The evolution of fashion over the last few decades
February 6, 2021 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Fashion history is a casual interest of mine. I’ve never studied it systematically, but just by viewing lots of pictures, I’ve picked up enough knowledge to be able to fairly accurately identify when an item of American or European women’s clothing was created, to the decade. E.g., if I see an item of women’s clothing, I can usually correctly date it to, say, the 1810s or the 1940s or whatever.

What makes it easy to date clothing (and, also, hairstyles) is the fact that, historically, it seems as if the fashion in each decade has either distinct details or an overall look (or both) that is quite visibly different from both the preceding decade and the following decade.

However—and this is the genesis of my question—my ability to date fashion breaks down completely around 1990. What I mean is, while I can easily distinguish 1980s fashion from 1990s fashion, I can’t distinguish 1990s fashion from 2000s* or 2010s* fashion (*grammar!). That's because I can’t see any obvious decade-to-decade distinctions in fashion over the last 30 years. That fact came home to me the other day when I was looking at a photo that I assumed had been recently taken. I was then startled to read that it had been taken in the early 90s. To my eye, the clothing and the hairstyles of the people in the photo did not seem ‘dated’ at all.

So my question is: is it just my imagination that the pace at which fashion evolves suddenly slowed down, starting 30 or so years ago? Or is it a real phenomenon? And if so, can you point me to any commentary on this fact?
posted by Transl3y to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's similar with music too. Much easier to place an unknown song to the decade in the range 1900-1990 than 1990-2020. Also cars and houses look more similar across decades since 1990, imo.

Part of it is probably just the fact that we don't have enough distance from 2010 yet.

But part of it is the fracturing of culture. We don't just have one mainstream anymore, communications and peer networks allow anyone to be in to almost any culture now, as opposed to having only a few radio stations or stores to get your culture from. This has a sort of smoothing effect, where there's tons of newer niche stuff (eg goth loli, or lo-fi chill beats), but the default and dominant look and feel become more milquetoast.

I too would like to see more scholarly (or at least serious) discussion of this topic. Best I got is this gem (from 1997!)

U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past'
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:09 AM on February 6 [11 favorites]


I don't think it's your imagination. Fashion from 1975 and 1985 looks like things are from different planets. '85 to '95 is still very obvious, but not as much. '95 to 2005, things are harder to tell. Looking at footage from 9/11, aside from the cars being different and people not having smartphones, it's really hard to tell that it didn't; take place at any other point in the last 20 years.
posted by jonathanhughes at 10:21 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's that fashion hasn't changed at all, it's just that the big experiments that got us to jeans have served their purpose and are no longer necessary because we found the basic shapes that people can live with on a large scale, now we're adjusting the dials in more subtle ways. But if you're paying attention in a certain way then you can spot the differences. For example I was paying very close attention to what people were wearing when I was in high school/college circa 2002-2006 because I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to wear and (it was VERY difficult). Now when there is a show set around that time I can tell by what they're wearing even if it's very subtle; that's just because I happened to be paying attention to that at that time so I remember. There are also subtle differences between 80's & 90's as an aesthetic flavor vs. actual 80's & 90's. It's just like how if you don't pay much attention to frog species you might see 2 frogs that look the same, but a frog expert who pays a lot of attention to frogs can tell you all the ways they're different.
posted by bleep at 10:29 AM on February 6 [6 favorites]




There's definitely less distinction between more recent decades, but I wonder if at least some of that may be because we are still to close to them to get a clear take. Also, there is a definite distinction between "fashion" and what people actually wear. "Fashion", by the nature of the business has to change regularly, but most non-fashion people often wear the same things for years which blurs the boundaries between decades when you look at footage of, say, street-scenes.
posted by Fuchsoid at 10:36 AM on February 6 [7 favorites]


I just really have to disagree. Spend some time looking at Depop and what highschool/college age cool kids are wearing now, it’s all very early 2000s and so dated. I heard a song yesterday (by HANA, I think?) that I immediately pegged as “contemporary but sounding like the 90s”. I was thinking of a time last year when I was working with some vintage luxury items and there were a pile of bags that didn’t feel that old but I was shocked at how dated they looked; they were all from 2005 or so (look at the ones from that era on this list. Lack of distance has a lot to do with it, I think, also that thing about kind of holding on to what was stylish to you when you were younger.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:41 AM on February 6 [12 favorites]


