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Women’s Fashion Through the Ages: 1600s to Present Day

Fashion, a dynamic entity, has been shaped by the trends and styles embraced by women of influence, from the nobility class in bygone eras, who set the fashion standards for the ladies of the court and their other lower-class subjects, to the contemporary women who, through their choices, influenced the trends dictated by fashion designers in Milan and Paris. 

During the Tudor reign, Queen Elizabeth I donned her signature high-neck collar or ruff, often made from delicate, stiff lace, while her full gown created the perfect silhouette. This was just the beginning of a fascinating journey in women’s fashion. At the start of the 18th century, a new style emerged, influenced by the French Revolution, with a high empire waist, loose flowing gown, and cap sleeves, marking a significant shift in fashion trends. 

Today, women’s fashion has evolved into a diverse and expansive industry, thanks to technological advancements and the proliferation of numerous brands and factories producing a wide array of fashion lines. 

1600-1650

queen elizabeth i
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In the early 1600s, fashionable bodices featured high or low, rounded necklines and short-shoulder wings. Separate closed cartwheel ruffs were worn, with standing collars supported by wire frames for casual wear. Long sleeves with deep cuffs matched the ruffs, which disappeared in fashionable England by 1613.

By the mid-1620s, ruffs were replaced by wired collars called rebatos and later by wide, flat collars. By the 1630s and 1640s, people paired these collars with lace-trimmed kerchiefs. Waistlines rose steadily until the mid-1630s before dropping again. By 1640, a longer, smoother figure became fashionable, with waistlines normal at the back and sides and low at the front.

1650-1700

womens fashion 1650-1700
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The wide, high-waisted look of the previous period gradually gave way to a long vertical line with horizontal emphasis at the shoulder. By the mid-century, full, loose sleeves had ended just below the elbow and then became longer and tighter. The body was tightly corseted, with a low, broad neckline and dropped shoulder. Later, the overskirt was pinned back to showcase the heavily decorated petticoat.

Spanish court fashion remained distinct from French and English styles. Prosperous Holland also retained its modest fashions, particularly in headdresses and hairstyles, and continued using the previous period’s ruff.

1700-1750

fashion 1700-1750
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In the early 18th century, the formal dress featured the stiff-bodiced mantua with a closed petticoat, replacing the open-draped mantua skirt. This style transitioned to more relaxed fashions like the robe à la française, with a tight bodice, low square neckline, wide panniers, and lavish trimmings. 

An informal version, the sacque, was unfitted and made of heavy fabrics. The robe à l’anglaise had a snug bodice, a full skirt without panniers, and sometimes a small train. Open-fronted bodices often featured a decorative stomacher and a fichu. Sleeves evolved from bell-shaped to narrower styles, with frills and necklines deepened for more extraordinary ornamentation.

1750-1795

fashion 1750-1800
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In the late 18th century, a new fashion emerged in Western and Central Europe. In 1788, court portraitist Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun hosted a “Greek supper” where women wore plain white Greek tunics. Classical hairstyles with curls became popular, and women often left their hair uncovered, even outdoors. Thin Greek-style ribbons decorated the hair.

Empire dresses, typically white, were light and loose with short sleeves and a tie just below the bust. Long rectangular shawls were also part of the ensemble. This style, influenced by classical Greek art, was also a nod to Marie Antoinette’s simple gowns. The ‘Greek style’ marked a stark contrast to the constricting fashions of the 1770s, reflecting the French political upheavals after 1789.

1795-1820

fashion 1795-1820
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The Greek and Roman styles still inspired the fashion trends during this period, brought to the forefront by the French Revolution. Between 1795 and 1820, ‘Half Dress’ referred to daytime or casual guest attire, ‘Full Dress’ was for formal events, and ‘Evening Dress’ was for evening occasions. Middle—and upper-class women could wear less confining clothes and still be fashionable.

There was a clear distinction between morning dress, worn at home, and evening attire, with both men and women changing clothes for the evening meal and entertainment. Additional categories included afternoon dress, walking dress, riding habits, traveling dress, and dinner dress, reflecting various activities and social norms.

1820-1870

fashion 1820-1870
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An 1820 edition of La Belle Assemblee noted that popular evening dress sleeves were “short and full” at the beginning of the year. Flounces, lace borders, ribbons, and flowers were all the rage. During the late 1860s, skirt volume shifted backward from the mid-century circular style. By the 1870s, skirts projected backward with a flat front, focusing on the back.

