Big, Small, Short and Long: A Brief History of Fashionable Silhouettes

‘Fashion consists only in extremes […] frivolity and death.’

‘Does fashion die […] because it can no longer keep up the tempo?’

Walter Benjamin – The Arcades Project

The fashion system relies on a never-ending cycle of newness, spectacle, emulation and death. This is how fashion works – without the invention of new, or the recycling of previous styles, the fashion industry would not survive.

Many theorists have tried to make sense of the fashion system. Thorstein Veblen believed that once commodities had been purchased, consumers would move on to the next trend, unsatisfied and desiring more goods which would elevate their social standing. Products, although not always functional, nor of the best quality, could be marketed in such a way that consumers would believe it was an exclusive status symbol. Exclusivity = a higher price.

Veblen also believed that the middle-classes imitated the fashions of the upper-classes. Once fashion had disseminated all the way down to the working-classes, by that point, the upper-classes had already adopted another fashion to differentiate themselves from the others. This, as Veblen believed, caused an exhausting, never-ending cycle of fashionable change.

Walter Benjamin also took notice of this rapid changing of fashion, believing that trends were not progressing in a linear pattern, but were often looking back, to look forward. To be ahead of the game was of most importance. For one fashion to live, another dies, with the previous generation scorning past fashions until they were deemed romantic and nostalgic. Ever looked back at what you wore ten years ago and think you looked ridiculous? James Laver highlighted these feelings towards historical dress, believing that tastes and attitudes towards past and future fashions alter over time.

There are many reasons as to why sociologists, anthropologists, fashion historians, and economists believe fashion is a major part of both our cultural and material history. As an expression of identity, to signify class, a political statement, to conform or stand out – whether you believe you are involved in fashion – there is a conscious decision involved as to how to adorn ones’ self with clothing.

So – why do silhouettes change, and why do they keep coming back ‘into fashion?’ There are many factors as to why this happens – social, economic, and political change is often a key indicator as to why fashions suddenly transform, sometimes abruptly.

By briefly explaining and identifying key silhouettes over a period of 150 years, I hope to explain and demonstrate to you, the reader, how people have kept up with the latest fashions – or have chosen to abandon them altogether. I hope that this will show how fashion is part of a wider culture, encouraging you to realise how fashion is an integral and immediate form of communication.

(I focus on predominantly upper-class, European fashions. This will give explanation as to why assumptions should not be made about the entire dress habits of a whole society at any given period.)

18th Century 

Fashion during the 18th century revolved around the life and traditions of the Royal Court. This was the time for enormous dresses and opulent designs. For formal occasions, mantuas were worn at the start of the 18th century. The shape of these gowns were created by several layers of hoop petticoats to retain the large shape of the skirt. Gowns were worn with stomachers, triangular, v-shaped panels worn at the front of the gown, decorated with elaborate embroidery finished in Rococo styles. Mantuas were reserved exclusively for the aristocracy, remaining popular until the 1750’s, until considered old-fashioned.

1740 mantua

T.260&A-1969. Mantua. Embroidered silk with coloured silk and silver thread. c1740-45. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The robe à la francaise or sack back gown dominated 18th century dress. You can identify the robe à la francaise by the back box pleating falling along the top of the spine to the bottom of the hem, with broad skirts supported by panniers, worn underneath the garment. They were created with printed silks, often purchased from France, the country leading the way in the latest fashions. Prints were often decorated with floral motifs, ruffles and fringing used to decorate the gowns. This style remained popular from 1720 to 1780.

Left Image: 2009.300.903a, b. Robe à la Française. Silk and cotton. c1760-70. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Right Image: 1995.235a, b. Robe à la Française. Silk and linen. c1740’s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

There were many variations of the robe à la francaise, notably both the robe à l’anglaise and robe à la polonaise. During the 1770′,s the robe à l’anglaise was created due to the desire for a closer fitting robe, without the back pleats that epitomised the robe à la francaise. The polonaise gown, was characterised by ruffled fabric gathered up into three puffs of rolled fabric suspended and held in place at the back of the dress. Both gowns were often worn with hip cushions rather than hoop skirts. Cotton fabrics from India were extremely popular during this period, causing tension for silk manufacturers in Europe.

Left Image: 2009.300.647. Robe à l’Anglaise. Cotton, baleen. c1785-95. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Right Image: 2014.138a, b. Robe à l’Anglaise. Silk and metal. c1747, altered 1770’s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

1780 polonaise

1970.87a, b. Robe à la Polonaise. Silk. c1780-85. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The arrival of the French Revolution saw a dramatic preference for conservative dress towards the end of the 18th century. References to both Greek and Roman fashion and architecture marked a new era for dress. Cotton muslin from India became extremely popular, in shades of ivory and cream. Chemise gowns were delicate and appeared corsetless, bodices worn in their replacement. Waistlines were higher and epitomised the clean empire line styles worn during this time, in comparison to the elaborate and conspicuous dress worn during the decades before.

