History in Fabric: Fashion’s Reflections of Society

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Legendary fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert once observed, “Fashion; it’s history in fabric. It frames the time you live and the place you live, and the mood of people.” While it may not be an exact science, in all of fashion’s history, important economic, social, political, and cultural events have been communicated through our clothing, be it known or not. The clothes we wear are not only one of the truest forms of self expression, but also a reflection of the world in which we exist. From technological inventions to changes in legislature, various fields have contributed to the evolution of fashion. At our current juncture of unmitigated circumstances–a global pandemic coupled with civic unrest in the face of racism against Black Americans–new sartorial norms have already emerged. Here, CR travels through time to explore these moments and more, where fashion has flipped in reaction to the world around it.

The Invention of the Bicycle

In the late 1870s, the first version of the bicycle was brought to life, however women were not yet included in the fun of the revolutionary invention. The penny farthing bicycle, commonly named the “Ordinary” bicycle, had an enlarged front wheel while its rear dropped closer to the ground, making the proportions nearly impossible for women to navigate in their S-bend corsets and Pouter Pigeon figures.

When the more convenient “Safety” bicycle (more reflective of the bike we know today) hit the market at the turn of the century, the world became infatuated with the innovative mode of transportation and it quickly blossomed into a common recreational pastime of the Edwardian age. The more user-friendly model allowed women to cycle, too, and it soon gave them the means and autonomy to travel around town without relying on the escort of her father or husband. To accommodate cycling, women’s corsets became more flexible and their skirts became just slightly shorter.

The increased mobility of women resulted in changes to their garments and social status. The aspirational Gibson Girl trope was introduced, defined by her athletic form and independence, and often depicted riding a bicycle. Sportswear was only in its early stages at the time, but a more practical approach to dressing took hold. Bloomers (the female form of pantaloons worn beneath a skirt) and knickers (for men) were adopted by society in order to cycle with more flexibility. More athletic hobbies began to make way and recreation became abundantly visible through fashion.

The Birth of The Fan Magazine

When the 1910s brought about the advent of fan magazines devoted to stage and silent film actresses, images of their theatrical costumes became accessible to the American public. The publications brought celebrity to the performers, and women soon sought to emulate the showgirls’ style. Theda Bara’s vamp aesthetic and Mary Pickford’s early dresses had women across the nation imitating the thespians. Meanwhile, men looked to the influences of figures like Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin.

The costumes often took inspiration from various Asian and Persian influences, bringing garments like hobble skirts, harem trousers, turban, and lampshade dresses into mainstream fashion. Successful designers of the day Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny referenced these relaxed silhouettes in their collections.

World War I Rations

When the first World War broke out in 1914, American manufacturers went into preparation mode before the U.S. entered combat in 1917, producing weapons, ammunition, and resources to aid the Allied European nations. War rations included color dyes, resulting in many of the garments created during this time to be in shades of black, white, tans, and blue. Fabric restrictions led to the use of lighter materials and slimmer styles, as opposed to the fuller silhouettes of the previous decade. Women were still expected to wear modest dress, but they opted for less-restrictive and complex garments. Menswear likewise got an update. Due to war shortages and a need for practical, minimalist fashion, the streamlined trench coat was born out of this adversity.

Women’s Right to Vote

The roaring ’20s was an era of scandalous parties, dancing, flappers, jazz, glitz, and glam. Sneaking around the confines of Prohibition sparked a rebellious nature in society. After campaigning for nearly 100 years, the goal of the Women’s Suffrage Movement finally came to fruition. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, granting women the right to vote. Following this monumental victory, women began to feel emboldened by their newfound liberty and the buoyant aura of rebellion hovering over the nation. The ladies of the ‘20s took what they were owed with a strong constitution: they smoked and cursed in public, wore heavier makeup, and shortened their skirts and revealed their arms. With Coco Chanel having released women from the corset, the flappers were less restricted, both sartorially and socially. Their bold and daring styles, bob haircuts, cloche hats, and shorter dresses clad with sequins and fringe exemplified what it meant to be young and full of life, epitomizing the decade.

The Great Depression and The Golden Age of Hollywood

The Great Depression of the 1930s forced people to make do with what was available to them. During these tumultuous times, Americans found solace in Hollywood’s glamorous pictures and the starlets within them. Hemlines dropped as they tend to do in economic downturn with the general style being slim fitting, feminine, and soft. Many found themselves dreaming of the slinky, bias cut gowns popularized by the cinema.

