By Kasie Le Nguyen

Centuries ago, lest you were royalty, it would have been impossible for you to have multiple wardrobes – let alone several pieces for just special occasions. As we entered into the 20th century, however, social mobility gave rise to a new definition of consumerism. Mass production enabled easy and cheap manufacturing of clothing, allowing high fashion to be a part of every woman’s closet. It was then and there that the party dress was born.

1920s: boxy and boyish

Characterized by shapeless boxy forms and unstructured tops, flapper dresses were designed to break from tradition by emanating a boyish look for women. Shorter than dresses had ever been before, the visibility of stockings and shoes rose in prominence, as hemlines rose. Worn with bust-flattening brassieres, garments were made of fine, thin, silk chiffon and satin and were often covered in beads. Dresses flared at the hips, and often featured pleats, gathers, or slits for fluid motion on the dance floor.


1930s: backless and feminine

The 30s saw a return of lengthened hemlines with bias cut slip dresses and gowns. There was much more stretch to the bias cut – allowing the fit of the garment to hug the body more closely. Going from the shapeless and boyish look of the 20s, the 30s embraced the female form and natural waistlines, while emphasizing the shoulders. Low-cut backs and material like silk satin, lace, and velvet really amped up the feminine sex appeal.


1940s: embellished and long sleeved

One of the only periods to feature sleeves on dresses, this decade’s party trends reflected the wartime rationing going on at the time by making fashion practical. Dolman sleeves became popular, and prominent shoulders carried over from the 30s with shoulder pads to accentuate tiny waists. Embellishments like buttons, sequins, and rhinestones adorned party dresses in whatever way they could.

 1950s: the prom queen

In 1947, Christian Dior came out with New Look, thereby epitomizing the 50s style. The New Look was characterized by an uplifted bust, a very small waist, and a full skirt; an hourglass shape. Eventually Dior’s look trickled down to the middle class and women all over America sported strapless and swing monochromatic dresses with rounded, ballerina length hems. Novelty print began showing up in small, quiet florals, and monochromatic dresses usually had some kind of texture to it like netting, lace, or other kinds of fabrics. Necklines were ornate with jeweled accents, peter pan collars, or low cut necklaces.



1960s: mod and micro-mini

The mod girl was an iconic look in the 60s, bringing chic, short, and simple back into style. Like those of the 20s, mod dresses were sleeveless, a-line cut, boxy shifts, with even higher hemlines. Color blocking, geometric patterns, and bold colors were in, as were patterned tights to mix and match. Variations of the mod dress were micro-minis which featured flared skirts and long, wide trumpet sleeves, as well as the monk dress which had a cowled-neck atop a sleeveless mini.

 1970s: flowy and natural

A return of romanticism in the 70s sparked a growth of nature references in fashion. Thin, draping, maxi dresses came onto the scene as a stark contrast to the mod dress, with its free flowing form. Where the mod emphasized a bright, stylized, and sleek look, chiffon wrap dresses embraced earthy tones and the natural shape of the body. When going out to a party, little apparel was worn underneath the garment.


1980s: super tight, and super short

Barely a decade later the 80s brought back the body conscious mini dress, complete with lycra, spandex, and other super stretchy fabrics. Puff sleeves, ruffled straps, and over-the-top shoulder detail were all the rage, as were vibrant colors like neon and bold primaries. Floral print kicked it into high gear and geometric prints returned from the 60s.

1990s: sexy sleepwear

The last decade of the 20th century witnessed the “underwear as outerwear” fashion trend, with the emergence of slip dresses as party garments. Usually form fitting and biased-cut with spaghetti straps, the slip dress was made of layered silk, satin, chiffon, or synthetic cotton, often trimmed with lace. As they became more widely worn, designers relaxed the look and increased the variety of lengths.

The thing about vintage? It’ll never go out of style. Today we pull trends from every era, modifying and modernizing them as we go. It’s nice to look back and see where and how these foundations of fashion came to be the pieces in our closet we know and love.

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