Vintage Dresses – Silhouettes Over the Decades

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The following post is by Penny Lecomber, the owner and editor of Penny Lane. I was so impressed by her use of vintage in her every day wardrobe, that I asked her to write a guest post for me. Enjoy!

Hello! My name is Penny and I have a little blog called Penny Lane,
but today I’m going to be doing a guest post here on Debutante
Clothing. Like most (or all?!) of you reading this, I am a vintage
lover, so I decided to do a post about the evolution of the silhouette
from the 1920s to the 1980s, because all of us have a different era
that is our favourite, and in this post everybody gets a taste of what
they love most!



Clothing changed with women’s changing roles in modern society,
particularly with the idea of new fashion. Women got the vote in 1920
and were entering the workforce in record numbers so the dresses
evolved into a silhouette that now sported shorter skirts with pleats,
gathers, or slits to allow motion to rule women’s fashion for the
first time in history.

The Feminine Liberation movement had a very strong effect on women’s
fashions. Most importantly, the confining corset was discarded,
throwing away the hourglass shape and creating a more linear
silhouette. For the first time in centuries, women’s legs were seen
with hemlines rising to the knee and dresses became more fitted. A
more masculine look became popular, including flattened breasts and
hips, short hairstyles such as the bob cut.



The lighthearted, forward-looking attitude and fashions of the late
1920s lingered through most of 1930, but by the end of that year the
effects of the Great Depression began to affect the public, and a more
conservative approach to fashion displaced that of the 1920s. For
women, skirts became longer and the waist-line was returned up to its
normal position in an attempt to bring the silhouette back to the
traditional “womanly” look.
Other aspects of fashion from the 1920s took longer to phase out.
Cloche hats remained popular until about 1933 while short hair
remained popular for many women until late in the 1930s. Feminine
curves were highlighted in the 1930s through the use of the bias-cut
in dresses. Madeline Vionnet was the innovator of the bias-cut and
used this method to create sculptural dresses that molded and shaped
over the body’s contours as it draped the female form.



Wartime austerity lead to restrictions on the number of new clothes
that people bought and the amount of fabric that clothing
manufacturers could use. In Britain, clothing was strictly rationed,
and the Board of Trade issued regulations for “Utility Clothes” in
1941, and in America the War Production Board issued its Regulation
L85 in 1942, specifying restrictions for every item of women’s

Most women wore skirts at or near knee-length, with simply-cut blouses
or shirts and square-shouldered jackets. Popular magazines and pattern
companies advised women on how to remake men’s suits into smart
outfits, since the men were in uniform and the cloth would otherwise
sit unused. The 40’s silhouette is quite like the 30’s with the nipped
in waist, but this time the shoulders are more of a square shape due
to the blazers.



The Second World War left women craving for glamour, style and swathes
of fabric where scraps of material had once existed.When the French
fashion houses reopened after World War II, Christian Dior introduced
the “New Look” silhouette, with a very small waist and big skirts.
Because war restrictions on textiles ceased, the New Look silhouette
included longer skirts, either full or fitted. Emphasis on the waist
and soft shoulder lines also marked Dior’s influence at this time.
Young women started to look less like their mothers in the latter part
of the fifties. Brightly patterned dresses with tight waists and wide
skirts were popular. This style was suited to Rock’n’roll dancing. For
Rock’n’roll and Jive dancing, the circle skirt, which swirled up
reflecting the energy of the dance, was also highly fashionable.



Fashions in the early years of the decade reflected the elegance of
the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. In addition to the pillbox hat
women wore suits, usually in pastel colours, with short boxy jackets,
and oversized buttons. Simple, geometric dresses, known as shifts,
were also in style. For evening wear, full-skirted ballgowns were
worn. These often had a low décolletage and had close-fitting waists.

For casual wear, capri trousers were the fashion for women and girls.
After designer Mary Quant introduced the mini-skirt in 1964, fashions
of the 1960s were changed forever. The mini dress was usually A-line
in shape or a sleeveless shift and was popularised by models of the
time including Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Hemlines kept rising until
by 1968, they had reached well- above mid-thigh and were called
micro-minis. The silhouette was quite like the 20’s in regards to the
boyish, linear shape, but this time the skirt length was much, much



The decade began with a continuation of the hippie look from the
1960s. By the mid-Seventies, as the economy improved, silhouettes
narrowed, and hemlines dropped again from mini skirt to just below the
knee, and later to midi (mid-calf length) and then to maxi (floor
length). The 70’s silhouette was quite a mix of all previous decades
but with small changes such as ruffled edges or puffed cuffs.
Fashion influences were peasant clothing, such as blouses with laces
or off-the-shoulder necklines, inspired by those worn in the 17th
century. Yves St Laurent introduced the peasant look in 1976, and it
became very influential. Clothing became very unstructured and fluid
at this point. Embroidered clothing, either self-made or imported from
Mexico or India also enjoyed favour. Punks were first seen in the
70’s, and a lot of people were also into ‘disco’ fashion.



The 80s saw the arrival of ‘Power Dressing’ and with it came shoulder
pads. The reason behind the sudden popularity of shoulderpads for
women in the 1980s may be that women in the workplace were no longer
unusual, and wanted to “power dress” to show that they were the equals
of men at the office. There was quite a few styles and silhouettes
that were re-visited in the 80’s; there was quite a lot of 50’s style
dresses and the skirt suit of the 40’s was back, but this time the
shoulder pads were huge!
In the 1980s, rising pop star Madonna proved to be very influential to
female fashions. In her Like a Virgin phase, millions of teenage girls
emulated her fashion example that included brassieres worn as
outerwear, huge crucifix jewellery, lace gloves and tulle skirts.
Short, tight Lycra or leather mini-skirts and tubular dresses were
also worn, as were cropped, bolero-style jackets.

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1 penny { 12.10.08 at 1:41 pm }

thank you so much sandra for letting me do this! you’re a star!!! xxx

2 Couture Carrie { 12.11.08 at 9:56 am }

What a wonderful history! Love the photos too -excellent post!

3 Jennifer { 12.13.08 at 12:33 pm }

I love vintage fashion, these dress would look so great with my vintage rhinestone flower belts.

4 Trisch { 12.14.08 at 4:52 pm }

What a well written chronology of silhouettes. I love it! Nice Job.

5 violetville { 12.15.08 at 6:55 am }

Love this post! The photos are great ~ I’m so enamored with the 30’s pic!

6 Amy-Jo Tatum/Bride Chic { 12.15.08 at 2:53 pm }

A great historical perspective of 2oth century fashion

7 Momo { 12.17.08 at 12:47 am }

Love 20s fashion. Androgyny is the way to go, men and women alike.

8 vintage lover { 03.30.09 at 12:27 pm }

I don’t see INK all over any of these period women, what’s with all the alleged pin up models tattoed from head to toe these days? What a joke!!!

9 melissa { 04.25.10 at 10:41 am }

my name is melissa and i was wondering if you know of anywhere that sells vintage 1942 dresses. my cousin is getting married and this is her theme so all the bridesmaids are wearing these dresses. if you could give me some info that would be great.

10 Sandra { 04.26.10 at 2:01 pm }

I don’t know how specific your cousin was about the year, but 1940s dress in general share common features. I would start by doing a search for 1940s dresses on trustworthy sellers websites. My top three would be,, and They regularly have wedding worthy 1940s dresses in stock.

11 vintage fan { 01.18.11 at 3:15 am }

I love the look of 1960s and 1970s. It reminds me of fairy tales, freedom and femininity.

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