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Image courtesy of West Midland Police on Flickr

When it comes to fashion, America is the epitome of the fashion transformation that the western world has gone through from the 17thth century until today.  One of the reasons for this is the exciting mash of culture that the country was even back in the day when locals and migrants from all over the western world, meaning European countries, were moving to the states. As we journey through the years we will not only get an understanding of American fashion but also its socioeconomic and political influencers.

1600-1750: This was the time when America was still a colony of England, France, and the Netherlands and hence there was an obvious European influence because of all the new settlers that were sailing inland in large numbers. During this period, the clothing was quite simple and was characterized by the removal of ruffles from necklines and hose on men. The cuts were basic, the patterns and colors were plain and the body was always entirely covered by clothing. Wigs, however, were a necessity, worn by both men and women even though sometimes their costs were as much as the cost of a house.

In paintings from the era, poets and artists were shown wearing dark colors, open collars, unbuttoned gowns or doublets and always carried a messy appearance with a melancholic pose and expression. Men wore shirts made of linen with knit stockings and breeches and extremely full volume sleeves. Women often rocked long dresses in bright colors with broad lace and linen collars and a hooded cloak. These dresses had a higher than before waistline and a close body fit with tight sleeves. At the Sunday ceremonies at the church rich men wore black suits & black shoes topped off by a hat. Women through this era were corset bound and wigs for both men and women only came off at home. And even though the cuts were simple, clothing in this era was generally uncomfortable for the fashion enthusiasts with wooden clogs also being a common sight.

Most rich people had their own dress makers while the pilgrims and the Puritans, who had left the debauchery of Europe’s spike in wealth and moved to America, used to make clothes at home. Soon though, towns like Lowell Massachusetts were formed where factories expanded producing ready-made clothing which was available at stores. This change in the availability of clothes didn’t, however, change the fact that people still only owned a few outfits each. 

1750-1850s: With the passing time, clothing in America become more stylish but most styles were still only affordable for the rich and the income of a family decided the kind of clothes they will wear. Most families still home spun and sewed their own clothes although there was clothing readily available from the mills. In these times the clothes of an American differed more than their British and French counterparts as the weather here was more hot and humid.

Styles worn by wealthy plantation families were much closer the English styles. As the century turned to 1800s a style known as the Regency style became popular which was inspired by the ancient Roman and Greek fashion. This was a slim dress with a basic cut and a lower neckline. Men’s clothes also had a more athletic fit which allowed them ease in labor. One major change that came in the era was the shift of men’s breeches to trousers and the introduction of the lounge suit, which is legendary because it’s still worn till today. This era is known for bringing in more comfortable clothing which allowed more agility. Wigs were also becoming obsolete in the mid-1800s.

Not only these new styles were more suitable to the climate but also to the economic conditions of the people and the jobs they had. As most people worked hard labor and had meager earnings, they wouldn’t have been productive in the restrictive style of the yesteryears.

1850-1900s: Throughout the late 1800s the trend in fashion moved more and more towards romantic styles. Colors became darker, a trend that came from London because of the soot in the city that would collect on the bottom of people’s clothes. This soot came from coal factories and coal powered transportation systems like trams and cars. Wealthy women began to pursue fashion more passionately and designer stores starting displaying exclusive collections. Yet, most people couldn’t follow with the styles of the day due to their humble living.

Men in this era were seen sporting long slim trousers which were balanced by broad full tops and caps. Light weight and breathable cotton was the popular fabric of the time and was worn to outdoor events in form of a knit shirt. As for the evening attire, women moved away from a naturally loose and elegant look to a more glamorous style that had shorter skirts and even tighter corsets.

While the decade before appreciated the natural figure, these women strived for long legs and smaller waists. The short skirt wasn’t however just for fashion purposes but was also more suitable to sit in automobiles and walk great distances. Shoes were also much more comfortable to accommodate walking with little to no heels and were often laced up to the knee. Busy women often cut their hair in a bob and wore pants when they were out to get work done. A revolutionary fashion item created during this time was the blue jeans, an item that has stood the test of time for its versatility, durability, and trendiness.

These changes to clothing made the lives of the American people much more comfortable. Clothes started serving a purpose and people wore them more often for their functionality. Accessories like hats were worn to protect the head and the face rather than as a social symbol and clothing that supported activities like horse riding, swimming and cycling was being produced.

1900s: This was the century when American fashion broke free from Paris’s fashion dictates and started to set its own fashion trends. In the early to mid-19th century, American fashion moved away from constrictive and formal fashions to our modern simplicity. However, some wealthy women were still wearing Victorian styles with a lot of buttons, buckles, and layers. These belonged to the bourgeois class and for special occasions, they even needed help to get dressed. However soon, World War I inspired a change of aesthetics. Women worked in factories for the first time as the men were away and hence they had to dress in industrial clothes. Angular, boxy and androgynous styles became trendy.

Few years into that Hollywood took over as a commandeering factor and changed the pace of fashion forever. 1920’s were famous for the flapper girl fashion where boxy dresses were slightly altered to provide a more romantic shirt by adding sparkles and ruffles. The sense of jubilance at the end of the First World War promoted youth, flirtatiousness, and energy in fashion. The hair style was often short and the heads were often adorned with the iconic cloche hat of the time. This continued to some extent as more acceptance of short hemlines, trousers and overalls was spread. In men’s, fashion pastel colors, bow ties and flannel jackets were the rage.

Post World War II in the 50s Hollywood styles became very main stream which even today, stands as a huge influence. The hourglass silhouette rose to popularity again and brightly colored dresses falling below the knee were favored. Soon enough 1960’s brought the age of counter culture where young men and women did away with the sophisticated style of the decade before and accepted unisex clothing like denim jeans and leather jackets. Both fashion and social norms were challenged in these years with mod fashion that comprised of bright geometric patterns and flashy colors.


Soon the hippie culture emerged in California and spread all over the country from the late 60s to the 70s with natural prints like flowers, rainbows and tie and dye being the trend. The hippies rebelled against consumerism and embraced handmade clothing and accessories. Maxi skirts, bell-bottomed jeans and bell sleeves were often worn. The eighties and the 90s were in stark contrast of these years. The 80’s Madonna inspired fashion was flashy, creative and loud. Funky cuts, chunky designs like off shoulder tops and leotards were selling like hot cakes among women and for men, embroidered vests were a new sight. Layering clothes was a practice that was applied with a new twist as separates were worn to make an outfit. Mini-skirts were paired with leggings, tight fit tops, and flashy sweat shirts. Then came the moody grungy style of the 90s, where a sort of an anti-80s thing happened. Relaxed jeans, softer colors and dark jackets were adopted and grungy distressed jeans with dark colored t shirts were also trendy, chunky black boots, spiky hair and net stockings were fashionable inspired by punk and alternative music scenes. Lastly, the character of Rachel from friends also inspired a lot of women’s style and it also began the trend of the new millennium with highlighted hair and wide legged jeans that were iconic of the 2000s.