The author of Minxy Vintage Kelly Doust explains the major styles of the 20th century—and how to wear them
Pre-1920s style, the Belle Epoque and Edwardian fashions
Prior to the First World War, fashion was opulent, indulgent and concerned with parading one’s wealth. Clothing was a potent form of status symbol, with items made from the finest materials available and heavily adorned with luxurious embellishments.
Despite low-cut bodices, the fashionable ‘S Bend’ silhouette was a conservative one, created using whalebone corsets. Women wore many elaborate outfits throughout the day, spending hours dressing with the aid of domestic help. Such impractical fashion was suited to the very rich.
In 1910 Diaghilev directed The Ballet Russes, which heavily influenced designers up to the late 1920s. Artists such as Matisse and Picasso were commissioned to produce decorative performance costumes which filtered embroidery details, kimono shapes and rich tapestries into the era’s fashions.
After the First World War, a new modernism enveloped fashion, with corsets and curves discarded in favour of a more streamlined and sporty ideal. Women bound their breasts and cut their hair short. Hemlines were raised and waists dropped, backs were bared and arms and legs were shown.
Transparent fabrics with ornate beading and lacework were used, giving rise to the risqué ‘flapper’ look. It was a time of exuberance and showing off one’s wealth, but also a time of mocking the outmoded ideals of previous generations.
Travel and exotic prints influenced fashion with Egyptian and Art Deco references, and clothing was often accessorised with furs, long strands of beads and pearls. Chanel epitomised the leap into this new century of fashion with her fondness for expensive simplicity.
Heavily influenced by the rise of Hollywood style, the 1930s saw a return to polished elegance and softer, prettier styles. Dresses and gowns boasted lower to full length hemlines, shoulder pads and practical full sleeve-heads. Clothing was less reliant upon figure-shaping corsets, and bias cut satin dresses for evening hugged every curve of a woman’s body.
In contrast, pared-back daywear reflected the lean years of the Great Depression. Madeleine Vionnet championed a new silhouette with silk gowns boasting plunging backs and halter necks, heavily adorned with sequins, beads and ruffles. Draped gowns were accessorised with fur for both day and night.
1940s fashion was more austere and constrained in a climate of war. Heavy rations were imposed and women had to think creatively and ‘make do and mend’. Colours were sombre in black, navy, forest green and muted dusty shades, and cut in narrow, boxy silhouettes which saved on material and referenced military clothing.
Many intriguing designs came out of the era due to fabric shortages, with sequins and embroidery often used to adorn evening wear and embellish garments. It wasn’t until 1947 when Dior’s New Look was introduced that fabric yardage, volume and colour was again celebrated in fashion.
Restrictions and clothing rations finally dissipated with the post-war optimism of the 1950s, and film style once again became an overwhelming cultural influence. Screen sirens Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor all epitomised the polished elegance women aspired to.
Dresses were elaborate, feminine and princessy affairs featuring fitted strapless bodices with nipped waists and full skirts worn below the knee. Tulle, heavy satin and lace were common fabrics for evening attire, along with tulle or nylon petticoats to add fullness and drama, and usually worn with long matching satin gloves, costume jewellery, and a roller-set ’do.
The rise of rock ’n roll culture also influenced fashion with tight-fitting sweaters, pencil skirts, pedal pushers and voluminous circle skirts.
The epicentre of 1960s fashion was London and its vibrant youth scene, so heavily dictated by music of the era. British ‘Mods’ defined the look of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ with sexy, bohemian French model/actress/singer Brigitte Bardot coming a close second.
The younger generation embraced mass-manufactured fashion arriving in stores weekly and hip, beatnik looks became a fresh sensation. Clashing prints and colours – ranging from art deco inspiration to psychedelic or wild, clashing pop art prints – were all the rage, and the mini dress (then finally the ‘micro mini’) caused the sensation of the era with its ultra short hemline and clean, sharp lines.
The 1970s exuded a folksy vibe influenced by music and carefree social attitudes: the hippie look was a reaction against mass-production and the disco aesthetic. Fashion featured traditional craft methods, with designers referencing travel to far-flung places and ethnic influences with long embroidered kaftans, natural fabrics embellished with mirrors and beading, fur gilets, and an eclectic look overall.
Alternative trends were ready-to-wear lines from Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar De La Renta, who made designer clothing accessible to everyone, with disco resulting in luxe punk looks of lamé, patent leather and velvet bell-bottomed suits. Halston refined the style with his Grecian-inspired draped jersey dresses.
The 1980s were a period of oversized shapes, asymmetry, bold colours, androgyny and layering. Power suits exerted control for the new career girls emerging through the era, and menswear was heavily referenced in womenswear. Eveningwear was body conscious, tight and avant garde, with corseted styles, short hemlines, large frills and flounces, asymmetrical shoulders, sequins and low-cut backs most popular.
Media played a huge part in 1980s fashion, with music videos and sexual imagery (think Madonna) defining the era through bra tops, bare midriffs and asymmetry. Various other trends such as Victorian frills and lace, 1950s full skirts and 1920s-era drop-waists, which also made a comeback in this decade of brash excess.
Minxy Vintage: How to Customise and Wear Vintage Clothing by Kelly Doust is published by Murdoch Books on 2nd February.