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Fashion victims

Afiya Zia

From the whale-bone corset to the wonder-bra, women have long been a slave to uncomfortable styles in the aid of fashion. But the old adage ‘You have to suffer to be beautiful' has taken a surprising turn in the 20th Century. Afiya Zia takes a look at designs that have evolved with the changing roles of women over the past 100 years

In the 19th Century, styles and fashion were dictated solely by the designers of the day. But the radical 20th Century has been significant for the evolution of the fashion scene, with each decade heralding something new and revolutionary. The difference lies in the way fashions have been formed by social and political changes. Today, fashion-followers are dancing to their own tune and are deciding the trends rather than the leading designers. One wonders what the millennium will have in store?

1900's - Curves galore
At the turn of the 20th Century, the ‘Edwardian Look' still prescribed that women squeeze into the very uncomfortable corset which gave them the ‘S' shape. A protruding bosom and derriere were supposed to be ultra-feminine but actually achieving them was an extremely uncomfortable process.

Although women were smaller than they are today, creating an 18-inch waist - small enough to close your hands around it - was not very practical for domestic or business life. An entire brigade of maids were essential in assisting the wearer to get in and out of the corsets, layers of undergarments petticoats, laces, outer clothing, hats, shoes and gloves.

Since these were not mass-produced clothes, hours were spent by seamstresses and embroiderers creating the dresses.

Think, Gone With the Wind, and Scarlett O Hara struggling into her confining corsets and bosom-enhancing dresses with Mammy heaving on the laces is an image that instantly springs to mind. The corsets were made from whale bone and constricted the body so much that young ladies often fainted, and had to carry smelling salts for revival purposes.

1915 - Men's work
During the 1914-1918 World War, fashion went into a limbo. Now the preoccupation was on common-sense clothes. Garments became comfortable to enable women to work easily for the first time in factories, driving trucks in the 1st World War and other traditionally male occupations. But clothes also became bulky and shapeless. At the same time, the garment industry was busy producing military uniforms.

Many women trained as nurses and women of all classes were wearing the same clothes - on duty or off everything was simpler in style. The bustle became smaller and more practical, and finally disappeared altogether.

Post war changes and a new independent spirit that came with it meant that fashion would never be the same again. Small time designers began to make names for themselves. Once a milliner Coco Chanel became popular after she introduced uncorseted easy-fitting clothes. Even by 1916, her simple tops, skirts and chemise dresses were becoming known internationally.

1920's and 30's - The bob is born
Another influence made itself felt. Hollywood motion pictures brought about a playful style to the 1920s. Women adopted shorter haircuts (the bob made its first statement) and face make-up was not subtle any more, while straight calf-length chemise dresses made up the image of the stylish woman with the cigarette at the end of a long holder. A good figure meant a perfectly straight figure and no curves whatsoever.

The look was softened by feminine touches such as long loops of beads, costume jewellery, pencil-thin eyebrows and bright lipstick. Movie-goers became more and more influenced by the look worn by favourite stars such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. A lot of women-oriented pictures brought out a glamorous escape for the masses by the 1930's. The simple designs of Gabrielle Coco Chanel continued to be popular until World War II.

1940's - Ration fashion
The ‘chic' look of the 1940s meant fashionable women wished for a neat and uncluttered look. It was fashionable to have suntans and so dresses were designed to show off the tan. Evening dresses became daringly backless and sleeveless and hats became extravagant accessories as did fox fur wraps. But with the World War II, the tides of fashion quieted and even designers like Chanel disappeared for a while.

Women seemed to resort to the military influenced sombre suits and rationing of material influenced the industry too. Fabrics had to go a long way, yet still be elegant, and designs became boxy, with simple sleeves and pencil skirts. Puffed sleeves and big skirts were no longer an option because they simply used up too much material. Once again women wore more slacks as they took on men's jobs on the home front. Catherine Hepburn championed the trouser cause, and was rarely seen in public without them.

1950's - Billowing is back
However, the backlash to wartime hardships and austerity came with an optimistic and prosperous Christian Dior, ‘New Look' of 1947. This look was ultra-feminine with shapes dominated by rounded shoulders, prominent bustlines, tiny waists and billowing calf-length skirts. Petticoats and ankle socks were in for the younger generation, whilst ladies teamed their fuller skirts with delicate high heels.

