The only thing that is constant in fashion is change. Although clothing started as a basic human necessity, over time it has become an art form, an expression of status, and also a huge business. In fact, what we know as fashion trends are actually expressions of innovation, attempts to open new business niches more related to aesthetics than solving problems. But the results are always unknown because marketing and advertising can get them far, but decision-making is always in buyers’ hands. So what have the last 70 years of innovation left us with?
Read on as we take a brief tour through seven decades of fashion, fashion, and more fashion.
Fashion is a social expression with no words
Before we start our time travel through the different moments of fashion, it is important to make a statement and add some context to understand the successive revolutions over the years.
Fashion is a social expression that takes quotidian elements and turns them into garments. Whether it is to break bonds with previous generations or as a way to show youth has no limits; there is always an element of rupture in fashion trends. The idea of novelty has, by definition, to be different from everything that has been done in the past.
Big, drastic fashion changes are always fueled by other cultural expressions such as music. The clothing an artist wears when on stage has a massive impact on his or her followers and hence helps empower certain trends, putting them on the map for millions.
Fashion in the 50’s, classics are born
Most of the pieces we now call “timeless” are actually 50s fashion. The world was coming out of its darkest time yet, WWII, and slowly rebuilding. The cultural and fashion world had shifted from almighty Europe (devastated during the war) to the rising star of North America, The USA.
Although it was a very conservative time of strict suits for men and perfect skirts for women, there was room for growth, improvisation, and a little rebellion too. In fact, youth was following the steps of young stars like Elvis Presley and James Dean after his iconic performance in Rebel without a cause (1955). Also, by this time, the Beat literary movement, with writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and many others were preaching freedom as a way of life.
This freedom was embodied in pieces that went on to become fashion icons like leather jackets, jeans, hats, mini-skirts, and the immortal plain white t-shirt. The average Joe would wear casual pants and a shirt, but the truly rebellious were going for leather jackets and jeans. Yes, jeans, something we wear daily nowadays, were an expression of rebellion and your undying love for rock and roll.
Fashion, at that time, meant something very important: a taste of freedom.
Hey, life in Technicolor! Welcome to the bold 60’s
While the 50s were the beginning of rock n roll and the rebellious youth that sang it, the sixties took everything to another dimension. The sixties were, perhaps, the boldest of all the decades we are going to go through.
Color television made a big difference in the life of most people. As usual, the small screen was the place to study the cool people. If you saw them wearing a purple shirt, that stuck to your mind and then next time you went shopping, you might go on to look for a purple shirt too.
The groovy era echoed on LSD, a new drug that made people hallucinate in bright colors. This had a huge effect on music, culture, and fashion. The Beatles are a great example of the 60’s transformation with the arrival of psychedelics. It is an interesting exercise following how the Fab Four mutated from the all-same tight-suits to the psychedelic long-shirts and mint-green pants.
Designers & Clothing
The first big change in terms of clothing came with the acceptance of jeans as daily wear. They became a symbol and new variations appeared on the market. High-waist pants were no longer fashionable. It was all about showing skin, and the low-waist pants became the perfect companion for the just-born hippie movement.
The big European designers echoed in this upcoming fashion and created the pieces to define a generation. People like Yves Saint Laurent, Mary Quaint, Pierre Cardin, and Paco Rabanne made their names in this era. Also, thrift shops, recycled war clothes, and heavily accessorized denim and leather were not strange to see. Peace symbols, long hairs, and loud music were the 60’s revolution. For a very good glimpse at what hippies were wearing back then, you can watch any Woodstock footage from 1969, it was the pinnacle of an era, the ultimate expression of freedom.
Going one step beyond? Yeah, it’s the 70’s
1970 came along and The Beatles split up. It was the end of a dream and suddenly, the hippie movement deteriorated. Some of the freedom flags turned into suits but, as usual, the world kept turning madly.
The 70’ saw two different trends work their way to stardom in parallel lines. Unlike previous decades in which there was one way to be cool, the seventies featured culture and counter-culture in parallel. Yes, we are speaking of punk and disco.
Few movies are more of a ground-breaking fashion statement than Saturday night fever (1977). The image of John Travolta was not only the American Dream story of the succeeding young dancer but also the idea that it’s ok for men to love fashion too. He was the icon of a generation of male dancers on heels wearing sophisticated designer clothes made with fine fabrics. In previous decades (and later decades too) the idea of a man wearing tight clothes was, at least, provocative. Disco swept that out of people’s consciousness and everything was allowed; the bigger, the flashier, the more provocative, the better for disco culture. Designers like Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein got big during the disco era.
Parallel to the American Dream walking down the streets of New York, in England a woman by the name of Vivienne Westwood opened up a shop to sell clothes to a new urban tribe: the punks. In a world of big dresses, oxford jeans, and colorful clothes, punks wore black. In fact, the story of how the Sex Pistols were formed has a lot to do with fashion. They were looking for a singer and a man entered the pub with a white, ripped shirt reading “I hate Pink Floyd”. This was close to saying something bad about the queen… on a t-shirt!
