The Party Dress: A Tour through the Ages

By Elisa Spyker

Aparty is a special opportunity to cast off our normal, humdrum clothes for something with style, elegance and plenty of personality. While it is easy to pick up an inexpensive dress online or at a number of clothing stores, vintage will always be a good choice for those who prefer something classy and timeless. Each decade had a distinct silhouette which can be easily adopted and made your own, whether it be stiff and structured or free-flowing and feminine.

“The party dress became a way to show off your fashion sense while you socialized and was neither too casual nor too formal.”

The idea of a dress worn specifically for a single social event is a relatively new concept. Before the 20th century, most women had only a few full outfits that were worn regularly and carefully maintained. Even wealthy women would only have two or three outfits suitable for special occasions. With the advent of ready to wear fashions sold at department stores, it became easier to buy dresses at accessible prices, and it became commonplace to buy a new one for each event in your calendar. The party dress became a way to show off your fashion sense while you socialized and was neither too casual nor too formal.

A century ago, women’s fashion was undergoing a huge shift. It had moved away from the rigid, starched and frilly ensembles of the 19th century to a more liberated, natural form. Inspired by classic shapes and Eastern embellishments, designers were using fabric to drape over the body instead of reshaping it. Long, flared tunics layered over simple, straight dresses were easy to wear and freed women from the restricted movement of heavy bustles and crinolines.

This liberation of the female form continued enthusiastically into the 1920s, when undergarments became even less restrictive and allowed for more movement. The androgynous, straight cut dresses were elaborately covered in beads, fringe, and layers of flounces, particularly to accentuate the body while dancing. Skirts were commonly just below the knee and created scandal until it was widely adopted by all levels of society.

While the fashions of the 1920s were straight and hid female curves, the 1930s returned to a more body conscious look achieved by the technique of bias cutting. Usually, a dress is cut from the straight grain of fabric, but bias cut dresses are cut diagonally to the straight grain, resulting in a body-skimming drape that perfectly accentuates the natural body form. Silk velvet and heavy crepe satin called “liquid satin” were perfect for this look. When you hear the term “Old Hollywood Glamour,” usually this is the era referred to.

The 1940s shifted women’s fashion yet again, as the second World War brought “austerity regulations” that rationed materials available for purchase to a finite amount. This led to the “Make Do and Mend” mantra which led people to revamp clothing they already had, using sheets or curtains to make new items or buying precious small amounts of fabric and doing the best they can with the few yards they were allotted. The silhouette slimmed down with leg hugging skirts and tailored tops with much accentuation to the shoulders. Although rations cut back on the amount of fabric used, there were no rations on beads, sequins or other embellishments, so this became a very popular way to glam up an otherwise ordinary dress.

The end of the war greatly influenced the fashion of the 1950s. Conservative gender roles returned and the body was once again returned to a rigid, wasp waist shape, stiffly uplifted chests and voluminous skirts fluffed out with crinolines. Creative combinations of textures and interesting methods of pleating are typical of these gowns. This ultra feminine, prim and proper look dominated the decade and has become one of the most popular eras for vintage clothing lovers.

Like the 1920s, women of the 1960s once again cast off the stuffy, restrictive styles of the previous decade and adopted a more comfortable and practical approach to clothing. The A-line shift dress was simple and streamlined and could be heavily embellished or not at all. The subcultures of the 60s drew heavily from pop art, Eastern motifs and Bohemian ideology, culminating in the celebrated and widely recycled “hippie” look.

The 1970s continued the natural, layered earthy look, with maxi dresses made of layers of floaty, printed chiffon in muted colors with empire waists and billowy sleeves. The free feeling nature of these dresses and caftans was usually accompanied by a total lack of undergarments. The trend of flowing fabrics continued through the disco craze but they tended to lose the natural, earthy feel and became more brightly colored and embellished with sparkly elements to catch the light.

Bright colors, flashy embellishments and metallic fabrics continued into the 1980s, where the general consensus is “more is better.” The American economy was booming and many women had successful careers, with incomes rivaling their male counterparts. “Power dressing” brought much accentuation to the shoulders in particular, with severe, top-heavy silhouettes achieved with large, overstuffed shoulder pads.

Fashion trends come and go and many of us can look at an old dress and think, “Who would ever wear that?” But as we see over and over throughout time, some styles really never go completely out. Every runway show borrows something from the past, remade and renewed for the modern woman. Taking a vintage look and making it your own is a fabulous way to create something uniquely timeless for your next party.

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