History's Mirror Project: Fashion through the years


Fashion in the 1940s was dominated by World War II (1939 - 1945), as the war years continued, there were significant shortages of fabric, leather and metal to make garments of all descriptions and their fastenings. As most women could sew and many households had a sewing machine; dressmaking and revamping garments became a necessity. Most dresses would be made from Rayon, a fibre produced from regenerated cellulose; one of the first artificial dressmaking materials. It was available as Rayon Crepe, which draped well and held its shape; Rayon Satin was used for evening and cocktail dresses in place of silk.

Cotton fabric was used for summer clothing and wool was used for jumpers and coats. As silk stockings were in short supply, and nylons were still quite rare; women wore short socks or coloured their bare legs with tea dye and painted a line down the back of their legs to imitate stockings.

The war began to have an effect on the way the population dressed and in June 1941, when the government introduced the Civil Clothing Order and garments carried the CC41 mark. The leading fashion designers of the day grouped together to produce a range of designs under the CC41 label; Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell showed women they could look stylish and smart and still be patriotic.

Coupons were issued for the rationing of everyday items; including food and clothing. Many women still could not find the money for clothing, so a thriving black market for coupons existed. Babies under 4 months old were exempt from coupons, as were many essentials for everyday living. Sewing thread, elastic, men's trouser braces and ladies suspenders were among the items that did not require coupons.

The motto 'Make do and Mend' became a byword for patriotic thrift and ingenuity regarding clothing. 'Mrs Sew and Mr Sew' appeared on advertisements encouraging women to find ways of turning old clothing to new purposes; a pillowcase could be an attractive pair of summer shorts, garments were made with the minimum of fabric, no turn back cuffs, no deep hems, no unnecessary pleats or wastage of fabric.

Coupons were saved for special outfits, particularly wedding dresses. As the clothing factories turned their production to uniforms for the troops, camouflage tarpaulins and parachutes, less fabric was available for dressmaking, so the Utility range of clothing and patterns enabled women to at least feel they were fashionable and supporting the war effort. Garments used less fabric, particularly skirts, so hemlines rose a little and a slimmer silhouette emerged. It became a patriotic duty to wear clothes unadorned with lace, frills and trims, and the government urged women to make the most of themselves with 'smiles' and a little make up. Women wore trousers for the first time when they wore them in the munitions factories; this new freedom in fashion barely made up for the hardships in styles and fabrics, but it did mean a welcome change from stockings and skirts.

During the air raids, everyone wore a 'siren suit'; a jumpsuit style garment made from warm cloth and worn over the clothes in the air raid shelters. The Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret wore theirs to encourage children to do the same, and even Winston Churchill wore his in the underground bunkers. Several designers including Pucci made a feature of the jumpsuit after the war, using silks and soft fabrics.

Hats, turbans and exotic hairpieces became fashionable as hairpins became hard to find and undressed hair a daily annoyance. The emphasis shifted to a particular elegance and ingenuity that has not been matched since those difficult days.

The war ended in 1945 and Christian Dior in Paris began work on his 'New Look', a much longed for change in silhouette showing a full skirt, nipped in waist and fitted jacket. The skirt was bouffant in style, hat and gloves were worn, and shoulders were more rounded after the straight, more military look in previous years. The look was softer and relied less on constraining undergarments, a relief for many women. Garments using more fabric gradually crept in, bias cut dresses, pleats and gathers, lace inserts and trims returned and a softer more elegant look became the norm. However many women in Britain still could not afford the new styles and such extravagances were frowned upon in post war years.

As many women married in the years following the war, they wore elegant suits if they could not afford the fabric for a wedding dress and men wore their 'demob' suits, the only suit they had after years of wearing uniforms.

The tailored look with the emphasis on detail remained the day to day fashion for most women, clothing and food rationing continued until the 1950s, whilst the country was still recovering from years of austerity. It was many years before the majority of children wore clothing that was 'new' instead of reworked 'hand me downs' and women were able to buy printed fabrics and leather goods again.