1790s dress

1998.269. Silk dress. c1790’s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

19th Century 

Neo-classical dress continued to be worn up until the early 1820’s. Dress remained columnar with the waistline appearing just below the bust, until by the early 1820’s, the waistline began sliding back down the body. Chemise gowns were now adorned with embroidery, prints, and created with various coloured fabrics, with skirts growing subtly wider. Sleeves began to balloon, and corsets were soon making a comeback.

1805 dress

T.673-1913. Muslin dress. Muslin, embroidered with cotton and silver thread, lined with linen, hand-sewn. c1805-1810. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Left Image: T.156-1962. Evening dress. Silk satin, trimmed with applied silk satin and bobbin lace. c1820-1823. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Right Image: T.175-1922. Evening dress. Machine made silk net, embroidered with silk, trimmed with satin decoration, wired epaulettes, hand-sewn. c1818. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Industrial Revolution, was responsible for producing an enormous cotton industry throughout the north of England. Trade throughout the world was expanding rapidly, and the invention and experimentation with dye pigments, created shades of vivid and deep purples, reds and blues, although many dyes contained, and still do, hold traces of arsenic.

By 1830 sleeves fanned out, creating the illusion of a smaller waistline. These were often referred to as ‘mutton’ sleeves. By the 1940’s deep collar necklines called ‘berthas’ also became fashionable. But by the 1840-50’s, sleeves shrunk, to make way for the swelling size of the crinoline skirt. The Victorian fascination with nature very much influenced the design prints on dresses, floral motifs usually the preference. It was during the Victorian era when mourning dress was also adopted. The colour black was worn for an extended period of time after the death of a partner, a relation, or royal family member, occurred. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria famously wore black for the rest of her life.

1830 cotton

T.51-1934. Dress. Cotton muslin with wool embroidery, silk satin and wadded rouleaux. c1830. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

1830 day dress sleeves

T.168&A-1915. Day dress. Printed cotton. c1830-34. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

1842 dress

2009.300.1007. Ball gown. Silk and Cotton. c1842. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

1845 mourning dress

2009.300.7703. Silk mourning dress. c1845. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The crinoline was first structured by the use of several underskirts held together, padded by horsehair and linens. Skirts became wider and wider – but layers became heavier. Therefore, due to technological advancements within the textile industry, allowing the elongation of steel, the cage crinoline was created by 1856-58. Steel cage crinolines were much lighter, with five million crinolines produced alone during 1860. But as fashions change, crinolines began to move from the circular and round cage, to the bell shaped structure, which would indicate another immanent fashion transformation – a preference to emphasise the posterior of wearer – created by the invention of the bustle back.

Left Image: C.I.43.7.2a, b. Dress. c1860–61. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Right Image: C.I.37.46.7a, b. Silk dress. c1860–64. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

1860 crinoline

T.150-1986. Cage Crinoline. Spring steel, woven wool, linen, lined with cotton, and brass. c1860-1865. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

By 1869 the bustle became all the rage. First worn with rear cushions, the bustle created the silhouette of a large behind and smooth front. It drew attention to the rear; as the V&A states:

‘bustles were made in a variety of fabrics, including silk, cashmere, flannel, brightly printed cottons and horsehair. They were often trimmed with lace. Some were constructed almost entirely of steel, others resembled colourful cushions. They could be stuffed with horsehair, down and even straw to achieve the desired fullness.’  (V&A,

Briefly the bustle fell out of favour during the 1870’s – silhouettes were almost becoming slender. But then, the bustle reappeared during the 1880’s, in a more extreme and bigger-than-before style. Ruffles and tassels helped to exaggerate the fullness of the bustle back.

Left Image:AC9167 94-35AB. Worth evening dress. c1870. Purple and pale purple silk faille set of bodice and skirt; silk lace and purple velvet bows at neck and cuffs; apron-shaped overskirt with purple silk fringe at front; skirt with three flounces of self-fabric and velvet placed alternately. The KCI Online Archives, Kyoto.

Right Image: T.131C-1919. The New Phantom Bustle. Steel wires and cotton tapes. c1887-9. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

During this period, Charles Frederick Worth, an English designer, had also transformed fashion. In 1858 he opened his first salon in Paris, and he is still regarded as the first couturier who operated his business in such a manner, that it still resembles the traditions of the couture system today. The demand for luxury goods and patronage from the French Empress quickly made Worth an international name. Many couturiers, Worth, Paquin, Pingat, and Doucet were establishing couture businesses. They were firmly instituting the tradition of haute couture and the legacy of France’s association and dominance over the creation of fashionable dress, by producing some of the most beautiful designs during the era of the Belle Epoque.

