Fashion Silhouette History Case Study

Clothing silhouettes serve as a critical identifier for tailoring and construction. Extra details about the garment are provided, such as those on its cut and construction. Silhouettes help determine which clothes will flatter a given individual. How, nevertheless, have clothing silhouettes changed over time? Let’s trace the fashion silhouette history in women’s clothing.

But first things first, we can’t continue exploring fashion silhouettes without knowing what this term means.

What Is Silhouette?

A person’s silhouette is the outline they create when their garments are hung on them. The silhouettes you choose to express your individuality are essential and have nothing to do with where you reside or what brand of clothing you buy. A silhouette is the outline of a person, object, or scene, typically rendered in black. When shown on a white or light background, the interior of the silhouette is blank. 

In the context of fashion, Silhouette refers to the contour of an item of clothing or the shape of an overall outfit. On runways, catwalks, and other haute couture displays, a garment’s silhouette is often the first thing an observer notices. It’s a quick way to glance at a design’s big picture before diving into the finer points like stitching, fabric, etc. It helps decide which parts of one’s body to highlight and which to downplay.

There are various types of silhouttes, and they include: 

  • A-line sheath 
  • Empire sheath 
  • Hourglass sheath 
  • Trumpet sheath 
  • Asymmetrical sheath 
  • Ball gown/bell sheath 

Fashion Silhouette History- Overview

It’s no secret that our clothes these days may be a window into our personalities and ideologies. Certain people place a high value on their clothing, while others do not. Nonetheless, in the current Western world, women can choose what they wear and the significance they give it. Historically, women were expected to dress a sure way to conform to social norms; today, women have more freedom to express themselves through clothing. There has been a radical change in how these concepts and presentations are delivered over time. And looking at the evolution of Western and European women’s clothing over time reveals a lot about women and how they have influenced society.

Fashion Silhouette History Timeline

Now that we know what fashion silhouettes are and glimpse how clothing silhouettes have evolved, it’s time to dig deeper into details.

The Rennaisance- Just Cover the Body

Before the rise of the middle class during the Renaissance, most people just wanted to hide their bodies inside their clothes. Women probably only had two or three costumes, all boxy and functional. But gradually, a new era of consciousness emerged, one that valued art, science, and beauty over the ideas of the medieval period. At the end of the Middle Ages, women’s attire became brighter in color and more well-fitted in general, with the wealthy wearing more form-fitting yet comfortable garments. Silk, linen, and fur are associated with the upper class and are status symbols. As a culture, we watched the concept of fashion develop, and the craft of tailoring take its first steps. The emergence of the tailoring trade exemplified the increasing specialization of labor.

The French Revolution and Fashion Silhouette

Years before the French Revolution, a period of plenty and excess, gave rise to one of the first decorative fashion silhouettes. A lot of time and effort was put into draping the heavy silks used to make the gowns. Panniers were side hoops that added width to an evening gown while keeping the bodice and skirt relatively flat. This flashy clothing came to represent the growing gap between social classes, which fueled the fervor of the French Revolution.

During the French Revolution, thick silks created the first silhouettes on dresses. The Empire line followed this- a high-waisted design popularized by Josephine Bonaparte, the French emperor’s wife. The French Emperor’s wife popularized the empire silhouette, a high-waisted cut reminiscent of Greco-Roman sculpture. Just below the breast, the bodice became looser to accommodate a lengthy, gathered skirt. Many women were relieved to be able to ditch their cumbersome petticoats, thanks to this trend finally.

After a few years, this design began to give way to variations on the bell-shaped skirt, such as the hoop-skirted look, the leg-o’-mutton sleeve, etc. That’s how a lot of different shadows appeared, only to be reshaped into solid buildings. High-waisted clothing was popular for a long time, but eventually, women began to pair the silhouette with more structured pieces. The light, billowing materials of the past gave way to twills and taffeta, while the hefty, weighted hems of the past were replaced with shorter, more fitted skirts. 

Silhouettes in the 1830s

By the 1830s, Americans’ waistlines had returned to their normal height. Full, bell-shaped skirts and bodices packed with underpinnings were deemed desirable by the well-to-do in Europe and the United States. Waists were cinched with boned stays, and the bust was lifted with the help of gussets. Huge “leg o’ mutton” sleeves was reinforced with whalebone, and skirts were corded or reinforced with big petticoats.

Fashion Silhouette During the Civil War

The hoop skirt became popular for American ladies during the Civil War era and after that. Because of their disproportionate hips, ladies were a continual fire threat because they constantly knocked over candles and gas lamps, as well as caught fire in their bulky gowns and wooden skirts. Because of the added weight of the hoops, stays, and other accessories, women wearing them could be blown away by strong winds and even drown. This starkly contrasts to the harsh, unpleasant, and unfeminine clothes typically assigned to enslaved women during this period. Enslavers often deprived women of their agency and sense of self by forcing them to look and act like men. This included having their hair cut short and wearing traditionally reserved clothes for men.