I think it's the much more older effect of just getting old when your tastes has solidified so that aesthetic will always be what catches your eye, but with the ability of niche consumption patterns to become a bubble more fully realised unlike previous generations in the modern era when advertising had only a select and narrow range of tastes to dictate to. in a way we're probably reverting to the historical mean, common people especially didn't really follow the latest trends right up to around maybe the victorian age, when mass consumption as sector became a viable business demographic, iirc.

because as far as fashion is concerned, there has been noticeable trends, but otoh the historical revivalism cycle seems shorter and shorter. currently what's known as Gen Z, but basically the college aged and below, are rediscovering the 90s, but just about a couple of years ago, the 80s revival was very much in play, and in fact, musically, dominated a lot of the pop charts in 2020 (eg the weeknd, miley's new album). but since 21st C arrived the noticeable shifts have been in texture and cut, and no real wild swings in the silhouette. so for me, i can definitely tell the swings in generational fashion from the material and the way they move.

But i'm also another amateur. Still, from my observation, I can say millenium fashion had a LOT of metallics esp in eyeshadow and lip glosses that gave way to textured and 'natural' material trends that came around the early 2010s. A lot of tank tops and unisex wear, the jeans waistline crept back up again from the crotch-risky early oughts. athleisure arrived via juicy couture, and had a moment and never quite left though with updated textures, though who knows maybe that flannelette look will make a comeback. makeup had a massive sea change especially, and i can identify two trends: korean skincare and makeup industry that gained relevance through k-pop fandom; and heavy contoured makeup that ppl might associate with the kardashians but really it's because drag queens suddenly had an actual presence in mainstream entertainment. all of that is supported by the increasing presence of the sephora-style beauty counter experience (which itself is a mass market european interpretation of the MAC counter) in a lot of regional markets as well as online (global) shopping. this has been reflected in the kind of beauty advice that ordinary people got. surely we've all at least heard of the 'instagram eyebrow' for a hot minute? no regular person had that gradient eyebrow colouring before the mid-00s at least. hairstyle trends too, do seem to be able to move faster.

mid-2010s have been the 80s revivalism i mentioned, but with fresh textures as well, in the mainstream western market. Different trends have been in play in other markets, and a lot of the feeling of all history all at once collapse is because it's much easier to transfer trends elsewhere as well as niche interests, for example, vintage 1940s is fairly steady as a look, but again, it's all about reinterpretation through modern materials and cuts.

even menswear hasn't escaped this, though i noticed more in the accepted combos, narrower pant legs and an updated sportswear style.

it's just that in the general population, it's easier than ever to stay in one trend for a decade plus. it could be a proxy indicator for economic health - for example it's always been very noticeable to me that japanese women's fashion hasn't budged much since the 90s, even accounting for cultural preference for conservatism. Even haircuts don't shift much.
posted by cendawanita at 10:42 AM on February 6 [10 favorites]


I'm going to guess from this question that you're older than me. (Maybe I'm wrong but I bet I'm not.)

I'm an older millennial. I went teens-to-adulthood in the 2000s. I can distinguish 90s from 2000s from 2010s fashions like the difference between the 50s and 60s and 70s. It's THAT pronounced to me and I'm not even into fashion. It's just that I had the benefit of living through those decades during formative years, trying to dress a changing body and figure out my own personal style. Earlier decades I have the benefit of pop cultural distance.

I'm going to really struggle to distinguish 2010s from 2020s from 2030s, though, I know that for certain. At 35 I feel no cultural need to dress trendy, I've settled into certain types of clothing I like so I'm not out trying new things anymore, and I don't have social circles with young people who would be figuring out their own fashions. There's just the wrong blend for me right now of both not enough distance and too much distance at the same time. I bet that's where you are with a couple decades earlier.
posted by phunniemee at 11:17 AM on February 6 [12 favorites]


I agree with cendwanita, there are definite shifts that feel very 'now'. The sports luxe and athleisure movements are totally distinct from the 90/2000s athletic aesthetic. And bodycon outfits as casual wear - super tight, super streamlined really only emerged 10 years ago. I think fashion is actually moving faster than ever because there's a huge market for visual differentiation when so much of contemporay culture is communicated through static images and very short video.
posted by freya_lamb at 11:21 AM on February 6 [3 favorites]


I'll also add just as a lol that today I'm wearing a sweatshirt that was my mother's in the 70s, and most of my closet is full of my mom and dad's old t-shirts from the 70s and 80s. You wouldn't even glance twice at me on the street.

