A Brief History of Women’s Party Wear

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Women’s party wear fashion has changed drastically over the years. In the early years of the past century, global and economic events had a direct impact on our styles. The roaring twenties produced loud, frivolous clothing because it was a time of great wealth.

In spite of Great Depression, the 30s party wear was all about luxury. It was either highly feminized (lots of lace, lots of ruffs) or very slinky and sexy with lace and metallics. The rich wanted to look richer, and the poor wanted to look rich! It was all about heightened sophistication. BACKLESS dresses was REALLY important for evening in the 30s. Some may say that it was the most gorgeous evening/party wear EVER!

The 40s could be described with one word: Dramatic.  It was NOT ‘drab’ or boring. Because of the War, fashion fought back! Women wanted to feel strong (hence big shoulders) but they also wanted to feel sexy, not least of all because so many of them took on ‘masculine’ roles in the war. So, big shoulders, but with ‘slinky’ skirts, feminine sweetheart necklines, ‘novelty’ touches (people wanted FUN!) and often colorful, tropical prints.

Unless a very formal affair, party attire was rarely full length in the 50s. This was the era of ‘the cocktail dress’, either full and ‘New Look’, or the slinky ‘sarong dress’ were so popular in the era (a tie-in with the Mid-Century Exotic craze/Tiki Culture, etc).

During 40s and 50s  women found true independence. They earned the right to join the workforce and vote universally in elections. In the subsequent years, women abandoned the constricted, feminine clothing of the previous Industrial Age and opted for more liberal styles.

The 60s was a decade that moved quickly, with THREE defined looks (check out the video above). The first (Early ’60s/Kennedy Era) was very simple, elegant, and minimalist. Think Jackie Kennedy. In the Mid-60s the British Invasion brought the Mary Quant/Carnaby Street/Twiggy/Miniskirt look to the world, and experiments with new textiles like PVC made party wear interesting and ‘mod’. It was ‘cool to be casual’ in the Mid-1960s, and the coolest of them all wore miniskirts to parties. In America, labels like Lilly Pulitzer made it desirable among the wealthy to embrace a ‘casual’ and ‘youthful’ approach to fashion, and it became perfectly acceptable to wear a colorful shift (with fabulous jewelry) to a party. Late 1960s was all about an eclectic mix of nostalgia, Eastern influences, lots of mixed prints, etc. The interest in nostalgia brought the long skirt (maxi) back, although lots of women still wore minis.

From the 60s onwards, the world finally rid itself of all its biases. European empires broke apart and people of mixed races as well as African Americans were given their basic civil rights. It was a time of revolutionary change that ushered in a golden age of self-expression and freedom. Women’s fashion embodied the free-spiritedness of that era as their fashion evolved into miniskirts and mid-riff bearing tops. The cleavage became popular as did the iconic two-piece bikini (thanks to Bond girl, Ursula Andress). With the onset of the disco era in the 70s, women took to fashioning bell-bottoms i.e. pants – another liberating move. The Victorian/Edwardian/Romantic revival was also a HUGE party look.

The ‘Gypsy Peasant’ look (done best by Yves Saint Laurent in 1976) was an ENORMOUS trend that everyone embraced in one way or another. Halston, Bill BLass, Oscar de la Renta, etc, brought about the ‘New American’ look of soft, draping minimalist silk and jersey that was very popular at parties, as it spoke to the chic, self-awareness of the decade. Strapless, one shoulder, backless, etc, became popular in the 70s. And women were finally adopting masculine clothing as well.

With so many innovations condensed to two decades, women’s fashion has been taking a breather since then. Since the 80s, fashion has been about recycling older trends rather than inventing new ones. The 80s, taking a cue from the 70s sanctioned androgynous looks among men and women. As women adopted masculine clothing, men adopted feminine clothing.

There has been one singular event that has shaped the fashion world: the end of Cold War. As the Iron Curtain was lifted, global trade took great strides and fast clothing retailers emerged. Clothing has become more available and affordable. As a result, women are reaping the joys of innumerable fashion choices. Due to the rise of “celebrities” and “influencers,” the look of the decade is defined by these individuals. But individualism and personal style is still valued above all else, thus, it is harder to find era-defining looks anymore.

Special thanks to Amanda Hallay for her invaluable input. Please check out her amazing youtube channel The Ultimate Fashion History.

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