For much of history, women have worn dresses, and the dress has been a symbol of femininity and womanhood. What’s the universal sign for “women’s room”? A stick figure wearing a dress. It’s no wonder that a garment so closely associated with the female identity, then, has taken so many evolutionary turns as our ideas of femininity and womanhood have evolved.
Although people were wearing clothes long before this time, the dress as we know it probably had its earliest start in the middle ages, in the times of European monarchy. For a very long time, the dress was symbolic of how much money a woman had. Those who were wealthiest had countless dresses, all painstakingly detailed and embellished so there was no mistake that they had lots of money. The poorest women of the time only had a few very simple dresses that served the purpose of covering their body parts, but did little more than that. In Puritan America, the women didn’t wear colored dresses, because they believed colored clothing to be frivolous, and the women who wore it to be sinners.
For a long time, the dress was accompanied by restrictive undergarments called corsets. Wealthy women would often have several maids who would work together to draw the laces of the corset as tight as they possibly could in order to give the woman a shapely hourglass figure. This was a dangerous practice, often resulting in broken ribs or inability to breathe properly.
Though the silhouette of the dress changed a little from decade to decade, the first real dress revolution did not come until the 1920s. As the economy boomed and the jazz horns blared, in the night clubs of the big cities, a new kind of woman was born. She played fast and loose, and that was clear just from the way she dressed. Flappers ditched the restrictive undies, chopped off their hair, and hiked up their embellished, form fitting skirts, leaving little to the imagination. Scandalous!
With the Great Depression, the fancy flapper fashion took a back seat to a much simpler fashion (usually a blouse and drab skirt suit) as women concentrated more on economical issues and less on dressing up.
Toward the late 40s and into the 50s, the drab of the depression was phasing out, and the dress was fun again, with bright colors, and flouncy circle skirts, perfect for jitterbugging to the Rockabilly music of the era.
The sixties were the beginning of an era of incredible social activism. The dress got a major makeover, splashed with bright colors, intense patterns, and for the first time in history, the hem was raised above the knee, exposing most of the wearer’s leg. This look became known as the “mod” look, short for “modern”, which is exactly what it would become.
From the seventies until very recently, the dress took a backseat to pants and shorts. It was updated according to the trends of each era, but was ultimately a garment reserved for parties, proms, and other special occasions. The idea of a “day dress” began to seem a little silly.
However, the dress has made a comeback. A few years ago, designers started featuring day dresses once again, and now dresses are once again a garment you can wear every day. Just another example of how old things become new again.