Fashion has been at the forefront of British culture for many centuries and is a great way to identify the trends of different eras. British fashion has evolved over the years, from the daring flapper dresses of the 1920s to the punk-inspired looks of the 1970s.
In this article, we’ll explore the evolution of British fashion through the decades and how it has been shaped by the events and trends of the time. From the classic silhouettes of the 1950s to the rebellious designs of the 1980s, let’s take a journey through the history of British fashion and see how it’s changed over the years.
A Roaring Decade of Style
The 1920s marked the evolution of fashion in the United Kingdom, as the decade ushered in a wave of modernity with more daring, less demure designs. This was in part due to the technological advancements that allowed for more stylish fabric and accessories to be manufactured.
The women’s fashion of the era encouraged shorter hemlines and looser silhouettes, with the most popular embodiment of the 1920s style being the flapper girl. This was a look that featured simple lines, dropped waistlines, and skirts short enough to reveal the ankles.
Women’s fashion also included items such as knitted cardigans, rolled up trouser cuffs, and bob haircuts which had been made popular by the likes of silent screen actresses.
Men’s fashion of the 1920s featured a much more relaxed style with trousers that had become slim and tapered at the ankle. This was in contrast to the loose baggy trousers of the previous decade.
Suit jackets and the popular waistcoat were featured prominently, along with wide-brimmed hats, loafers and cravats. The era also saw the succession of the lounge suit, a style that’s still recognizable to this day.
Aiming to capture the glamour of the roaring twenties, a number of iconic British designers established their brands in the 1920s. This included the likes of Norman Hartnell, who established his eponymous couture house in 1923, and A Worley who opened his London boutique around the same time.
These designers were part of an emerging golden age of fashion and helped to pave the way for the styles we see today.
The 1930s were a period of great change in Britain, and this certainly extended to fashion. The period experienced the rapid growth of big cities, with new technology and media changes impacting how people dressed. The growth of the film industry made fashion more visible and accessible to a broader range of people. The decade was characterized by a sleek, chic aesthetic, with practicality in mind.
The 1930s saw a shift from the more exaggerated shapes of the 1920s towards more sleek, tailored and comfortable silhouettes, such as the tailored suit. The shift in focus was largely attributed to the impact of the Great Depression, and people sought out more practical and affordable options.
Women’s fashion was often characterized by ribbons, belts and accessories, though the popularity of corsetry declined throughout the decade.
The most iconic silhouette of the 1930s was the bias-cut evening gown. This style featured a fitted bodice and skirt, with the fabric cut on the diagonal that followed the shape of the body. The look had a glamorous, graceful feel that was achieved by draping and sculpting of the fabric.
The 1930s saw a move towards a more tailored and structured silhouette than in the 1920s. Men’s fashion was often characterized by a two or three-piece suit, either in a single or double-breasted design. The tailored suit was most commonly seen in dark, neutral tones.
The 1930s was also a decade of experimentation in the realm of men’s fashion, with a focus on layering. This included waistcoats, cardigans or knitted shirts over shirts, and a wider range of accessories including hats, scarves and bow ties.
Overall, fashion in the 1930s moved towards an aesthetic of sleekness and practicality, with a focus on comfort and affordability.
The 1940s saw the overall style of fashion begin to change from the heavily structured look of the 30s to a more versatile and relaxed silhouette. During the early 1940s, many British women had to ration clothing supplies and materials due to the war effort, so the focus was on high-waisted skirts with pleats and slim trousers, often paired with argyle sweaters or twinsets.
As the war went on, the clothing was designed to be practical and simple, yet still stylish. Additionally, fabrics such as gabardine tweed, wool, and twill were popular due to their durability.
A noticeable change in 1940s fashion was the introduction of the “Victory Suit” — a two-piece ensemble of a skirt and a close-fitting single-breasted jacket.
This more casual look was seen as a sign of victory and was often composed of bright colors and patterns. This type of suit served as a precursor to the tailored suits of the coming 1950s fashion era.
The 1940s also saw a noticeable trend in fashion towards femininity with the introduction of the ballet pump, gingham and floral prints, and demure, short sleeved dresses. Women’s hats were also the focus, with felt bowlers, cloches and turbans being the most popular.
The hairstyle of the 1940s also evolved with women wearing their hair in ‘victory rolls’ or experimenting with waves, curls and long hair.
The 1940s was a period of marked societal change and fashion evolution. This era saw a shift to more relaxed, feminine fashion that would go on to inspire and inform subsequent generations.
