Most Popular Fashion Trends by the Decade (1900s – 1990s)

History matters, and so do your clothes, shoes, hats, hairstyles, and fashion accessories. If you say that fashion is only skin-deep, this is far from the truth: fashion has always been a helpful indicator of the current time and history. Over the last one-hundred years or so, fashion has experienced dramatic shifts: from prim and proper dresses to unisex jeans to leather jackets.

We see a lot of popular looks and styles of the past decades. But some fashion trends are better left where they were, while others are experiencing a comeback, serving as inspirations for fashion designers today.

We walk through the fashion trends from the 1900s to the 1990s.

The 1900s: Bustle Dresses, Corsets, and Gloves

bustle dress
Bustles were worn under the skirt in the back of the dresses. They padded undergarments to provide fullness of the back and support the drapery of the actual dress. This trend started in the late 19th century to the early 20th century.

Victorian fashion
Gloves were a familiar sight during the 20th century. They were worn everywhere, regardless of the occasion.

Corset

During the Edwardian period, “S-bend” or “health” corsets were popular. However, they altered the wearer’s posture and were no healthier than their predecessors, such as crinoline.

The 1910s: Hobble Skirts and Loose Dresses

harem pants

French designer Paul Poiret broke away from the Edwardian style, in both silhouette and color by creating dresses using a vibrant color palette and looser shapes. His design was inspired, in large part, from the harem pant style prevalent in Middle Eastern cultures.

hobble skirt
They are called “hobble skirts” for a reason: the hem is narrow enough to impede the wearer’s stride, making her to “hobble” as she tries to walk around while wearing one. This fad, thankfully, did not stick around for long.

The 1920s: Flapper Dresses, Cloche Hats and the Little Black Dress

Louise Brooks in a flapper dress and cloche hats
Flapper dress and cloche hat ensembles are instantly recognizable as the definitive 1920s look.

Flapper dresses are characterized by their drop-waist shift style accoutered by decorative fringes, beads, feathers, and other ornaments that added playful elements to the dress.

Cloche hats are bell-shaped hats invented by hatmaker Caroline Reboux in 1908. These hats took off among fashion-conscious ladies during this period.

little black dress

However, the most influential and enduring 1920s style may have been a simpler and subtler one: the famous little black dress, a concept by French designer Coco Chanel.

The 1930s: Evening Gowns and Fur Stoles

jean harlow

The American public was reeling from the effects of the Great Depression, so many would go to the cinemas as a means of escapism. Silver screen icons such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Jean Harlow dazzled audiences with their glamorous gowns and tailored skirt suits. Thus, many consider the 1930s as the “Golden Age of Glamour.”

Fur stoles were also prevalent among fashionable women in the 1930s. As prices of fur began to climb, fur stoles were seen as luxurious pieces of clothing.

The 1940s: Boiler Suits and Bikinis

women in the workforce

The United States had officially joined World War II in late 1941. Thus, thousands of young men were drafted into the war, leaving a huge need for women to enter the workforce. From office to factory jobs, women were taking over previously male-dominated occupations. These new roles required women to wear work clothes that were specifically designed for women’s bodies. Thus, they began to wear uniforms, such as boiler suits and coveralls, in jobs that required more physically demanding work.

These boiler suits were typically made of heavyweight cotton canvas or denim, had buttons down the front, and were generally loose-fitting, which enabled easier movement. The industrial look of these clothes changed the course of women’s wear over the next several decades. It proved that not only women were capable of jobs previously occupied by men, but also that their clothing didn’t have to be physically restricting.

three girls in bikinis

Fabric rationing was one of the consequences brought by the wartime era. Three years after the US joined the war, French designer Louis Reard introduced the skimpy bikini. The two-piece swimsuit, named after the American nuclear tests site, was created out of necessity and was not meant to be shocking.

However, the bikini revealed the belly button, which really caused an uproar, so it took about a couple of decades before the public fully embraced it as a regular swimsuit for women.

The 1950s: The Feminine “New Look”

Queen Elizabeth in a skirt

The rationing ended after World War II. Thanks to Christian Dior’s introduction of the “New Look” silhouette in 1947, the austere, de-feminized wartime look were replaced by shapes characterized by nipped-in waist, structured bust, and voluminous taffeta layered skirts. This look dictated the style among middle-class women during the 1950s, and retained much of their femininity.

pencil skirt

Apart from the billowy skirts, pencil skirts also came back in fashion.

woman wearing pearl necklace

Pearl jewelry, especially the three-stringed variety, was closely associated with women’s elegance during this era.

1960s: Pillbox Hats, Baby Doll Dresses and Miniskirts

Square
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the epitome of fashion during the 1960s, wore the pillbox hat which became one of the elements of her signature look. Needless to say, this headdress became popular among women.

babydoll dress

The strapless and loose-fitting baby doll dresses were also popular during this era, with celebrities like the model Twiggy wearing dresses in this style.

miniskirt

London became the center of fashion during the Swinging Sixties, with “mod” and other fashion movements originating from the English capital. English fashion designer Mary Quant popularized the miniskirt and hotpants, which would later become staples in women’s fashion over the next several decades.

The 1970s: Platform Shoes and Bell Bottoms

bell bottoms

The flared pants, called bell bottoms, actually began during the late 1960s but became a fashion staple during the 1970s.

platform shoe
Heels also got higher during this era with the re-introduction of the platform shoes, and hotpants became more popular.

These styles, along with synthetic fabrics in everyday clothing, were prevalent in 1970s fashion. The late fashion designer Halston, and his bevy of Studio 54 fixtures, brought disco trends like Lurex halter tops and wide-bottomed pants to the mainstream.

The 1980s: Leggings, Leather Jackets, and Shoulder Pads

The disco era slowly faded at the beginning of the 1980s, and thus, trends associated with disco gradually disappeared from the fashion radar.

1980s fashion was a complete contrast to the loose, big and flowing fashion trends of the 1970s.

siouxsie and the banshees

The rise of metal rock and punk paved the way for black leather jackets, usually worn over a band T-shirt. When Madonna rose to fame, she brought leather jackets to the mainstream.

leggings

Athletic fashion became prominent during this era, paving the way for the popularity of headbands and leggings.

shoulder pads

The 1980s also saw the new generation of women entering the workforce in large numbers. It sparked the “shoulder pads” phenomenon as a way for women to adopt menswear’s styles in a more feminine fashion. They gave the illusion of broader and less sloping shoulders. Following the fade of the shoulder pads into the early 1990s, they became one of the most derided trends and even the butt of several fashion jokes.

The 1990s: Going Minimalist, Grunge and Plaid Ensembles

woman wearing black dress

Minimalism trended during this decade, with slip dresses, a monochromatic palette and sheer fabrics ruling the fashion runways.

flannel shirt

Nirvana’s successful single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” took grunge from the confines of the Seattle clubs to the mainstream. Thus, grunge became fashionable – flannel shirts and floral prints dominated among the younger crowd.

plaid dress

Clueless became the iconic 1990s movie, and its star Alicia Silverstone made plaid ensembles look chic.