Vintage dresses are enduringly popular for a very good reason. The classic cuts and elegant silhouettes of vintage dresses have stood the test of time, flattering our figures decade after decade. Beyond their figure enhancing effect, vintage dresses are desirable for their unique position in fashion and social history. When considering the history of fashion, vintage dresses have an unparalleled importance; instantly recognisable, they define an era, capture a moment. No other single garment has this power of evoking bygone days as succinctly as vintage dresses. Vintage dresses are the icons of each decade, with one style of dress summing up the fashions of the time.
Technically, a dress over 20 years old is classified as ‘vintage;’ any older than 100 years and it becomes ‘antique.’ The 20th century saw an ever-changing succession of fashions, providing us with a plethora of alluring vintage dresses from which to choose. This century of unprecedented sartorial revolution saw the formation of the contemporary fashion industry as it exists today, and changed the way we make, buy and wear clothes forever. Vintage fashions, from the 1920′s to the 1990′s, reflect overarching social, political and economic factors; each generation reacting against the style that went before it. Vintage dresses are the garments which so readily epitomise each decade of fashion, encompassing a range of distinctive features unique to that particular time’s fashions, including: cut; silhouette; colour scheme; fabric; patterns; and embellishment.
1920′s – Hemlines rose higher to the knee and waistlines dropped lower. A boyish figure was favoured, removing emphasis from the bust, waist and hips for a blocky shape. Loose fitting, but not voluminous, dresses had typically straight lines and low waists, allowing for energetic dancing. The flapper dress epitomises this time, featuring geometric Art Deco beading and/or frivolous fringing.
1930′s – In a complete reversal of tastes, long, flowing feminine dresses with a natural waistline were favoured. As the Depression set in, the sumptuous world of Hollywood movies captured the American imagination, popularising slinky screen-siren gowns which clung to every curve. Madame Vionett perfected the smooth, sensuous silhouette with bias-cut gowns, which were often backless. Fluttery, tiered skirts were also popular on dresses, retaining that flirty, feminine style.
1940′s – World War II meant a utilitarian approach to dressing and removed all frivolous wastes of material. Sleek lines remained without wasting material via calf-to-knee length hemlines and slim skirts. Rationed fabrics meant feminine dresses often had to be cut from menswear, lending a militaristic, functional air. Slim, belted waists and narrow hips were further emphasized by exaggerated shoulders.
1950′s – The restraint of the war years led to a period of exuberant femininity in the Fifties. Full skirted, knee-length dresses were worn with petticoats for extra oomph. Dior’s ‘New Look’ defined the nipped in waist and long full skirts of the decades dresses. Shirt dresses and halter-neck dresses gained popularity. Hemlines remained at the knee or just below for both day and evening dresses. Brocade and floral patterns were typical on Fifties dresses, as the freedom to experiment with fabric and colour returned.
1960′s – The Sixties began with simple, geometric shift dresses, before being revolutionized in 1964 by Mary Quant and the mini skirted dress: Psychedelic patterns and colours engulfed sleeveless shift dresses; flared micro-mini baby-doll dresses took the hemlines even higher in sugary sweet colours and fabrics; and velvet dresses with long, lace trimmed bell-sleeves epitomised the dandified look of the time.
1970s – Whilst the Sixties went mini, the dresses of the seventies went maxi. Long, flowing gypsy style dresses had tiered skirts and nonchalant off the shoulder necklines. Lace, fringing and embroidery details cemented the hippy look, having various ethnic influences. Edwardian style long, lacy and high-necked dresses were made popular by Laura Ashley. The disco dresses of the Seventies were characterized by long hemlines too, fitting close to the body in sinuous, glossy fabrics such as lamé and satin.
1980′s – ‘Power dressing’ in the Eighties paved the way for a Forties tinged silhouette, with highly emphasized wide shoulders and nipped in waists, with a typically sleek, short pencil skirt. Flashy gilt and golden finishes upped the glamour stakes, as seen at Versace. The decade’s defining dress however was brought to you by Azzedine Alaïa – the ‘King of Cling’- whose body-conscious dresses were scandalously form-fitting.
Now in the 21st century, the demand for vintage fashion, and specifically vintage dresses, is greater than ever. Let’s take a trip through the 20th century and look at some features which characterise vintage dresses from each decade.