Conversely, some were beginning to find inspiration in the stars daring to wear men’s trousers, such as Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers, and Katharine Hepburn. The former was actually threatened with arrest for donning slacks in 1933. The famed actress was traveling aboard the SS Europa to Paris while wearing a crisp white suit when the local police sent Dietrich a warning that she would be taken into custody upon her arrival in France. The audacious act of a woman daring to wear slacks was so scandalous that she could have been arrested under the pretense that she would have been “masquerading as a man.” Dietrich’s sartorial choice would become more and more common by the end of the decade, however, as women assumed roles in the workforce.

World War II’s L-85 Restrictions

In regards to rationing and shortages during World War II, there came a rising challenge to make something out of nothing. America responded to WWII (and the lifestyle limitations it posed) with unwavering patriotism. When overseas shipping was no longer an option and the German occupation of Paris took hold, the American consumer was cut off from the styles that had previously dominated the industry. The self-reliance on the domestic economy forced the American fashion community to up the ante and find its own voice, redefining where fashion had traditionally positioned its spotlight.

In 1942, President Roosevelt installed the War Production Board, and with it came the L-85 legislation. This regulation measured and limited all facets of clothing and materials. Fabric conservation became a priority, and hemlines rose from the 1930s trend of the mid-calf to just above the knee as a means to ration materials. Culottes, pleated skirts, lined skirts, and reversible skirts were all rejected, as well as extraneous details like pockets and hoods, making for a far more utilitarian look. This also served women as they were thrown into the war effort, working within factories and munition plants. Military influence ran rampant throughout clothing made during wartime. Ladies’ suits were tailored with broad padded shoulders, cinched waists, structured collars, and were considered to be quite “mannish.” The transition of women wearing more masculine apparel and taking on traditionally masculine roles represented a newfound female independence. This was the closest women had been to equality at this point in time and it was illustrated throughout the clothing society deemed acceptable.

The iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter came to epitomize female patriotism and the modern day working girl. Head wraps and turbans were worn out of protection, so as to avoid getting one’s hair caught in a machine. The trend also worked in favor of covering messy or unwashed hair, considering the fact that many women now had to play the traditional roles of both mother and father, cutting her time for a beauty routine in half.

Wartime meant that every American citizen had to contribute to the effort; everyone and everything was put to use. Clothing dye and materials including rubber, leather, silk, wool, and cotton were all utilized for the war effort. The lack of raw materials left scientists and innovators with room to create. From this shortage came the invention of chemical-based, synthetic textiles. For instance, nylon was made for hosiery and as a means of substituting unavailable Japanese silk. It was such a sensation when it was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair that by 1941, nylon was yanked from the shelves to be used for military necessities. In response to Uncle Sam taking away the hosiery staple, American women had to get creative. “Liquid” or “cream” stockings became an accepted substitution for their beloved nylons. Ladies would actually stain their legs a brown tone and pencil in a faux seam for the illusion of stockings. Others chose the more practical option of adopting the previously masculine associated trouser.

Postwar Era-Peacetime Prosperity

With postwar peacetime came both an economic and baby boom in America. As men came home from war, couples began starting families at an unprecedented pace and women were ushered back into the home with a renewed focus on traditional nuclear family ideals. Men and women resumed their previously set, conservative gender roles, reminding women of their matriarchal femininity, donning fuller, more shapely and more formal apparel.

In 1947, Christian Dior’s “New Look” made a splash, reshaping women into an hourglass figure. As a response to the rationing of the war, Dior wanted to celebrate opulence and femininity. One of the skirts in his debut collection featured over 13 and a half yards of fabric, finely pleated into a full silhouette. Women were ready to welcome back the sense of luxury that these dresses and skirts offered, and the fit and flare shape that Dior made popular would stick around from the end of the 1940s through the ’50s.

Regulation of the Birth Control Pill

While the 1960s were filled to the brim with inventions and innovation, there were two advancements that went hand-in-hand with equal cultural weight. With the regulation and dissemination of the female contraceptive birth control pill in 1960, came the dawn of the miniskirt. Introduced by Mary Quant in 1966, the garment quickly became a symbolic force of the sexual revolution and a testament to the progressive Youthquake movement of the swinging ’60s. Women harnessed their autonomy and expressed their sexuality with a newfound freedom, reflected by the highest hemlines women’s fashion had yet seen.

The Summer of Love

During the tumultuous political landscape of the 1960s, arts, music, and fashion bloomed with the uprising of counterculture and protests against the Vietnam War. Specifically, the youth wore their hearts on their sleeves with their clothing acting as an expression of one’s political stance. Valuing peace and love over violence, the hippie uniform was splashed with psychedelic prints and tie-dye to express the “flower power” that was established during 1967’s Summer of Love convergence in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The emulation of peaceful messaging through garb lasted throughout the rest of the decade to 1969’s Woodstock music festival.