1882 worth dress

2009.300.635a, b. Worth dress. c1882. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Left Image: C.I.69.33.12a–c. Silk dress, Emile Pingat. c1864. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Right Image: 2009.300.2115a, b. House of Paquin gown. c1895. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

20th Century 

The 20th century was dominated by the ‘S’ curve silhouette. Created by the use of a tightly bound corset which pushed the bust up and out so the body would lean forward, whilst the hips were pushed backwards. Dresses were often adorned with patterns and colours associated with the Art Nouveau movement. Silhouettes become more slender and tubular, particularly as the dress of the early 19th century was revived, incorporating those empire lines and neo-classical references, with the addition of draped fabrics around the legs. Puffed out chests, emphasised by ruffled blouses, were also considered fashionable.

Left Image: C.I.37.44.1. Evening dress. Sequins and silk. c1902. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Right Image: T.107-1939. Day dress. Cotton lawn, with handmade lace insertions and cotton crocheted flowers. c1904. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Left Image: 977.158.1. Worth evening dress. silk, cotton, metallic threads, glass. c1910. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Right Image: 2009.300.3355. Worth Evening dress. Silk and metal. c1910. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The ‘S’ curve remained popular until the arrival of a certain couturier, Paul Poiret, began the modern transformation of 20th century dress.

Towards of the 19th century, dress reformists argued that the corset was unsafe and detrimental to the health and physical freedom of Western females. From as early as 1906, inspired by design elements from the East, Poiret began to experiment with Oriental styles, ditching the corset and emphasising the waist through wrap belts inspired by Japanese dress. He created beautiful fabrics inspired by the middle-east and antique Renaissance textiles. English designer Lucile incorporated lingerie-style dressing into her designs, using delicate laces and silks previously allocated to nightwear.

Left Image: AC2388 79-20. Paul Poiret evening gown. Beige silk satin dress with silk tulle overdress; embroidery of polychrome beads and gold thread; gold tulle peplum. c1910. The KCI Online Archives, Kyoto.

Right Image: T.35-1960. Lucile evening dress. Materials and Techniques:Silk, chiffon, satin, embroidered and appliqued metal thread. c1912. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

World War One seemed to change everything. Society was turned on its head – the involvement of women working whilst men left their homes to fight in the war transformed Edwardian fashion. The 1920’s could not ignore the presence of women in the social sphere; female suffrage was progressing, and by 1928 all women over the age of 21 could vote in the UK.

1927 chanel ensembles

1984.28a-c, Chanel ensemble (middle). Silk, wool, metal. c1927. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The 1920’s were dominated by dancing, music, and the garconne look: sporty, modern, streamlined and minimalist. Couturiers such as Jean Patou and Chanel were creating garments that finished just below the knee, with sequin dresses decorated with Art Deco scalloping popular for wear in the evening. The waistline was lowered and hung loosely; the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen resulted in a desire for everything Egyptian. Architecture, interior decoration, and both Cubist and Modernist artworks were influencing the designs of dress. The slender, active woman became the ideal.

1925 dress

2009.300.1351. Evening dress. Silk. c1925. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The 1930’s marks the period where I end our journey into the history of fashionable silhouettes. The interwar years are crucial time because they offer the chance to study society both after, and consequently, before war. After the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and the successive Great Depression, dress became sober – hemlines returning to floor and ankle length; a return to romantic femininity. The frivolity of the 1920’s was over.

The silhouette of the 1930’s became more sophisticated; waistlines began just below the ribcage, with the bias-cut dominating the style of the decade. Dresses could be created by chiffons for the day with boxy jackets with broad shoulders, created by Schiaparelli, but for the evening, figure contouring (but without restricting) silk bias gowns created by Madeleine Vionnet were slim and slender. The arrival of the Talkies also allowed American designs such as Adrian and Edith Head to dress Hollywood stars in jaw-dropping siren dresses that captured the desires of a mass audience, who flocked to the cinemas.

Left Image: 1974.338.2. Schiaparelli jackets. Synthetics. c1938. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Right Image: 2009.300.1166a, b. Schiaparelli dress. Silk, plastic and metal. c1938. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

vionnet 1932 silk dress

1982.422.8. Madeleine Vionnet. Silk. c1932. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

During the foreboding build-up towards the beginning of World War Two, dress was pared down, as if many knew what was to come. It was only after years of fabric rationing, tailored skirt suit, and even the occasional pair of slacks, did Dior bring back the slender waist and wide skirt, a inspired by again by a revival previous styles seen during the previous century. After that, the 60’s were dominated rising hems again, in the form of Mary Quant’s miniskirts.

The never-ending recycling of fashionable silhouettes continues.


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