20th century

The 20th century saw the further democratisation of fashion, and the ultimate trend towards freedom of movement. The century began with fashionable women dressed in gowns worn over corsets, in accordance with the dictates of Paris fashion. It ended with eclectic fashion, full of sub-cultures and fashion for the eternally youthful, where jeans and even couture jogging suits are socially acceptable, and sneakers offer both men and women maximum comfort on any occasion. So what happened?

At the start of the 20th century modern women began to demand more freedom of movement. The most progressive wore dress reform movement outfits that did not require a corset. After the First World War hemlines were gradually raised, and women’s fashion became steadily more comfortable. Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel introduced softly draping jersey suits for women. This stretchable fabric was sporty, feminine and thoroughly modern. In the 1930s several French fashion labels even marketed ‘sportswear’. The first trousers for women were regarded with suspicion and were mainly intended as ‘leisure wear’ or ‘home wear’.

The 1950s saw classic femininity return to fashion, along with a certain amount of discomfort in couture clothes. In 1947 Christian Dior unleashed a revolution with his ‘New Look’, which emphasised a narrow waist combined with very full skirts. At the same time, youth fashion was on the rise – ready-to-wear clothes that did not require endless fittings, but could be purchased off-the-peg. The influence of popular youth culture increased, and film stars and idols of the music industry had a growing influence on fashion.

The first fashionable jeans were launched and worn by both sexes in the 1960s and 70s. The impact of this garment was so great and all-encompassing that it led couturier Yves Saint Laurent to wish he had invented jeans. He regarded this garment as the single greatest revolution of the 20th century. The 1960s fashion for mini skirts was another striking phenomenon. Young people had taken over fashion, and couture now became the preserve of an older generation. Henceforth, couturiers would look at high street fashion, and introduced ‘prêt-à-porter’ ranges which could be worn immediately, just like fashion from popular boutiques. In the 1970s and 80s Japanese designers caused a stir on the Paris catwalk, which remained a hotspot, the global stage of the fashion industry.

The arrival of the internet in the 1990s vastly increased the speed with which catwalk designs were copied. In the ultimate form of democratisation, these copies could be bought cheaply on the high street at the major global fashion chains that emerged in the late 20th century.

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