From serving as a means of covering your body to beautifiers and even protection against harsh weather conditions, we cannot overemphasize the importance of dresses.
The fashion world has taken us through various stages of the evolution of the dress, seeing it adapted for different climates and eras. Many styles have come and gone, with more still evolving, even though the pace might differ.
With inspirations taken from nature, culture, religion, climatic conditions, events, and a lot more, dresses keep on evolving.
Like everything else, dresses fulfill a set purpose. Fortunately, history has preserved vital information about their evolution. We will first discuss the dress’s origin and then its evolution.
In ancient Egypt, women wore sheer or linen materials. The last pharaoh, Cleopatra, was known to wear fabric that was adorned with gold or semiprecious stones since, you know, she was a queen.
Ancient Greece’s garments have long served as modern fashion inspiration for their ethereal looks. But at the time, the dresses were primarily designed for comfort and functionality. Women opted for silk and linen because of the hot climate, and no sewing was required.
In early medieval times, dresses started to become more intricate. The heavy and ornate fabric was a sign of wealth, so dresses were constructed in pieces and layers.
Here, Henry VIII’s wife, Anne Boleyn, wears a Tudor-style dress, which was common in medieval times. The style often featured long, draped sleeves and heavy fabrics, such as velvet. The square neckline was also made famous and would typically be adorned with layers of necklaces and jewels.
During this period, designers replaced high-waisted silhouettes from earlier in the decade with lower designs that emphasized the waist. In Europe, this was especially popular among the nobility.
Dresses in the American colonies were strikingly simpler than those in Europe. A woman from an affluent family, such as Martha Washington (pictured), would wear a combination of a petticoat and an open-front dress that was, in actuality, a skirt and bodice sewn together in the same pattern.
In contrast to what was happening in the New World, European royals piled on the pageantry. Case in point: Marie Antoinette modeled a frock when fashion was at peak opulence. The dresses were significant, the designs were elaborate, and the high hair. Of course, this was just within the court—hence the French Revolution.
By the end of the 18th century, women’s clothing became a little less structured. Empire waists were now the fashion, and a draped high neckline allowed for more fluid movement.
Empire dresses were designed for all occasions in mind. A noblewoman, such as First Lady Dolley Madison, would add ruffles to make the dress more formal.
Muslin fabric was trendy in England during the early 19th century, especially for less formal occasions. Think empire waist and cap sleeves à la Emma.
Full skirts began making a comeback in the early 1800s, and off-the-shoulder sleeves started to have their moment.
Ruffles, large skirts, and extravagant details like flowers or embroidery were popular in the mid-19th century. If you’ve ever seen Gone with the Wind, you know what we’re talking about.
With the United States at war, dresses became simpler in fabric and design. Instead of opulent debutante gowns, women would wear full skirts made of just one material.
Royal fashion remained formal in Europe, although it took cues from the trends of the day. Off-the-shoulder dresses were standard, and a long, broad bodice was back.
Entering the Victorian era, women’s dresses were almost uniform-like. Black or white was the color of choice for conservative, well-to-do women, and styles were designed with high necks and long sleeves.
The Victorian silhouette was made to be conservative with lots of layers and coverage. There was also a stronger emphasis on a woman’s slim waist during this period, meaning corsets were encouraged.
At the tail end of the Victorian era, dresses became more playful with lace, ruffles, and feather details. But high necks were still crucial.
Into the Edwardian era, women began wearing boxer and looser dresses in design. Lace was still a popular fabric, and a sash still cinched the waist. But the most exciting thing about this time? Hemlines began to climb up past a woman’s ankle.
Again, this period welcomed lighter fabrics like chiffon, and a woman’s silhouette was more streamlined than ever before. Elaborate details like beading and velvet sashes were also in vogue.
Hemlines had been slowly creeping higher for years, but the Roaring ’20s and flapper craze blew the trend up. Not only was the drop waist introduced, but dresses were cut off right below the knee, and sleeveless gowns were no longer scandalous.
There was an extreme excess of wealth during the ’20s, which meant opulent details. Fringe, paneling, and embroidery were all typical of a glamorous dress during this time.
The 1930s were a tough time in fashion. With America in the Great Depression, people weren’t spending as much money on clothing. Designers who weren’t struggling financially introduced a new host of patterns and textures, including a more diverse wardrobe like pants.
