Colonial to Contemporary


After the Colonial period in America, fashion began to make dramatic changes that coincided with huge advances in technology and changing attitudes, beliefs, values and lifestyles. Here is a brief overview at how fashion has evolved over the last 200 years.

1800s

solidiers boots from behind at a reenactment involving early 1800s napoleon army

With the Industrial Revolution came factories, and both men and women were flocking to the cities for jobs and the promise of wealth. Since city streets were usually very dirty, women’s skirts became just a bit shorter, extending to the mid-calf. Women wore boots that buttoned high up the ankle to protect their feet and ankles from the filth. Ironically, men’s breeches were replaced with long trousers during this period.

Also, with the invention of the cotton gin, cotton became much more affordable. As a result, most people were dressed in cotton fabrics, regardless of the income level or status. Fashion became less about wealth and more about personal expression. This trend continues into the 20th and 21st centuries.

In general, clothing became much less restricting during this period. This allowed for greater ease of movement while travelling, shopping and working in the factories. Clothing was fitted to the body, less extravagant and more durable. Thanks to the invention of the sewing machine, these changes became possible and affordable.

1900s

Old wooden houses in the historic center of Oslo. Damstredet, residential area of Oslo with well-preserved wooden houses from the late 1700s and the 1800s. Landmark of Oslo, Norway capital

Fashion changed so quickly during the 1900s that each decade began to have its own distinct, recognisable trends:

  1. 1920s
    Women’s skirts and dresses became much shorter and more revealing to reflect the progressive attitudes of this era. Women also cut their hair short as a way of rejecting old ideas and outwardly expressing their freedom.
  2. 1950s
    During this decade, more and more women began to wear pants. Some continued to wear skirts or dresses, and these usually fit tight at the waist and flared straight out to the knee. Men became more casual with their dress as well, favouring t-shirts or button-up shirts and slacks or jeans.
  3. 1970s
    Non-conformist attitudes appear again and have a huge impact on fashion. Many women stopped wearing bras. They favoured loose, flowing tops and bell bottoms. Dresses were long and flowing as well. Men continue to prefer more casual button-up tops and t-shirts, but also wore vests and bell-bottoms. Cotton was still popular, but polyester and other synthetic fabrics also came into popularity, changing the way clothing looked and felt.
  4. 1980s
    Fashion became much louder with a greater variety. Bright colours and unusual lines were the norm.
  5. 1990s-now

Fashion is a reflection of historical events and popular attitudes, but it is also a powerful tool of self-expression. As you continue to observe fashion trends and make your own fashion choices, you’ll learn more about your own culture, values and personality than you ever expected.