The decade featured two silhouettes emphasizing this trend. Starting in 1870, the bustle was a softly draped protrusion at the back, supported by horsehair-ruffled petticoats or crinolines—fabric-covered steel half-hoops. Bustled dresses featured layers of ruffles, pleats, and gathers, with looped overskirts or long bodices draped over the hips, often called “polonaise” style dresses.

1880-1900

suffragettes fashion 1890
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Towards the turn of the 20th century, the women’s rights and suffragist movements sparked shifts in gender roles and fashion. As the 19th century ended, Victorian stiffness gave way to the more relaxed silhouettes of the Edwardian era. Women embraced long, slim, body-hugging styles like the ‘princess line’ and ‘artistic’ dresses, moving away from corsets. 

These new designs were adorned with bows, ruching, and rich fabrics, offering a decorative contrast to earlier restrictive trends. Men’s fashion influenced women’s clothing, with tailored suits and shirt collars mimicking masculine styles. 

1900-1950

women's fashion 1900-1950
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Fashion in the early 1900s began with modesty: corsets, lace collars, ruffles, and wide-brimmed hats adorned dresses. During WWI, women entered the workforce in trousers and overalls while men were at war. By the end of the decade, short bobs became fashionable. The 1920s introduced the flapper look: short, tight dresses showcased curves with short, wavy hair styled under bell-shaped hats or headbands. 

Jewelry, like large brooches and pearls, complemented every outfit. In the 1930s, satin-draped dresses and wool suits with shoulder pads dominated daywear. WWII led to fabric shortages, simplifying clothes, and shortening skirts. Uniforms and ‘CC41’ stamped garments defined the era, with women sporting long hair styled with waves and rolls.

1950-1970

1950s women fashion
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1950s fashion balanced casual elegance with formality. Women embraced smaller corseted waists, rounded hips, and long skirts, epitomized by iconic poodle skirts paired with bobby socks and saddle shoes. Meanwhile, youth culture introduced casual styles inspired by the working class, notably James Dean’s red jacket, white t-shirt, and jeans. 

The ’60s saw hippie influences with bold florals, tie-dye, and mini skirts, while the Women’s Liberation Movement popularized pants for women. Turtlenecks gained fame, especially black ones worn by icons like Johnny Carson. The ’70s embraced bell-bottoms, platform shoes, military-inspired looks, and punk fashion with leather jackets and studs.

1980-2000

madonna album cover
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Fashion in the 1980s exploded with vibrant colors, perms, and bold silhouettes. Puffed shoulders, power suits, spandex leggings, and eclectic styles like punk rock influenced the era. Political slogans adorned shirts, while businesswomen sported padded shoulders in exaggerated suits. Accessories like hoop earrings and bright jewelry were popular.

The 1990s celebrated fashion icons like Madonna and Julia Roberts, known for satin bustiers and high-waisted jeans. Trends included Skidz pants, Air Jordans, and grunge attire with flannel shirts and Doc Martens. Accessories like chokers and scrunchies made statements.

The 2000s brought Juicy Couture tracksuits, True Religion jeans, and boho chic with flowy skirts and Pashminas. Accessories like chunky necklaces and Livestrong bracelets completed the looks.

2010-Present

taylor swift cottage core fashion
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Fashion during this era embraced millennial pink hues, with sneaker wedges, skinny jeans, and fanny packs ruling the streets. Pocket-less leggings and deconstructed denim were also popular, paired with loafers and ankle boots. Accessories included headbands, novelty handbags, and floppy hats.

The pandemic shifted fashion towards comfort, with sweatpants and cozy clothing in demand. Tie-dye made a comeback, and sweatsuits became standard attire. Biker shorts and chunky shoes, alongside normalized Crocs and cashmere pieces, gained popularity. 

Zoom tops emphasized necklines, favoring Peter Pan collars, square necklines, and turtlenecks. Trends now lean towards 90s nostalgia, cottagecore (seen here being worn by Taylor Swift), and cabincore, reflecting diverse styles and influences over the past eighty years.

With a passion for travel, great food, and beautiful art, Julie put aside her 15-year career in the tech industry and dove head-first into a more creative sphere. Utilizing her degree in Communications, she is pursuing freelance writing. An avid traveler, Julie has experience writing and documenting the amazing spots she has visited and explored, the delicious food she has tasted, and the incredible art she has admired and purchased! When she’s not writing, she can be spotted around Austin, TX, at various art gallery openings, having a delicious meal with her husband and friends, and playing with her two dogs.