More casual dresses popped up in the ’30s, and nothing was more in fashion than a dress with a belted waist and buttons up the front.
Structured suit dresses, featuring structured shoulders, belted waists, and A-line skirts, were everywhere in the ’40s. Due to wartime rations, there was also an emphasis on repurposing clothing.
By the mid-’40s, the war was over, and fashion became more playful. While the silhouette remained similar to earlier in the decade, ruched fabric, beading, and accessories were implemented into designs.
In the 1950s, the famous silhouette changed completely. Tea-length dresses were all the rage, and fabric like tulle and chiffon made for fuller skirts and accentuated waists. Once again, the hourglass shape dominated.
The House of Christian Dior created trends throughout the ’50s, starting with the aforementioned tea-length gowns and extending to elegant coat dresses and evening gowns.
Entering the ’60s, it was all about the sheath dress, as seen here on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. This style could be worn with gloves for a formal look or dressed down for everyday life.
Once again, hemlines were on the rise. Throughout the ’60s and by 1965, miniskirt mania was at its peak. The mod look wasn’t complete without a chunky low heel or a knee-high boot and perhaps a beret, for good measure.
In the ’70s, the miniskirt evolved into the jumper dress, preferably worn over a turtleneck or button-down blouse.
Halter neck, belted waist, sequins—Bianca Jagger couldn’t be trendier if she tried. With the late ’70s came the years of Studio 54 and disco, which meant lamé fabric and breezy dresses.
Oh, the ’80s. First, shoulder pads were everything. And the more polka dots, the better. Finishing a look off with bold matching accessories was a must.
By the mid-’80s, bright colors and big shoulders were heavily in fashion, but dresses began moving toward tapered hemlines, with loud trends fading into the background a bit.
When Cher arrived at the 1988 Oscars in a tizzy of fringe, beads, and rhinestone-encrusted sheer panels, ’80s fashion had just about peaked. Although women weren’t stepping out in exact replicas of “the naked dress,” as it’s come to be known, it remains an iconic fashion symbol of the era.
There was a shift in the early ’90s from over-the-top fashion to sleek, minimalist, and polished looks. Demi Moore was on trend with her spaghetti-strap, beaded gown, and lilac shawl.
By the late ’90s, the minimalist trend was still going strong, and less became more when it came to coverage—from slinky satin fabric to barely-there straps.
The 2000s were less about a particular style but more about fabrics and patterns. Cotton, jersey, and knits had big moments in the new millennium, as did bold prints and midriff-baring silhouettes.
The mid-2000s were a confusing time for dresses. Retro and vintage inspired dresses were hugely popular—a form-fitting bodice that gave way to a flouncy skirt was all one needed to be a fashionista. And let’s not forget about the introduction of Roland Mouret, which was worn by all the leading starlets, from Cameron Diaz and Halle Berry to Victoria Beckham and Kate Winslet.
The 2010s will forever be known as the decade when the bodycon dress refused to die. There were the more fashion-forward ways to wear it (see Scarlett Johansson at the MTV Movie Awards in 2010), and then, of course, there was the classic Hervé Léger bandage dress.
Here, at the iHeartRadio Music Awards, Taylor Swift shows how the most significant trend of the season–cutouts–is done.
In 2019, the lines between haute couture and everyday fashion blurred as statement pieces took over red carpets.
What a difference a year made. From haute couture elements infiltrating our day-to-day garbs in 2019 to leisurewear becoming de rigueur in 2020, fashion experienced a drastic shift. Still, one item stood out from the sea of sweats, and that was Cult Gaia’s Serita dress. Made of stretch knit and featuring sleek cutouts, the frock was a favorite of the stylish set, including Candice Swanepoel, who wore it on the red carpet, and Hailey Bieber, who donned the dress on an island vacation.
The Future of Dresses
Dresses have changed over the years, and it’s not showing any signs of stopping anytime soon. It’s great to see how your favorite dress has evolved along the way, and knowing where the trends came from can inspire you to build your own style.
Want to influence the next generation of wholesale dresses? FASHIONLINE is here to help you out. With a decade and a half of production expertise, talented designers, and a robust supply chain, it is ready to bring your concepts to the world. Talk to a consultant today to get started!
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