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The History Of Women’s Dresses

women in dresses- womens dresses-history of womens dresses-dressesThe history of women’s dresses is quite interesting. A woman’s dress in the modern terms is a piece of clothing that is worn from shoulders or neck to legs. A dress has two parts, ‘bodice’ for the upper body and the ‘skirt’ to cover from waist downwards.

The dress can have sleeves or straps that hold on to shoulders, even keep shoulders bare. The hemlines of dresses do vary a lot based on style, modesty, fashion, culture, weather, and the personal taste of the wearer.

The modern dresses or women’s dresses seem to have come around after late 1890’s and into 1900’s decades. These are the times when the modern dresses gradually started to come into shape.

Ancient Women’s Dresses

In the ancient times, women’s clothing like men’s, was just for the basic purpose of covering the body. The clothing was to cover the body and protect it from natural elements. The ancient royalty and high classes women wore dresses with shoulder straps, or clothing wraps.

The ancient Egyptian female clothing for the royals was a long tunic, held together with pins or knots. It was accompanied by a sheath gown underneath sometimes. The dresses extended to ankles. The working class just wore a sheath dress, which was shoulder less and went down to the ankles.

The ancient Roman female clothing was Stola, which was worn over a tunic, which acted like a slip. The stola was a long, pleated dress that covered most of the body, and was sleeveless. The tunic itself could have the sleeves though. The stola was fastened at the shoulders with clasps. Additionally 2 belts, one below the breast and other at waist gave shape to the garment.

The ancient Greek female clothing was similar to their Roman counterparts in appearance, albeit slight differences exist. The Greek women’s clothing is Peplos. This body length garment, was a big sheet of fabric, which was wrapped around the body and folded at the top. It secured at the shoulders with pins and belted at waist.

middle ages dresses- middle ages women- middle ages women clothesMiddle Ages Women’s Dresses

Middle ages is where the clothing started getting more elaborate very slowly. For the commoners, the clothing still tend to be basic. Saxon women wore long tunics with a linen garment underneath. Their viking counterparts, wore a shift like dress made of wool or linen, covered by another dress or cloaks and shawls.

The clothing slowly started getting more elaborate for the rich. The material was wool, but now the dresses were either fine wool or coarse wool for the poor. The gowns started to be worn over the tunic and were belted at waist.

Slowly fashion sense started to evolve for the rich, and the women’s styles started changing more rapidly. The clothes were better styled at the helm or with embellishments for those whose could afford better materials like cotton or silk.

womens dress-16th century womens dress-16th century fashion16th Century Women’s Dresses

This is the time, when the modern history of women’s dresses would start. The 16th century women’s clothing started to get much more elaborate and intricate. This was specially true for the rich. The women’s dresses could be made in fine wool, cotton or silk, or heavy fabrics. The embroidery was more specialized now, and was done of silk, gold, silver threads.

A wool dress was worn, with petticoat underneath. The petticoat could be wool or linen. The dress however, had a bodice and skirt. Sleeves with attached with laces, and were detachable. The working class women would wear a dress much like the apron.

Buttons started to make an appearance, but only for decoration purposes. The fastening was done by laces or pins. Furs of various kinds were in circulation. Everyone wore hats, they were fashionable too.

The Tudor-style dresses became common, along with long sleeves, and square necklines. The fabrics were heavy such as velvet, and clothing was in layers. These were accompanied by layers of necklaces and jewels.

womens dress-17th century women dress-17th century womens fashion17th Century Women’s Dresses

The 17th century women’s clothing made a departure from high waistlines to dresses that emphasized on waist. These were narrower in the waist. The nobility and royals loved this type of clothing.

The 17th century dresses, did however start having an underskirt at times. 17th century gowns were very elaborate, the rich would have their gowns adorned with many materials. Women also wore nightie like garments called shift under the dresses. The women could also be seen wearing patches of stars or moons on the their faces.

womens dress-18th century womens dress-18th century fashion18th Century Women’s Dresses

The styles in the 18th century women’s clothing was a spillover from previous times. However, an interesting development was hooped petticoats. The hooped petticoats were worn under the dress to maintain the bell shape.

People often wondered what was underneath. This was scandalous, and also the fact the dresses would get blown by the wind, and cause embarrassment for the women. The women at this stage did not wear underwear or drawers.