The United Kingdom’s Recessions

Rather than the austerity that American fashion experiences in times of adversity, British designers and style icons have a tendency to respond to fear, doom, and gloom with bold, bright statements, either fueled by activism and resistance or unity and pride. Much like when the struggling English public looks to the Monarchy in all their immeasurable wealth for distraction and aspiration, designers look for forms of escapism through design and aesthetic. The two most pivotal staples in British style arose from adversity. Both glam rock and punk ascended to prominence during the economic downturn in the 1970s, with Vivienne Westwood opening up shop at 430 Kings Road in 1971. The high-glam, high-maintenance, rebellious looks of this period transcended time or trend while simultaneously lifting a middle finger to conformity.

Likewise, when the country again experienced a recession in 1991, creative and boundary-pushing designers Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan came onto the scene. Their other-worldly, and fantastical designs acted as a much needed distraction and transported their viewers to another place and time, offering escapism during the economic downturn in the U.K.

The Reagan Era

During the Reagan administration, the U.S. experienced a shift in values, with more emphasis on monetary and materialistic ideals. The ‘80s embodied a time of economic prosperity and an accelerated drive for wealth amongst working class Americans. It was a time of excess and decadence, where more was more and bigger was better. Shoulder pads were larger than life and oversized silhouettes were the norm. An overabundance of hairspray was used, while brighter and bolder colors were favored in both the fashion and beauty industries. These trends were reflected by the entertainment of the era, with shows like Dynasty promoting the over-the-top aesthetic.

The decade also brought forth many technological advancements such as Apple’s Macintosh, changing office culture and introducing a new breed of young professionals. Power dressing became the expectation among men and women climbing the corporate ladder. Oversized suiting was preferred by both genders, often topped with even larger duster coats. In the office, women were often seen in formal dress suits and pantyhose with an unexpected pair of sneakers to withstand their daily commutes. This business-centric dressing reflected the collective drive for success through the decade.


The ’90s Counterculture

While many credit Seattle’s music scene–or more specifically, Nirvana–with having catalyzed grunge, it’s actually far more deep-seated than that. Those elements are certainly part of the equation, but the relaxed, careless, “come as you are” mindset erupted in response to an economic recession in 1987 that caused the public to lose its allure with high-priced luxury. “Casual Fridays” were implemented in the majority of workplaces while refined minimalism–promoted by designers like Calvin Klein and Helmut Lang–coexisted with grunge’s flannel, ripped-jeans, unwashed ambience as the reigning aesthetics.

2008 Recession

When the banks crashed in 2008, economic hardship was felt internationally. Now referred to as The Great Recession, the downturn affected fashion differently across nations. For instance, in Britain the struggles resulted in the ever-colorful and cheerful designers Mary Katrantzou, Christopher Kane, and Roksanda Ilincic coming center stage, meeting adversity with positivity and chutzpah.

Conversely, in the U.S. appearing rich now had a stigma. The majority of Americans opted for a more subdued, logo-less style with an impulse towards basics, muted tones, and a general simplicity. The then-Celine creative director, Phoebe Philo won the hearts of the fashion world with her minimalist aesthetic and understated designs.

Brexit

During last year’s London Fashion Week, designers decided to respond to the impending Brexit with bold, bright statements, filled with and fueled by activism and resistance. Lively, eclectic glamour flooded the collections of Richard Quinn, Matty Bovan, Michael Halpern, and more, to offset the trials and tribulations of the British government and to convey unity over the separation of Britain from the European Union.

COVID-19

With the onset of the global pandemic and corresponding quarantine, fashion seems to be following the expected path. With staggering unemployment rates and so many others working from home, comfort has become key. Waist-up dressing has become the norm for Zoom calls, house dresses have made a comeback, and sweatpants are a status symbol. While masks were once an option, COVID-19 has ensured that facial coverings are a necessary article. The accessory had been on the fringes of fashion in recent seasons, however the outbreak of the coronavirus facilitated its penetration of the marketplace.

Black Lives Matter

As citizens protest the police brutality and racism against Black Americans, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have found ways to convey their stance through apparel. Exercising caution amidst the pandemic, face masks are being utilized as a form of messaging, emblazoned with political statements demanding justice and reform echoing slogan tees and posters. A greater awareness has also been promoted for Black-owned fashion labels, which have already seen a growth in sales since the Black Lives matter movement gained traction in May. This reflects a consumer trend brought about by social change that could ultimately turn into a longterm approach to retail.

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