dropwaist "H-line" collection in 1954). So, here are the fashion era classifications as I see them.

Gibson Girl and Post-Edwardian

The defining features of the 1900s period were the pigeon-breasted exaggerated S-bend silhouette and umbrella-flared skirts. Restraint was not the key; extravagant hats were in vogue, and bodices were embellished with all manner of trimmings, lace and froufrou. The post-Edwardian period, in contrast, brought a much more slender, columnar silhouette, delicately embellished and topped with an enormous hat.

Great War Period

Obviously the Great War was only 1914-18, but it's a useful designation for the styles between the Edwardian and Flapper eras. Skirts were still long, just starting to rise by the early 20s; bodices were blousy. The waistline gradually became less defined through this time, though it was still on the natural waist in 1920.


Flapper is a general classification since not everyone during the 'twenties was a flapper, but all fashion during this period was certainly influenced by the movement. By 1923 the waistline had made its exit, and the silhouette had become leaner. Uneven "handkerchief" hems (where the hem falls into points), and skirt godets (as seen in the 1929 dress above) were popular. Hemlines were rising higher than ever before, hitting knee-length by 1926. Hair was bobbed and the cloche hat was in its heyday.

Poirot Era
early-mid 30s

Around 1929 the waistline began to re-emerge, but was not accentuated. Through most of the 1930s the silhouette remained long and lean; hemlines hung around mid-calf. This is the era of bias-cut gowns and floaty florals. Popular detailing during this period included puffed, flutter or frilly layered sleeves, and neckline interest in the form of bows and jabots.

Swing / WW2 Era
late 30s - 1946

My personal favourite. Tailoring was key, and subtle gathers and shirs replaced the ruffles and frills of the early 30s. Sleeves were set-in and slim fitting, and often had puffed shoulders, which developed into square shoulders as the war progressed and man-tailoring became more fashionable. Skirts were flared and swingy in the late 30s and early 40s, but narrowed to a slim A-line by 1946 due to fabric rationing. Hemlines rose over the same period to around knee level.

New Look
1947 - early 50s

You don't need a diploma in vintage fashion to know that in 1947 Christian Dior launched his "New Look", the ultra-feminine antidote to wartime austerity, which revolutionised the way women dressed. In defiance of cloth rationing (which was still in effect in Britain until 1951) ladies adopted mid-calf length, full skirts. Slim pencil skirts were also popular. The waist was nipped in for an exaggerated hourglass figure. Reacting against the masculine, square-shouldered styles of the war years, the fashionable silhouette gained slightly sloping shoulders; dolman, Raglan, cap and smoothly set-in sleeve styles dominated.

Jackie O / Mad Men Era
mid 50s - early 60s

Although nipped-in waists continued to be popular, the late 50s saw the rise of a looser silhouette, defined in boxy jackets, straight skirts and swing coats. Detailing was toned down and high, round 'jewel' necklines were popular, with short or elbow-length sleeves. Hair was worn mid length, either big and bouffant (Jackie O) or in a beehive updo.

Mod, Hippie, Boho
late 60s - 1970s

Mod is the shortest of my fashion eras, but no less iconic for it. The miniskirt, A-line shift dresses and bold monochromatic or colourful psychedelic prints defined the fashion world. Almost as soon as it had begun, Mod started to give way to Hippie styles, which in turn morphed into soft, Bohemian and Victorian revival fashions.

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  1. Wow -- great summaries + illustrations! I never can decide whether I like the '40's or the '50's fashions better. They look very similar in my modern, untrained eyes! Have you found that different body shapes look best in typical styles from different eras?

  2. This is a GREAT overview. (I love your name for the bulk of the 1930s!) It really encapsulates the actual look and feel of each period, because you pay attention to when a real shift occurs. I love it! (And I'm with you - the "swing" period is my absolute favorite. There's nothing remotely so flattering to me.)

  3. It's so true the styles change not by decade but movement.

    Being late 20th century, I sub divide 60s-80s into many movements- often overlapping! Things really sped up- but there are still distinct eras, sometimes I think things changed even quicker than now fashion wise.

  4. Hey Charlotte! That is SUCH a well written piece- brief but sums it up perfectly

  5. I like the teens era best, of the older styles, Paul Poiret is my favourite designer. Never much liked the dropped waist, it flatters so few women, and I'm not one of them! As for the New Look, I adore it, would love to have a copy of the Bar Suit. But in comparison to so many of the horrible things one sees today, it's all wonderful. I probably look best in the Swing, and early 50's styles. Next time round, I demand more height, and a smaller bust!

  6. Really interesting post. Nicely illustrated too!

  7. finally, the long search is over! i've been looking for a summarized version of the fashion eras for several weeks already. thank God i found your blog when i was searching for images in google. now im more comfortable and confident to explain to my staffs the different silhouettes for the 20th century! :) thank you for making this post. i really do appreciate it! :) Godspeed! :)


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