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The History Of The Dress

By Beth Roberts

Since the early 1700′s the woman’s dress has personified the ladies of the world in ways as varied as the clock and the compass. It was different all over the world. In the West, where it was more purposefully developed, women’s clothing was for many centuries a matter of what was appropriate and how “a lady” should be seen.

Prior to about 1800, European women’s fashions had retained more or less the same silhouette, with minor variations, for about 300 years. It was an hourglass silhouette, defined by corseting. Earlier, during the medieval period, dress had been semi-fitted, and women favored the full-body silhouette in which the round belly and full hips dominated. With neither the waist nor breasts a focus of attention until later, this was the key element in women’s fashion. Beginning at the end of the 15th century, the fitted and corseted bodice accentuated both waist and breasts, with massive long skirts in various forms completing the look.

Periods and styles

This period of time was referred to as Regency style in England. It followed the French and American revolutions and was a witness to the shift in dress for men and women, though for women this change would be short-lived. Classical Greek and Roman images were evoked to justify the democratic revolutions of this period. This in turn resulted in the adoption of a classically inspired silhouette for women, which was long, narrow, corset-less and high waisted.

Initially the color of choice was white, and the fabrics were soft cottons, often virtually transparent. Shawls and long gloves were introduced to cover bare shoulders and arms. Shawls would remain in fashion until the advent of the bustle in the 1880′s. Hair might be cut short, and turbans and caps were worn.

Return to form

After the fall of Napoleon in the second decade of the 1800s, society began to return to a more sedate, conservative mode, and the aristocracy returned to France. The dress gradually became less semi-fitted and more tailored, bodices became more form-fitted and more surface decoration was used. There were also heavier fabrics and more modest long sleeves. For women, wearing anything too revealing was considered inappropriate and an unseemly act. Women could easily bring disrepute, occasionally even harm, upon themselves by not wearing the appropriate clothing.

Unfortunately, by today’s standards, society’s elite opinion-makers were mostly men. As it turned out, the revolutions had opened up new opportunities for many of them, particularly in America. But for women, life would continue much as it had before. Therefore the dress forms would also return to those that had been in use for centuries.

The politics of fashion

History has given us a lot of insight on how the dress essentially shaped women of the past and present. Although the dresses of those time periods were at times quite elegant and lovely, they were also usually very uncomfortable and could make a woman feel trapped. It tends to make one wonder if that was the initial idea behind the way the dresses were made. Perhaps man wanted not only the control of the women’s mind but her body as well.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, women in freer countries are able to express themselves with fashion. Some Middle Eastern nations – because of religion, culture and politics – still enforce a dress code on the female members of society. One would hope the trend in the world is to greater freedom, and the fact is, one way to measure it is by the clothing a nation’s women wear.

As you can see, the dress has been a symbol of both oppression and freedom. Women in many nations eventually broke free from the tyranny of not having free choices. These days, what a woman wears is not as important as who she is as an individual, and the strength of a woman can be found on the inside – her heart, soul and mind – not what’s on the outside. When the latter can express the former, it bodes well for everyone.

Beth Roberts is a successful business consultant with a passion for balancing new and old in her writing. She has worked on campaigns ranging from an online fabric store to a prominent travel company. She recently left a large office to work on her own from her home and is discovering the joys and challenges therein.

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Article Citation
MLA Style Citation:
Roberts, Beth "The History Of The Dress." The History Of The Dress. 26 Aug. 2010. 19 Oct 2014 <>.

APA Style Citation:
Roberts, B (2010, August 26). The History Of The Dress. Retrieved October 19, 2014, from

Chicago Style Citation:
Roberts, Beth "The History Of The Dress"

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