Decade by Decade: A 20th Century Style Guide

Have you ever searched “20th century fashion” on Pinterest or Google?

 Two people in front of an airplane, ca. 1940s

Two people in front of an airplane, ca. 1940s

OK, OK, maybe this is a specific query that you don’t search unless you, like me, are a fashion historian. I was recently working on a project (more on this soon!) and my consultant (the ever brilliant Melissa Fabello) suggested I include a link to a resource that outlines 20th century women’s fashion. I was referencing a lot of fashion history things, and we both thought it would be a good idea for me to give people who might know nothing about fashion history a jumping off point.

And that’s what led me to search “20th century fashion.”

Honestly? I wasn’t loving anything that was already out there. There is a lot of fashion history information floating around, and some of it is really good. But I had something very specific in mind and wasn’t seeing a resource that matched my search criteria.

 Aida Overton Walker, ca. 1910. Aida was a vaudeville performer, actress, singer, dancer, and choreographer.

Aida Overton Walker, ca. 1910. Aida was a vaudeville performer, actress, singer, dancer, and choreographer.

I wanted something that assumed no knowledge of fashion history, and I also wanted a resource that included photographic images, not drawings. (I’ve got nothing against fashion drawings, I just feel that photos give such a nice sense of what clothing looks like on an actual body.)

I also find sources to be very important when it comes to any information on the internet. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but when I click on something on Pinterest and have no idea what I’m seeing, where it comes from, or what its copyright parameters are, I tend to discard that option as useful.

So, in classic overachiever fashion, I went ahead and made my own resource that had everything I was looking for!

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Ta-da! I will admit that “Decade by Decade” is not the most original title (this guide literally goes decade by decade…), but the important bit is it gets the point across quickly. The really important bit? This guide is 100% free!

What this guide is:

  • An overview of 20th century Western women’s fashion, covering the years 1900-1999

What this guide is NOT:

  • A comprehensive, be-all to end-all guide to everything that happened, fashion wise, between the years 1900-1999

I don’t cover menswear. I don’t cover non-Western fashion. I don’t cover the super specific nuances of silhouettes from year to year. I focus primarily on the history, because I believe that’s the more difficult information to distill (and I’ve done that work for you!). You can Google “1950s dresses” and get a pretty good idea of what 1950s dresses look like, but an image isn’t going to examine the relationship between 1940s wartime austerity and 1950s post-war excess.

 I love the elegance in this candid photo, ca. 1948

I love the elegance in this candid photo, ca. 1948

My goal with this guide was to give you enough information to serve as a jumping off point for your own research. I’ve provided a reading list at the end of this guide that includes many of the texts I read for my Masters degree in Dress & Textile Histories, so you know it’s the real deal!

No one book will ever capture the entire 20th century, and no one book should try. This is my small (small) contribution to what I believe is the most interesting field ever, and my hope is this takes a bit of the intimidation factor out of diving into the amazing, engaging, and sometimes wacky world of 20th century fashion.

You can find the guide here.

Enjoy,

Virginia

P.S. There were a lot of amazing images I found in my research that didn’t make it into the final guide, so I’ve peppered them in here! All images are from Flickr: The Commons.

"Hi, I'm Virginia—and I'm a personal stylist."