The American women were more modest in dressing in comparison to European counterparts. The would wear a petticoat, layered by an open dress on top. This dress would have sleeves, a bodice, and a skirt and be open from the front to highlight the petticoat.

The dresses in Europe were however big, and designs very elaborate and hair were kept high. The royals in Europe kept up the pompous fashion.  Empire waists became the fashion and draped necklines became common.

womens dres-19th century womens dress-19th century womens fashion19th Century Women’s Dresses

The 19th century women’s clothing made a great departure from heavy big dresses. The 19th century women’s dresses were getting lighter, and thinner than before. Empire dresses became order of the day slowly.

Noble women would add ruffles, embroidery, extravagant details to their dresses to make them formal. Muslin cloth became popular in England, with led to informal dresses, that featured empire waists and capped sleeves. These were convenient and light to wear.

The big dresses for formal wear did however get lighter. Underneath the skirts, women first started to wear wire frames that created and maintained skirt shapes. This was slowly replaced with bustles, that kept dresses flat at front but fluffy at the back. Bustles too gradually disappeared at the end of the century.

The underwear came into existence, and were called drawers. The were for each leg and tied at the top, called knickerbockers or knickers in the England. The corsets appeared too, which became fashionable over time.

A number of clothing inventions in late 19th century changed how dresses were worn. These were elastic in 1820, safety pin in 1849, electric iron in 1882, zip fastener in 1893. The first paper dress pattern in 1863 by Butterick would forever change the way clothing was to be made in future.

1900s women-1900s womens dress-1900 womens fashion-history of womens dresses20th Century Women’s Dresses

The 20th century of women’s clothing, borrowed some style elements from erstwhile 19th century. At the same time, clothes were getting slimmer and sleeker. The dresses started getting more true to a woman’s form. Dresses stopped being big and grand, were slimmer at waist lines, off the shoulder dresses, high necks were some main features.

Moving into 1900’s the end of Victorian era and start of Edwardian era, saw some very pleasant dressing attires. Dresses would frequently play with lace, ruffles, feather details.  Slim to moderately boxier dresses were accepted. Waistlines continued to be cinched, legs could not be shown, however the hemlines for the first time started to touch ankles.

Its the time after 1900, that decade up to 1910, where the real modern history of women’s dresses started getting written. This time marked a clear getaway from the previous times of the inflated ballooning dresses. The dresses were much slimmer, more graceful and were clearly far better draped than ever before.

womens dress-1920s womens dress-1920s flapper-1920s fashion1910’s – 1920’s Women’s Dresses & Clothing

The fashion was becoming an accessory for the normal people slowly. This time was to cause a permanent change in the way dresses were ever designed. This was a big bump in the movement in the history of women’s dresses.

The 1910’s marked a clear steering away from the dress trends that only the royal, nobility, and the overly rich set. In 1910’s, though the dresses were long, they were considerably slimmer.

The hobble skirts were so narrow, that one could only hobble wearing them. The dresses were very true to a woman’s form and got rid of any bloating whatsoever. The World War I, set the tone for truly practical clothing at the time.

The middle of decade of 1910 for the first time, led to fashions where the hemlines flirted above the ankles. The showing of the leg up to the calf was more acceptable. The design got simpler and almost not at all extravagant. The formal clothing would still have features that bordered on exquisite but certainly not like the previous century.

The invention of the bra in 1913, lipstick in tubes in 1915, knickers getting shorter above the knee were all revolutions in their own ways. These affected how dresses were designed and worn.

The 1920’s was even more marked with women being comfortable showing the leg. The 1920’s flapper era of flapper dresses is reminiscent of that. The sleeveless gowns were commonplace. The middle of 1920’s, that after 1925 changed everything.

The hemlines got even shorter, they touched the knees. The knee length skirts and dresses became common and fashionable. The detailing on the shorter dresses however became more elaborate with fringe paneling and embroidery.

Iconic fashion items – Cloche Hat, Mary Janes, Flapper dress

womens dresses-1930s womens dresses-1930s womens fashion-history of womens dresses1930’s Women’s Dresses & Clothing

The 1930’s started a blast, one that led to wall street crash, and the great depression. The result was conservative clothing. 1930’s fashion meant the hemlines grew longer once again, but only to the calves. The knee length dress fashion was out. People got less fashionable, they could spend less on fashion.