The 1950s saw the emergence of a unique new style of fashion in Britain. Following the austere years of the 1940s, the 1950s embraced a trend of bright colours, bold shapes and glamorous silhouettes. This new look was accompanied by a general attitude of optimism and hope for the future, which was reflected in the clothing choices of the era.
The fashion of the 1950s was heavily influenced by the design aesthetic of Hollywood’s film stars. The ‘New Look’, created by Christian Dior in 1947, was particularly popular, with its nipped in waists, full skirts and modern fabrics.
Women’s clothing of this period was all about femininity, with beautiful prints, bright colours and voluminous skirts being a staple of the time. The men’s fashions of the 1950s were similarly style conscious, with the introduction of fitted suits, patterned shirts and skinny ties being popular.
The British fashion of the 1950s was also heavily influenced by the rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon. As popular music of the time embraced a rebellious attitude, clothing choices followed suit.
The Teddy Boys were a group of youths who embraced a combination of the ‘New Look’ style with a generous helping of attitude – wearing brocade waistcoats, leather jackets, and drainpipe cropped jeans.
The Teddy Girls were a similar group, adopting a distinctive style which included pencil skirts, stiletto heels and a stylish quiff.
The British fashion of the 1950s has had a lasting influence on fashion today, as this era saw the emergence of a new approach to both men’s and women’s fashion. It is clear to see the evolution of style which had taken place in the country, with the bold prints, bright colours and attitude-filled rock ‘n’ roll style inspiring the fashion of today.
The Birth of Mod Fashion
The 1960s saw a major evolution in British fashion and culture. The arrival of the Mods, or modernists, revolutionized what people wore, and how they wore it – it was the dawn of a new era for the youth generation.
The Mod style was heavily influenced by the clean, sharp lines of French couture from the 1950s, but with a rebellious edge.
The look was typically fastidious, with tailored lines and bright colors. Emphasis was placed on presentation, with an emphasis on the accessories and shoes worn. This included slim-cut suits, opaque tights, and the iconic sleeve-less shirts and mop top hairstyles, bringing an iconic look that was all their own.
The 1960s was also the beginning of the 1960s youth subculture, which embraced radical fashion, art, music and dance trends. This was the start of the colourful fashion revolution that we know today. It was a time of experimentation, creating timeless looks that have been reinterpreted by generations of fashion designers and trendsetters ever since. The 1960s was a pivotal time for the evolution of British fashion.
The 1970s saw a marked evolution in British fashion. The decade was marked by a return to traditional values, with styles such as flares, long floral skirts, and wide-brimmed hats making a comeback. This period saw a stylistic shift away from the subtle, classic styles of the postwar era, and towards bolder, brighter, and more expressive designs.
On the runway, American fashion designer Halston was among the few fashion designers who spearheaded a trend towards simplicity, which soon became synonymous with 1970s fashion.
Halston was particularly known for working with luxe fabrics such as cashmere and silk, as well as for dissolving the traditional distinction between day and evening wear.
Halston’s signature style, which featured a lot of jersey, chiffon, and fringing, became highly popular among prominent celebrities such as Bianca Jagger and Liza Minelli.
The 1970s was also the decade in which the anti-establishment and anti-capitalist punk movement emerged. Punk fashion was based on a DIY ethos, with many of the garments being patched together from outdated, second-hand clothing. Punk styles featured heavily ripped jeans, outrageous hairstyles, and distressed leather jackets, as popularised by icons like the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
At the same time, the 1970s ushered in a period of increased freedom and individual expression within fashion. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett embraced the idea that fashion could be a powerful tool for self-expression and personal identity.
For example, Katherine Hammett’s slogan t-shirts, which featured messages such as ‘Choose Life’ and ‘No Nukes’, championed a number of political and social causes.
Overall, the 1970s was a decade that saw a dramatic evolution in British fashion. From classic styles to punk-inspired designs, the decade ushered in a period of increased freedom and individual expression within fashion that continues to shape the industry to this day.
Fashion Evolution at its Peak
The 1980s was a period of great change in fashion and its evolution. Many styles that began in the seventies were still popular in this decade, such as the jumpsuit, but some of the garments seen in the eighties were fresh and daring. People expressed themselves and their personal style more than ever before, and a multitude of subcultures emerged. It was a time of strong individualism and creativity in fashion.
One of the most iconic looks of the 1980s was the power suit. This look was popularized by celebrities like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, who donned bold, brightly-colored suits with exaggerated geometric shoulders. These looks were a statement of strength and independence, and served to empower women in the workplace.