New fabrics flooded the market and in the mid 1950s, Chanel also returned to the fashion scene with the famous ‘little black dress' and the timeless Chanel suit. There were still some rules that applied to the 50s such as gloves to be worn with everything; handbags had to match the shoes and there was a dress code for all occasions, including the garden party. Finally, by 1959, the ‘trouser suit' was in.

1960's - The start of street style
Then came the total turnabout in the 1960s. A new generation, the Baby Boomers, influenced the fashion market with a new funky youth look. Jackie Kennedy followers mimicked the First Lady's pillbox hats and beautiful elegant-cut suits and flawless sense of style. But the second part of the decade flipped in terms of fashion and attitude and the foremost designer of the decade, Mary Quant, originated the swinging ‘London Look' with the ubiquitous mini skirt. With skirts so small, there was new emphasis on legwear, including coloured, patterned tights and fashion boots.

1970's - Polyester and platforms
The 1970's got off to a bad fashion start with the attempt to overthrow the mini with the extreme floor length maxi skirt - but this was unsuccessful and the mini reigned supreme. Meanwhile the hipper, younger influences in the movies and the Beatles, spilling over from the late 60's, were making their presence felt for fashion inspiration. Fashion fads came and went including the caftan, Pop Art, crushed velvet suits and even the Space-Age look. The gypsy look, Bonnie and Clyde look and psychedelic or retro look were all hot in a decade when the youth, and not necessarily the formal designer, decided the image of the day.

The70's also saw the re-introduction of polyester in a big way. Bell bottoms, platform shoes, generous lapels, halter tops all reigned as fashion definitions, became looser and more individual.

1980's - The return of glamour
By the 1980's, fashion became related more closely to power. Everything was big. Hair, shoulder, money. American TV soaps such as Dynasty and Dallas influenced fashion with mega shoulder pads and very structured suits. It was all about dressing for power. Michael Jackson and leather and zips; Madonna's flashy kitsch and the romance and ruffle of Princess Diana's wedding was balanced on the other hand with the conservative business chic of First Lady Nancy Reagan and her Chanel suits.

Jeans became essential in everyone's wardrobes but with status-driven designer labels. After all, Brooke Shields always reminded us that ‘nothing came between her and her Calvins'. Cheap and cheerful pastels also invaded the market, and plastic beads, bangles and dangling earrings became the hallmark of the true fashion victim.

1990's - Loosen up
The 1990's returned with a less extravagant attitude. Some analysts attributed this to the arrival of a band called Nirvana which altered the view of what was ‘cool'. The fashion offence was on. The grunge look, ratty sweaters and long, unkempt locks with ripped jeans were now in.

After a while, the grunge look was replaced with hip-hop-inspired oversized jeans. Other fads such as multiple body piercings, branding, tattooing all came to the surface also inspired by youth culture and alternative music.

Towards the end of the 1990's, fashion leaned towards the more conventionally feminine. It was a mish-mash of everything. Some retro-wear, influences from the 40's emerged, while the Jackie O look and the classic Chanel continued to live together. However, fashion was no longer dictated by any one specific designer or even group of designers. They merely suggested the trend. Individuals decided which style, colours and affordability would combine and go into their wardrobes.

2000 - Anything goes
Today there is only one influence that clients have not managed to ignore - the glamour of the cinema and TV screen. Logos were big-time in the 1990s and spilled over into the new millennium. Gucci, Fendi, Prada and Louis Vuitton have incredibly long waiting lists. This is not only due to the strength of the quality itself. The desire to own monogrammed and labelled fashion is partially inspired by what the stars and celebrities wear.

The popular American TV programme, ‘Sex and the City' is one such inspirational programme. In one episode last summer, Sarah Jessica Parker wore a $360 Gucci belt bag. After the episode, a Manhatten Gucci boutique is reported to have had a three-page waiting list for the item. Such is the powerful relationship of celebrity and fashion. The good news is that since the fashion philosophy today is so individual and affordable, you can definitely find a $30 knock-off almost immediately after it hits the catwalk - or the TV screen.

Courtesy: Arabian Woman

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