Still new dress patterns and textures evolved.  Draping got better, so did the styling of the dresses. The gamine look faded away, dresses were focusing more on curves. Ruffled sleeved evening gowns were the in thing. The brassieres got in fashion.

The synthetic Elastex changed shape wear, and made wearing girdles and corsets much more comfortable. This affected how dresses were to be worn. The brassieres also focused on the enhancing the shape of the bust, rather than flattening it. This resulted in dresses being more curvaceous on top.

Another addition was sunglasses, which came in as a beach times accessory. However, this usage was to expand a whole lot in the future. More casual dresses hit the shelves, which were belted and had buttons up the front.

Iconic fashion items – Bias Cut Evening Gown, The Blouse, Bows and Frills, The Beret, Puff Sleeves

1940s womens dress-1940s womens fashion- vintage womens dress1940’s Women’s Dresses & Clothing

The 1940’s women’s dresses were affected by the word war II. Clothes were rationed till 1949. Due to a clothing shortages, hemlines grew shorter, clothes being repurposed.  Structured suit dresses, belted waists and a-line dress skirts were the order of the day.

With war over in 1945, the fashion world looked up again with ruched fabric, beading, and accessories merged into the outfits. Few other highlights were bikini in 1946, Christian Dior  giving birth to hourglass figure with New Look in 1947. 1940’s also saw addition of new inventions being used for fashion like Nylon, Polyester, and Vinyl.

Iconic fashion items – A-line Skirt, Victory Suit, Work wear Overalls and Jeans, Sharp Shoulder Pads, Gingham

1960s dresses-1960s womens dresses-1960s womens fashion1950’s – 1970’s Women’s Dresses & Clothing

The period of 1950’s -1970’s saw a continuous growth in fashion and constant evolution. This period is particularly important in the history of women’s dresses. Since there was no interruptions, this time undoubtedly is responsible for creating a base for much of today’s fashion.

The 1950’s fashion made tea-length dresses a hot bite. Fabric like chiffon and tulle helped to create fuller skirts. The hourglass figure popularized by Christian Dior became the rage. Christian Dior caused a boom in new trends in fashion industry with tea-length gowns, coat dresses and evening gowns.

The 1960’s women’s fashion trends were majorly into sheath dress. Major fashion icons helped support this usage. The sheath dress could be very formal or yet practical for everyday use. Jackie Kennedy also upped the popularity of sheath dress.

With creativity flowing, so do imaginations, the hemlines got even shorter with the miniskirt hitting the top by 1965. The was supported by kneed high boots, and a beret. Fashion world was buzzing like never before.

The 70’s fashion saw the miniskirt dresses evolve into the jumper dress, worn over a turtle neck or a blouse. The halter neck, sequins, lame fabrics, breeze dresses are a classic reminder of the Studio 54 times and the disco era.

Iconic fashion items – Tea Dress, Capri pants, Twin Set, Kitten Heels, Hostess Gown, Mini Skirt, Hot Pants, Futuristic Fabrics, Maxi Skirt, Bell Bottoms, Jumpsuit, Platform Shoes

1980s dresses-1980s womens dresses-1980s womens fashion1980’s – 2000’s Women’s Dresses & Clothing

The 80’s dresses was a very bold era. From bold polka dots to bold matching accessories, to plastic, and vivid colors, fashion world was moving in new directions of creativity. Bright bold colors, and big shoulders in dresses a rage by mid 80’s. This 1980’s women’s fashion slowly started fading into tempered lines and gradually becoming more sober.

Welcome 90’s and dresses were much more sleek, sober, minimalist and way more polished. The straps were on dressing were getting thinner and less was more. So was satin. Minimalism reached a peak in 90’s to gradually fall to welcome new trends of the 2000’s, which were more experimental in all ways as we can see today.

Iconic fashion items – Spandex, High Waisted Jeans, Stirrup Pants, Sheer Dress, choker, Little Black Dress, Corset Top

Tells us which is your favorite era or decade in the history of women’s dresses fashion? Which iconic dresses you like from a particular decade? Is there anything specific you’d want us to cover in fashion history? Please write to us in comments.

About the author

Jill Jensen

Jill Jensen

Fashion is my first love. All the clothing shoes bags, all the other stuff. A woman's beauty is incomplete without these. Fashion accentuates the beauty of a woman and takes it to newer heights. My deal here is to bring the very fine of wearable fashion to the front lines through this website.