The basics of casual day to day fashion really hasn't changed much since Audrey Hepburn and James Dean both wore straight leg jeans. There are trends and that's what sticks out as time moves on. But it's hard to see on the daily.

(Unless you remember being a self conscious teenager when jeans barely covered your public hair and now they all go up to your ribcage...)
posted by phunniemee at 11:23 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]


Relative distance is probably a big factor, and another is that when you look at historical styles, what you can find is what has been saved, either in photography (or illustration) or special pieces that have been saved out of veneration. I don't know about your wardrobe, but what I'm wearing right now, in the middle of the pandemic while I'm living all alone, will not be saved for posterity, because already now it is worn to tatters. There will not be pictures of me in these clothes either. So the future might not know what middle aged academics in 2021 wore when they were alone, or what they wore beneath the screen when they were on zoom. (Fairly often a blanket over sweatpants, in my case).
On the other hand, I still have my wedding dress from 1990, and another party dress from that year, neither of which I or my daughters can fit, so they aren't being worn. And just like I wore my mother's and grandmothers' clothes restyled as vintage clothes, my daughters wear some of my old clothes in new ways. It's been like that forever. Look at Disney's Cinderella for a pop-cultural reference. (Fun fact: one of my friends gave me her mother's impossibly glamorous old cocktail dress from the sixties. When my eldest daughter was going to a ball at 18, I gave it to her, but she wouldn't wear it, because you couldn't wear a bra with it. The mores change over time, and not just in one direction).

Of course, we have street photography, but even documentarists tend to focus on the interesting rather than the mundane, and we are too, when we look at those pictures. I was surprised when I realized there were quite a few people wearing the styles of c. 1900 in pictures from the thirties when I was looking analytically at those pictures for work. I have bought several new fifties style frocks at rural markets when I was younger, because people still wanted to wear those, and they were cheap and easily retrofitted into something cool.
posted by mumimor at 11:23 AM on February 6 [2 favorites]


Also: both the wedding dress and the other formal dress I mentioned above would probably not at all fit into the standard image of what was fashionable in 1990, though I promise they were. Again, it's about what is recorded and also about which narrative "wins" in the historians' perspectives.
posted by mumimor at 11:27 AM on February 6 [1 favorite]


I have to disagree. I think we're having a bit of a 90s fashion nostalgia moment, but there are certain "tells" from old TV shows (e.g. Frasier vs House) or personal photos are feel very dated to me. I should add that I am not at all fashion-forward, but I was acutely aware of fashion trends through school and college because I was so terrible at fitting in with them.

Things like 1990s women's suits that paired hip-length jackets with miniskirts and sheer black pantyhose. (Pantyhose in general.) Crop tops for teens. Vests, sometimes with fringe. Floral patterns, Laura Ashley everywhere. Many of my schoolteachers in elementary school wore pinafore dresses, with a long row of buttons over white T-shirts. (The T-shirts may have been because of a school rule about no bare shoulders?) Fancy times meant slip dresses -- I wore a slip dress to my first homecoming dance in high school, red with a black net overlay, peak 90s. Choker necklaces. Hair cut in bangs, thin/teased in the first part of the decade, and by 1998-1999 very heavy curled fringe about halfway down your forehead. Bucket hats. Chunky heels. Eyebrows vanishingly thin.

By the time the 2000s rolled around, we were on to hip hugger flared jeans. Tiny little purses. Stiletto style heels. Skirt lengths grew longer. Capri pants, including for work. Cargo pants/shorts. Tank dresses and sundresses. Boho chic. By the end of the decade, Mad Men inspired stuff, both very full skirts and wiggle dresses. Eyebrows went natural.

