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A Brief Glimpse into the History of Women's Fashion

I recently visited the "Dress to the Nines" exhibit at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which explored the types of clothing worn for special occasions from 1850 to the present day. Needless to say, it got me inspired and really excited about style and creating new outfits. It also made me want to dip my toe into the history of women's fashion, so this month's blog post is the result of that! Enjoy.


16th Century - The knicker-less era

In Tudor times, women chose to go to commando. Well, there probably wasn't much choice in the matter but nonetheless, pants were not worn by women.

Women's underwear consisted of shift, smocks or chemises (you may be familiar), which were worn under their dresses. As dresses were so long, there was no risk of women ruining their modesty, but I don't think I would have enjoyed the breeze personally. It wasn't until the end of the 18th Century that women began to wear knickers. These began as drawers, which were two legs joined at the waist, and were also known as Knickerbockers which was eventually shortened to knickers. However, the knickers we all know and love today didn't start appearing until the mid 20th Century when closed knickers replaced the open drawers, and by the 1940s women had begun wearing briefs.

By the middle of the 16th Century, corsets were a commonly worn garment and were often worn with a 'farthingale' which allowed skirts to hold out in a stiff shape.

There has been a lot of argument as to whether corsets were a patriarchal torture device inflicted on women. But, given the longevity of the corset, it's fair to say it has remained popular to this day. Wearing a corset is a different experience for everyone, some may choose to avoid at all costs, while others may revel in the experience of dressing up and using it as a styling tool or fashion statement.


17th-18th Century - Time to get faaancy

Little changed for Women's fashion over these centuries, but we did get some fancy accessories and grooming.

From the mid 17th century it became fashionable for women to wear black patches on their faces. These were usually used to hide blemishes and marks on the face, particularly scars left behind on smallpox survivors, but also had a little sexy use to as they used to send signals to the opposite sex as part of a flirtatious ritual. These patches were often made of black taffeta, velvet, silk or leather, and would be cut into various shapes and designs including stars and crescent moons. The 17th Century saw the resurgence of wigs and by the 18th Century, the wealthy would often have a large wig for formal occasions, and a smaller wig to wear at home. They were a sign of wealth and class, and for those unable to afford a wig they would try to make their natural hair look as 'wig-like' as possible. Quite different from today's standards where we want wigs to look as natural as possible!



19th Century - A new shape dawns

As we progressed into the 19th Century women's dresses started to reveal their actual shape...wow. By the late stages of the century, a popular style of dress was worn, known as the 'princess line'. This was made without a waist and a tightly fitted skirt. Imagine an early version of the bodycon dress we all know and love today. This design was introduced by Charles Frederick Worth and named after the Princess Alexandra of Denmark.

At the end of the century, women were enjoying more independence and fashion began to reflect this. We began to see Menswear having a significant influence on Women's fashion, with the popular attire becoming a skirt with a 'shirtwaist ', a blouse similarly tailored to Men's shirts. The Shirtwaist could even be worn as part of a suit inspired by Menswear looks. This new form of fashion freedom allowed women to participate in more sporting activities, particularly bicycling which exploded in popularity at the end of the century. There was even a controversial 'Bicycling Suit' designed to allow for easier cycling, which included a jacket and bifurcated bloomers, but this was only worn by a small number of women.


I love seeing where fashion has led us to today and seeing what styles from the past still linger on. In turn, it's fascinating to look at how social movements and events in time influence the way we dress and the styles around us.



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