The 1950's began with Britain still recovering from the war years, rationing had only just been phased out and factories were returning to full pre-war production. Women were encouraged to return to being homemakers and looking after children and husbands. Fashion reflected this and became more feminine in style and silhouette. Pretty fabrics in colours not seen in the war emerged and the influence of American fashion took hold. Christian Dior was the main designer of the early part of the decade and he dictated many dress styles predominately the 'hourglass' look, with a nipped in waist , emphasized bust line and hips, either in a sleek fitted or a fuller skirt. A fitted jacket was a 'must' and a neatly tied scarf and small hat completed the outfit. Dior created many styles for women in the 1950s, the A, H, and Y line dresses that meant women could relate their figure shape to a style that suited them. Young women would still look like their mothers; an individual style had not yet been developed.

Fabrics such as Rayon and Crepe were used for most of the 'drape' style dresses and those with a bias cut; but cotton became the favourite fabric for the new large full skirts, blouses and dresses. Coats were made in wool and new styles in rainwear appeared for women in the modern showerproof fabrics.

A more relaxed approach to fashion came with Coco Chanel returning to designing to produce looser more comfortable clothes in knitted yarns in 1954. The boyish look had begun and women who wanted more liberation after the war could buy fashion that challenged the pre-war look.

The Festival of Britain in 1951 showed the best of new designers and ideas. The Skylon tower represented the space age look that was to come. Lucienne Day's furnishing fabric 'Calyx' began a revolution in fabric design; the modern era had begun and new synthetic fabrics appeared, meaning cheaper clothing that was easier to wash and dry. Fabric designs reflected the new age of technology and science, inspiring patterns created from biological and chemical sources.

Women wore day dresses in lightweight materials and bold patterns, wide belts and white hats and gloves defined the 'Sunday best' look. The predominant style for youngsters was a full skirt or dress with a very full net petticoat underneath; the new dance craze of rock and roll needed more freedom for dancers to move and 'pedal pushers' Capri style trousers and the big skirts meant some of the more daring moves could be carried out.

It became fashionable to go out in the evenings as leisure time increased; cocktail parties were popular and women wore knee length dresses in satin, silk, tulle and embellished with lace, bows, sequins and corsages. Later evening events required long gowns in similar fabrics, with deeply cut necklines, strapless, backless or off shoulder styles. Corsetry was made with new elastic fabrics and fibres and meant a new freedom for women when choosing their underwear. A new synthetic fibre: Nylon was available in garments and was much desired as it required less laundering techniques.

In 1957, French designer Hubert Givenchy designed the 'Sack' a straight waistless shift dress that was to inspire Mary Quant in the sixties and give rise to a revolution in dress shape.

The 'trapeze' dress was designed by Yves Saint Laurent in 1958 and its fluid loose fitting style became desired by the majority of women as it freed them from fitted dress styles and heavy corsetry.

A new era of fashion was heralded by women looking to the USA for ideas, Britain was beginning to rebuild after the war and factories returned to their pre-war production. New bright printed fabrics appeared and 'separates' as well as dresses became bright and fun; with some unusual and gimmicky prints and colours. Early rock and roll motifs adorned skirts and tops, bobby sox and sneakers made life fun for teenagers, jeans were must haves in girls wardrobes, whether imitating the American style or worn with big fluffy jumpers 'Beatnik' style.

Marks and Spencer reflected the new freedom in shopping trends and sold affordable high street styles for women, the latest Orlon jumpers could be purchased to go with trousers and skirts; in a Britain that was not yet centrally heated, the rather warm synthetic fibres were quite a welcome invention.

Makeup companies such as Max Factor and Coty were flourishing and Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor along with American film stars inspired a fresher and younger look. A generation of young people found themselves setting the trends and no longer looked like copies of their parents; the cult of youth had begun.


The era of mass production and mass consumption was under way and influences on fashion extended beyond magazines pictures and film stars and became dominated by music, youth and politics. The 'Youthquake' movement had arrived.

Youngsters wished to separate themselves stylistically from the older generation and so more of the body shape was revealed and clothing became more an individual choice rather than parental idealism. The boyish silhouette was personified in the iconic 60's model Twiggy, she had the long thin figure necessary for the short dresses and her hair was styled in an asymmetrical cut, and she was photographed in typical locations for 'Swinging London'. Fashion design became more geometric and reflected emerging art movements such as Pop Art and Op Art.

New fabrics made from synthetic polymers meant a more easy care approach to fashion and the era of garments having a shorter fashion life had begun as fibre production became less expensive. A revolution in the use of innovative fabrics was underway; fashion designers could experiment in new ways with unusual materials that reflected art movements and pop culture.