That was the angry, take-no-prisoners approach of punk rock and it echoed all over the clothing. Long gone were colors and “peace & love”. Instead of acoustic-strumming to The Mamas and the Papas, teenagers were adopting names such as Johnny Rotten. From punk we still have many things like leather, spikes, wearing all black, chains, and beyond it all the attitude to stand up against established fashion with a DIY approach. We’ll see this again somehow in the early nineties.
No rules at all? Welcome to the neon 80’s
If the seventies took everything one step further, the 80’s just broke the mold and lost the compass. There were absolutely no rules to the eighties as long as it was big, loud, fast, neon fluo, and dangerous. The 70’s taught the world that multiple styles could co-exist and the 80’s took that to the next level.
One of the ideas behind pop art was that it should be replicated to the extreme and sold in supermarkets. A man like Andy Warhol who had started in the 1960s (the classic Marilyn Monroe stencil in different colors) saw his influence grow immensely. Artists like Madonna took this concept of mass replication and set out on a quest to conquer the world. The pop movement involved artists, musicians, writers, designers, athletes, and much more.
Such was their passion for growing into mass-production that fashion echoed on it. For example, designer clothes from the seventies that took pride in their uniqueness and exotic materials gave way to fitness and sports clothing. Movies like Flashdance introduced the idea that it was cool to wear leggings and Lycra with training shoes. Brands like Reebok, Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and more started designing and selling clothes to normal people instead of athletes only. Big music icons like Michael Jackson, Boy George, and Madonna took this to the stage. Think of Cindy Lauper and Don Johnson; that was the color palette chosen by Kenzo, Jean Muir, Ungaro, Zandra Rhodes, and the established Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood, and Ralph Lauren among many others.
The idea behind it was very simple: making art for the masses. Did they succeed? I guess so.
Darkness and Goth
While arguably Disco turned into Pop and high platform shoes turned into Adidas, punk didn’t go away. Furthermore, those who followed the initial angst of the movement and witnessed its fall from grace, got into the very beginning of techno and all the BDSM, chains, and leather went on to nurture the upcoming gothic scene and metal bands. Dr. Martens and checkered pants gave way to platforms and all-black outfits. Although it had its inception in the eighties, it will explode later on.
Back to basics with the 90’s
It is fair to say fashion movements rise and fall is cyclic as much as music or any other art form. It is cyclic in the sense that it recycles past glories and gives birth to new movements made with bits and pieces from past times. Such was the case of the 90s.
Grunge, recycled angst
In 1991 three ground-breaking, world-changing records came out: Nevermind (Nirvana), Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Ten (Pearl Jam). These compositions came from an angry generation coming from broken homes, low salaries, and the early stages of the cracking of the American Dream (a la Tony Manero style).
Grunge came from Seattle, a place up north in the USA surrounded by woods and with a very cold climate. Lumber jackets, big shoes, and old jeans dominated the scene. One of the main statements of grunge fashion was taking a U-turn back to simplicity. Gone were the colorful oversized suits from the last decade; bands were hitting the stage on the same clothes they did grocery shopping every morning.
The angst was there, and the simplicity too.
On the other side of the country and the spectrum, and thanks to artists like 2Pac, Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, and others, Hip Hop finally made it to the mainstream. It didn’t come alone, it brought with it a whole new fashion statement: over-sized clothes. Rappers wore baggy pants, huge colorful t-shirts, and big Nike shoes.
The millennium was the moment that everything got mixed up. Pop stars starting taking from the hip hop scene. All of the sudden, tight clothes were back in the game with the appearance of retro-rock. Bands like The Strokes, The Jets, The White Stripes, and many more made room for thrift shop clothes and rescued 70’s pieces.
From the 2000’s to the present days, it is fair to say that we can speak about micro-trends rather than macro-trends. Globalization and the appearance of the internet made way for ancient cultures from Asia to have an influence over the western world. You wouldn’t be surprised if someone practices yoga today, but back then it was quite a discovery. Slow and steady, Asian pieces started making their way into the dressing-culture of the world.
Waiting for the future
Whatever the future brings is completely unknown. We can make predictions but reality always outdoes even the wildest dreams. The birth of styles like athleisure show how much the initial idea of fashion as a way of dressing humans for comfort, rather than aesthetics is making a huge come back.
Humankind is making an interesting turn into taking better care of the environment and fashion echoes on that. If there is a major trend that dominates most micro-trends nowadays and that might continue to shape the world is that of being comfortable wearing clothes with low environmental impact.
We’ll have to wait and see what the future brings, but until then, enjoy living in this age of mixed styles and freedom of choice!