I started buying a professional wardrobe in the early 2010s and still have a lot of those pieces, which I would not wear today even if they fit me. Very wide-legged pants (not flares exactly, but just stovepipe legs). Riding boots for office wear became a thing, no one was doing ankle boots until the end of the decade. Dresses that came with wide belts. Sweater-dresses. Colorblock dresses. Colored tights. Beachy waves.
posted by basalganglia at 11:53 AM on February 6 [11 favorites]


I'm in my 30s and 90s vs aughts vs 2010s look real distinct to me. I've been watching Midsummer Murders (first season 1997) and the late 90s/early 2000s really stick out with:

-Baggy clothes/ suits/wide ties on men (vs. more fitted suits/skinny ties that came in around 2010)
-Ramen hair

For women:
-Pin straight hair, thin eyebrows, pastel make-up, lip gloss
-Low rise pants with flares/bell bottoms
-Spaghetti strap tops
-Handkerchief skirts
-Crocheted trim/sweaters/shrugs

For 2010s vs now, according to tiktok at least, you can spot a millenial woman by their side part (vs. middle part for gen z) and skinny jeans (vs. more baggy pants).
posted by damayanti at 11:55 AM on February 6 [4 favorites]


you can spot a millenial woman by their side part (vs. middle part for gen z) and skinny jeans (vs. more baggy pants).

OMG this is me, elder millennial. Side part and fitted tops/skinny jeans (or ankle crops and flats for work) and Warby Parker acrylic glasses; my 20-something students all do a middle part and baggier clothes and wire-rimmed frames.
posted by basalganglia at 12:46 PM on February 6 [3 favorites]


One change I have noticed, having worn glasses since elementary school (late ‘90s, early ‘00s for me): glasses generally seemed uncool in the early-mid ‘00s, and everyone in middle school wanted contacts. All the adults I knew wanted to get LASIK. Something changed in the early 2010s, and glasses became fashionable even for those who didn’t need them!
posted by Seeking Direction at 1:15 PM on February 6


I’m just old enough that I kind of have to check a few specific things to tell the difference between, say, 2005 and 2020 stuff.

Jeans waistlines are a big one, obviously, creeping up and up.
Also, jackets — the plackets and lapels on women’s blazers, which have gone from the 90s thing of a tiny collar with no lapels and buttons to the neck, to a couple years ago when a looser long blazer with a long stance was more stylish. (Maybe even double breasted, the most horrifying to this product of the late 90s.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:09 PM on February 6


There are definitely distinct differences in the various eras you named. I think you probably either stopped paying attention at a certain point or conflated what you see on the street (where people can be as unfashionable or retro as they want) with bigger general trends in fashion. There’s a 90s revival going on now too, which may be adding to your sense of confusion. Sometimes I start clicking through Buzzfeed listicles about, say, mid-2000s fashion nostalgia and it’s crazy clear to me how much has changed in the last 10-15 years, even though I didn’t feel it happening so much. Just watch “The Devil Wears Prada,” which is all about fashion, so a ton of attention was paid to storytelling via costume design, and you should hopefully be able to see SO many differences between 2006 and now.

I mean, let’s take just jeans as an example—rise has been creeping ever higher since the super low rises of the early 2000s. Same with the length—ankle length is much more in now than full length or capris. Leg shapes have gone from wide leg and flares to skinny, with some boyfriend jeans thrown in, and now we’re back in a wide leg, flares, and straight leg/mom jean revival. But shorter lengths and higher rises are in for denim, so putting those bootcut jeans from 20 years ago back on won’t look current to the observant eye. Dark washes were super popular for years, but now they feel dated to me; mid to light wash denim is more current. Contrast stitching strikes me as very early 2000s. Same with any kind of pocket embellishment or bedazzling. (Trends in distressing have come and gone as well, but I’ve paid less attention to the general history of those.) I think exposed button flies have become more popular in the last 5-10 years, compared to zippers or covered button flies. There have been a few short-lived micro-trends in jeans I’ve noticed in the last few years like tulip hems, high/low hems, ankle slits, and arc legs (not sure what to call this, but it’s kind of a bowlegged cowboy silhouette) that could probably date a given pair of jeans to a specific year. So just a basic pair of jeans can be easily identifiable as an artifact of a certain fashion moment.

You can do the same thing with all kinds of things. Plain white t-shirts—how loose or form-fitting, what kind of sleeves do they have, what kind of neckline, what kind of fabric, how long or short, what kind of hem, etc. I used to wear form-fitting, fairly thick ribbed crew neck baby tees in the late 90s/early 2000s and they were always a little shorter than I liked, but it was trendy to have a strip of skin between your shirt and your low rise jeans. Early to mid 2000s, layering “tissue tees” were in, and I think around this time was when I could actually buy longer tees that covered my belly, but still mostly form fitting, and lower necklines like v or scoop necks were popular. 2010s, I think thinner, drapier fabrics like slub knits were still in, but looser cuts were starting to take hold. In the last 10 years, the main silhouette I’ve seen has been boxy, cropped high crew necks in somewhat thicker fabrics.
posted by music for skeletons at 4:02 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]


Best answer: This book about fast fashion explains the breakdown of traditional fashion trend cycles (and rise of Uber cheap clothing) that has resulted in a loss of fashion eras as we knew them.