Victorian Era

In the decades that followed, women’s skirts became even more full and stiff thanks to the incorporation of metal hoops and crinolines in Europe and the United States. Victorian-era fashion saw a continuation of slimmer bodices and fuller skirts. Waists are drawn even more attention to in bustled shapes with back-heavy petticoats. The latest fashion silhouette was an empire one, and it’s all because of boned bodices that draw attention to the back. Despite the availability of body braces and corsets, women pushed their bodies to the limit to get the ideal shape. 

Some others even went so far as to try to reduce their waist size to the ideal 16 inches. This fashion choice was not free, of course. Years of corset use can cause rib fractures, rib cage fractures, organ damage, organ herniation, and even death from suffocation. By the late Victorian era, female reformers were vocally opposed to these types of clothing. The Rational Dress Society was set up as a protest against fashion that “deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way serves to impair the health.” The hourglass shape, however, has become a universal symbol of this period.

1901 to World War I

After the turn of the century, the S-Bend corset gained popularity because of its relief to the abdomen. The effect was to draw the hips back and the chest forward. Detachable skirts helped women achieve this pigeon shape, which led to the rise in the popularity of separates. But with World War, I came a dramatic shift in fashion as ladies were compelled to wear more functional garments such as (gasp) trousers.

1920s Fashion Silhouette

The fashion options available to women in the 1920s differed from those even a decade earlier. The short skirt was in style, and androgynous hairstyles were all the rage. The flapper often represents the “Roaring 20s” era with her low-cut bodice, knee-length skirt, and bright garters. Due to the development of rayon fabric as a cheaper fake silk, more ladies could achieve the fashionable silk-stocking look. Metal hooks, eyes, long zippers, and buttons replaced lacings and corsets as more women entered the workforce or sought a simpler wardrobe. The expensive looks shown on the runways were quickly replicated by department retailers utilizing cheaper fabrics. All of these changes were greatly expanding access to fashion.

Fashion Silhouette During and After the Great Depression

Most women in the 1930s sought out a more feminine, attractive appearance. Parisian designers popularized the bias-cut evening gown in the 1920s. When the Great Depression hit, it had a devastating effect on the wardrobe of the typical American lady. However, Hollywood marketed this glitzy fad as a way out of reality. They would represent everything the typical lady aspired to but never realized.

Silhouettes During the World War II

The ordinary woman’s wardrobe budget was limited because of wartime restrictions. Dresses shrank in size to save material, while separates became popular so women could create more outfit variations with fewer pieces of clothing. Female fashion took cues from the military uniform, and as more women entered the workforce, functional clothing was a need. Workers in wartime factories had to wear plain clothes to avoid getting caught in the machinery. Women started wearing high-waisted pants, like the ones made famous by Katharine Hepburn, so that they wouldn’t look too masculine.

After World War II

Women were keen to rediscover their femininity in the days following World War II. Since the war’s end, several fashion houses have shifted their focus to cater to the young clientele, who now have more disposable income. Although skirt lengths remained shorter than in earlier decades, fuller skirts were once again in style. The pencil skirt silhouette was also widely adopted, with girdles being essential for giving ladies the “wasp waist” look without needing a corset. 

By the 1960s, pantyhose—and “control top” pantyhose for those who preferred a more secure garment—had essentially supplanted the girdle. Many different social movements profoundly impacted women’s clothing styles throughout the 1960s. Like First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, many women aspired to strike a balance between modernity and tradition. Sleek and colorful, the Mod style gave women the freedom to show more skin. The hippie style emphasized practicality above flashy embellishments, and it became popular to draw inspiration from non-Western civilizations regarding clothing and lifestyle.

1980s and ‘90s

From then on, numerous new styles for women emerged from the cultural norm of women working outside the home and the beliefs of the Women’s Liberation movement. Wrap dresses by Diane von Furstenberg were indispensable for career women. The “power suit,” with its male edge and substantial shoulder pads, was sometimes adopted by women who sought equality in the workplace. 

Hippie fashions were abandoned in favor of more authoritative, dramatic designs, reminiscent of the opulence seen in series like Dynasty, as women’s economic independence increased. In the decades that followed, women kept using clothes to demonstrate their independence and strength. Women in the 1980s found that exposing their underwear was a liberating expression of their sexuality and femininity. So-called Grunge performers like Kathleen Hanna ruled stages in the ’90s, often clad just in slips or nightgowns.

The 2000s and Beyond

Women’s clothing has seen the emergence of two contrasting philosophies since the turn of the century: fast fashion and the new maker movement. Since the turn of the millennium, clothing companies have increased the number of collections they release annually to satisfy the seemingly insatiable need of their customers. Additionally, there has been a rise in interest in learning more about the clothing industry, particularly among women. Perhaps we have reached a turning point where we must choose whether to let fashion define us or vice versa. Modern-day silhouettes typically feature a diagonal hemline and are cut in a sloping silhouette. An asymmetrical shape can flatter any figure.

The Bottom Line

The French Revolution is sometimes cited as the beginning of the modern silhouette when thick silks were used to drape evening gowns. Different eras experienced distinct changes in fashion, and this change process continues to this day. There is a good likelihood that fashion silhouettes will become more commonplace shortly. Just remember that some shapes are more flattering than others. Therefore, it’s essential to know which ones you have while shopping for clothes is essential.

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