The 'London Modernists' group were setting a style for themselves with smart haircuts, suits and riding scooters; they became known as 'Mods', and the popular press defined youngsters into two categories, a teenager was either a 'Mod' or a 'Rocker' the latter preferring longer hair, leather jackets and motorbikes.

London designer Mary Quant bought the 'mini' skirt into mainstream fashion when she opened her 'Bazaar' boutique and the new short hemline length became a talking point for the decade.

The Beatles invented a new look, their slim cut collarless suits , whip ties and pointed Chelsea boots showed a new freedom and style. Young girls dressed in shorter skirts much to their parents' annoyance and block colours with geometric patterns reflected the 'Op Art' movement of the time. Famous French fashion designers defined the trend, Correges, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne are all iconic names who designed just for the young and bold. Correges showed a pants suit evening outfit on his catwalk in 1964, and this gave rise to the trouser suit. These new designers showed collections using plastics, synthetic materials and construction techniques that were revolutionary for the time.

This was the decade for the 'hot pants', jeans, loon pants, hipsters and bell bottom trousers; the look became genderless and teenagers were more liberated and berated than ever before.

1963 saw the opening of a new boutique in London, Biba. Created by Barbara Hulanicki, this had a mail order catalogue that meant many more young girls could buy the latest fashions. The in-house colour was 'Mulberry purple' and that with smudgy browns and oranges in the new manmade drape fabrics featured in magazines such as 'Petticoat'. The Biba range extended to jewellery, makeup and perfume, so a whole look could be created.

In the late 1960s, a new romantic style emerged, the music of Jimi Hendrix, west coast USA bands and Bob Dylan created a look that was dreamy, reflected psychedelic iconography and the freedom of pop festivals. Tie Dye and Batik appeared in fashion magazines and quickly became a look that was achievable by teenagers at home. Fabric patterns for the young were a heady mixture of pinks, greens, purples and limes in swirls and floral 'hippie' style chic. Long romantic maxi dresses were worn alongside short mini skirts. Menswear became flamboyant, with frills on shirts, cravats; brightly coloured ties and shirts and velvet jackets.

Older women looked elsewhere for inspiration, Oleg Cassini had designed exclusively for President Kennedy's wife Jackie Kennedy and her simple but elegant style of matching dress, coat, pillbox hat and gloves in subdued pastel colours, with a simple handbag was copied onto the British high street. The advent of the new synthetic fabric 'Crimplene' was quickly a hit with the mature woman who wanted easy to make dresses and matching coats, and simple suits.

The end of the decade saw the first landing on the Moon by man, and this was reflected in fashion by new space age fabric prints and the use of PVC in boots, coats and mini dresses. White became a predominant colour and boxy shift style dresses were seen alongside the long floral hippie style fashions. A decade of real contrast.


This decade was defined in the early years by a return to a romantic look and moved on from the futuristic look of the sixties. Hippie fashion and ethnic prints and patterns continued. Hair was worn long, for young men as well as girls and a faded denim look pervaded the fashion scene. Patched and embroidered jeans were customised by youngsters and cheesecloth tops became the rage. 'Tie dye' was fashionable, and appliqué logos and symbols appeared on jackets and jeans. Bell bottom trousers continued and curly perms adorned young heads. Skirts became longer, reaching the floor; the 'maxi' dress had arrived. Platform shoes and boots were the required footwear for the young and patent leather and the 'wet look' was evident in shoes and handbags as well as jackets.

Street fashion was a new movement begun by Yves Saint Laurent in Paris; suddenly the gulf between the fashion houses and what was available in the shops was becoming very narrow. Trends for the young were accelerated by fashion magazines aimed at teenagers, and boutiques selling the latest fashions.

Laura Ashley had opened her first shop in Fulham, and was immediately a success with her return to a natural romantic look with tiny floral prints and long dresses with flounces and tucks. She produced a wedding dress range in white cotton, totally revolutionizing what brides wore. Laura and her husband Terence had begun their business by silk screen printing cotton fabric on their kitchen table and used floral images and tiny prints in subdued colours.