Neon was a popular trend in the eighties, but it was also used in sportswear. Colorful neon sportswear layered over black became popular amongst ravers and club-goers. Jerseys and mesh tops were also popular, making an appearance in the pastel-hued look created by designer Jean Paul Gaultier.
The 1980s were also an incredibly popular time for denim. Acid wash and dark blue denim jeans were everywhere, and the style of clothing varied from tight fitting to baggy. Denim was also present in jackets, overalls and vests.
The fashion of the 1980s wasn’t just about being seen; it was also about making a statement. Punk and New Wave were two dominant subcultures during the decade, each with its own unique style.
Punk style embraced a DIY approach, with clothing often made from ripped, slashed and safety-pinned pieces of vintage clothing. New Wave style was a bit more refined, with bold prints and geometric shapes replacing the traditional punk aesthetic.
The eighties was an era of great fashion evolution, and its influence can still be seen in the fashion of today. From power suits to neon sportswear and punk to new wave, the 1980s was a time of exploration and creativity that pushed the boundaries of fashion.
The 1990s saw a wide variety of fashion trends that have since become iconic. The decade was marked by the arrival of new youth culture trends, from grunge to hip hop, and these had a lasting influence on British fashion.
The evolution of fashion in the UK during this period was not only about embracing new trends but also about looking to the past for inspiration. This can be seen in the revival of preppy and punk style elements, as well as the ongoing popularity of tailored “city” looks.
Grunge was a major trend in Britain during the early years of the decade, a look that embraced a casual and ‘anti-fashion’ aesthetic.
The classic grunge look often included plaid shirts, ripped jeans and heavy boots, and was popularised by musicians such as Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. It had a strong influence on British fashion, with many labels offering grunge-inspired collections.
As the decade progressed, hip hop started to take over as the dominant youth culture trend, and this had a huge influence on fashion. Elements such as oversized T-shirts, tracksuits and baseball caps became popular amongst young people, and this style was often seen on the streets of UK cities. This look was also embraced by high-end fashion labels, who incorporated hip hop influences into their collections.
At the same time, the ‘90s saw a revival of preppy style. This look included classic items such as khaki trousers, Oxford shirts and tweed blazers, and was often combined with casual items such as trainers and jeans. The preppy look was popular amongst teenagers and university students, and reflected a desire for a timeless and traditional style.
The 90s was also a period of ongoing popularity for elements of punk style. Leather jackets, ripped jeans and fluorescent colours were all popular, and these items were often seen on the streets. Punk style was also embraced by the fashion industry, with many luxury labels offering punk-inspired collections that combined elements of traditional tailoring with punk influences.
At the beginning of the 2000s, British fashion was dominated by minimalist and understated looks. Loose-fitting trousers, plain t-shirts and hoodies were some of the staples of this early ’00s aesthetic.
This style was made popular by various high street and design labels, such as French Connection and Topman. By the mid-2000s, the influence of celebrity culture had become more prominent, with the likes of David and Victoria Beckham setting trends.
Additionally, a new wave of streetwear brands, such as Supreme and Palace, had begun to emerge, bringing a distinctive urban style to the UK.
As the decade progressed, London and other cities in the UK saw the emergence of a new generation of designers, who began to put a modern twist on classic British designs.
Brands such as Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood became increasingly popular and helped to shape the fashion landscape in Britain. There was also a surge in interest in vintage fashion, as shoppers began to search for unique styles that were no longer available on the high street.
By the end of the decade, the UK fashion scene had become highly diverse and eclectic. Though classic, minimalist styles still dominated, new and emerging trends from around the world had begun to influence British fashion.
This included the growing popularity of boho-style looks, as well as the rise of sports-inspired fashion, such as tracksuits and athleisure wear. This diversified trend allowed people to express their personal style in an ever-evolving way.
The 2000s was an exciting decade for fashion in Britain. New trends emerged, while old looks had been reinvigorated. The evolution of British fashion in the decades since has been remarkable, and the 2000s were a key part of this journey.
It’s remarkable to consider that the fashion of Great Britain has experienced drastic changes throughout the decades. From the free-flowing flapper dresses of the 1920s to the punks of the 1970s to the modern-day athleisure wear of the 2010s, British fashion has adapted and evolved to reflect the times.
Along the way, British fashion has created iconic looks, embraced trends from abroad, and shaped its own unique sense of style. Though trends may come and go, British fashion is ever-evolving and will continue to innovate and inspire us well into the future.