That being said... there are trends... saw a movie from the 2000s and ya I guess we all wore army-inspired H&M pea coats... and remember that god awful trend of shoulderless shirts? (Shudder)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:40 PM on February 6


Oh yes glasses! Frameless glasses were big, then black plastic à la Weezer, now translucent white / pink / grey-blue are in.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:46 PM on February 6


Is it possible that your sources are different in range, between the more distant past and the more recent past? In the more distant past, you might well be seeing (in photos, films, and pictures) lots of examples of current fashion of the time; but more recently, you're seeing examples of everything that everybody is wearing - whether it's the fashion or not.
posted by vincebowdren at 12:34 AM on February 7


I am not "trendy" at all, but am aware when something is obviously from a past, er, phase. It's subtle, but there. Early 2000's I could not get any top for women, dress or casual, that went past my hips, as an example. Since then, the hemline has descended. Etc. I will add that materials and cuts have gotten more and more one-size-fits-all, to the point that these factors alone can indicate when a garment was likely produced. Polyester linings for cheap knee-length skirts, for example, are rapidly vanishing. Elastic waists for dresses. Spandex in everything. I rifle around in thrift stores a lot, so that is really apparent to me. Glasses - very obvious trends. Small acrylic frames in the early 2000's, then metal ovals, then metal rectangles, then the Mad Men-influenced updated Cateye thing, now, gigantic frames in a sort of updated Sally Jessy Raphael style that swallow half the face. Glasses indicate era pretty clearly because otherwise non-fashion-concious people need a new prescription every year or so and go ahead and buy new frames.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 3:39 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: Well, on the one hand, the Vanity Fair article (circa 2011) seemed to support my impression of stylistic stasis...
until recently it didn’t take ... long for datedness to kick in: by the late 1980s, for instance, ... the 1970s already looked ridiculous.

... but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present.
And the book St. Peepsburg linked to suggests that there really has been a “loss of fashion eras as we know (or knew) them”...

While most of your answers seem to refute it! E.g.
I can distinguish 90s from 2000s from 2010s fashions like the difference between the 50s and 60s and 70s. It's THAT pronounced to me
and
Just watch “The Devil Wears Prada”* ... and you should hopefully be able to see SO many differences between 2006 and now.
Still, I'm not yet entirely persuaded that fashion, writ large, has undergone any significant change over the last two-three decades. But of course, there’s no right or wrong in fashion—and I guess that goes for meta-fashion, too. So vive la différence of opinion and thanks for sharing yours.

* That movie has been on the top of my watch list for ages. Maybe I'll change my mind after I see it.
posted by Transl3y at 4:51 AM on February 7


I still had this tab open this morning so I went and found a few links with some visual examples that might help:

very in-depth fashion discussion from 3 years ago of The Devil Wears Prada in essentially the same context

90s trends

2000s trends

2010s trends

2020 trends

2021 trends
posted by music for skeletons at 8:00 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]


However—and this is the genesis of my question—my ability to date fashion breaks down completely around 1990. What I mean is, while I can easily distinguish 1980s fashion from 1990s fashion, I can’t distinguish 1990s fashion from 2000s* or 2010s* fashion (*grammar!). That's because I can’t see any obvious decade-to-decade distinctions in fashion over the last 30 years. That fact came home to me the other day when I was looking at a photo that I assumed had been recently taken. I was then startled to read that it had been taken in the early 90s. To my eye, the clothing and the hairstyles of the people in the photo did not seem ‘dated’ at all.

So my question is: is it just my imagination that the pace at which fashion evolves suddenly slowed down, starting 30 or so years ago? Or is it a real phenomenon? And if so, can you point me to any commentary on this fact?

Still, I'm not yet entirely persuaded that fashion, writ large, has undergone any significant change over the last two-three decades.

I don't think anyone is arguing that fashion HAS undergone significant change, just that the changes require more attention to be able to see them than they did before, but they are there if you are looking.
posted by bleep at 10:13 AM on February 7


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