The socio economic downturn of 1973 persuaded designers to look to a more naturalistic design source and softer florals and pretty prints emerged, Liberty of London were producing small fabric designs in cotton lawn to make blouses and dresses, and even floral shirts for men.

In 1976, Malcolm McLaren launched the pop group 'The Sex Pistols', they mocked the class divided society and wore safety pins as jewellery and 'bondage' style clothing. Leather and studs decorated the items and a new name Vivienne Westwood appeared to take this style to the catwalk as well as the high street.

Leather clothing became affordable and short jackets and trousers became street fashion.

Maxi and midi dresses were casual wear, and if brave enough and allowed, trouser suits were worn to work. Fabrics were now drip dry and easy to launder. Women liked the new fibres that meant easy to launder, but were not fond of the rather warm and perspiration making garments made in the new synthetics.

The later part of the decade saw a dramatic revolution in clothing styles; the film 'Saturday Night Fever', created a fashion phenomenon; men wore white suits with wide flares bottoms collars with over large lapels and platform shoes to discos, girls wore floaty feminine dresses and platform shoes and learnt to dance in a 'disco' style with male partners instead of the female group dances of the sixties.

'Glam' rock stars such as David Bowie, T -Rex, and Roxy Music created fantastic images from a mix of 1930's glamour, science fiction, mythology, and theatrical references. Make up was extreme, eyes were painted and exaggerated; platform shoes were ridiculously high and clothing was tight and body hugging; along with the 'Punk' fashion this was probably the most extreme style seen on young people. Fabrics were shiny, satin, sequinned, and 'stretch' fabric arrived on the market. Jumpsuits for both sexes were popular; the advent of Spandex and Lurex and the leotard made an appearance on the music scene with Rod Stewart and Cher.

The end of the decade bought political issues in-line with fashion once again with custom printed t- shirts displaying logos and designs reflecting popular culture.


The 80s saw many changes in fashion styles and the influence of television programmes inspired some quite dramatic clothing. The USA series of Dallas and Dynasty gave rise to excessive shoulder shapes, the use of the shoulder pad was in every young woman's wardrobe and a fuller dress shape with dropped waists and large skirts proliferated. The balloon skirt made a short reappearance on the catwalks and in a few high street shops. Denim jackets were everywhere and in new colours and shapes as the 'baggy' look emerged.

Pop music once more played a part in directing fashion styles; pop groups and stars such as Bananarama, Madness, Boy George and Brian Ferry influenced a new young generation with slick suits, cross dressing styles and the fashion item of the moment became the t-shirt. The t-shirt was used for slogans for political purposes as well as jokey and witty statements. Jackets were fashionable for girls and trousers became baggy and narrow at the ankle. The new Romantic Movement pulled together a mix of clothing styles that were eclectic and unusual, often fusing wide trousers with layers of t-shirts and waistcoats, in bright prints and decorated with ribbons and tassels.

New American designers set the trend for 'logo' clothing; Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren were very popular with youngsters who found they had more disposable income to spend on clothing and accessories, even underwear had the brand name visible on the outside of the garment. Television played large part in directing fashion trends, the TV series 'Miami Vice' saw replica pale coloured suits, rolled up sleeves and open necked shirts become fashion for both sexes. Linen became a fabric available in high street fashion, and to prevent creasing was blended with synthetic fibres.

This was the era of the Disco dance and fitness craze; the leotard industry was booming, with tight fitting all in one garments much in demand for dance classes, worn with matching legwarmers and headbands in the Jane Fonda workout video style. The film 'Flashdance' film contributed to this fashion and every young girl aspired to the look.

The pop star 'Madonna' began the 'street urchin' look and her outrageous clothing resulted in skirts being worn over leggings, bras being worn over tops and a disregard for fashion convention never before seen. Music continued to dominate and drive the fashion scene; Hip Hop had just arrived from the USA and a street style emerged that focussed on the trainer as a high fashion item. Logo was important and Nike and Reebok were the brand leaders. Sweatshirts came back into fashion but with a looser look, often ripped and raw edged. Jeans became baggier and a slouchy look predominated amongst followers.

The young had jobs, money, aspirations and a freedom undreamt of in the fifties and this was reflected in the boom in the clothing industry and proliferation of high street clothing shops with names such as River Island, Monsoon, Red or Dead, Top Shop, and Dorothy Perkins.