Fashion History: A Brief History of His & Hers

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To be a good ANYTHING… you need to know what you are talking about

A great athlete has to know the rules of the game in order to perform and score points. A great makeup artist has to know what each brush does, or how to achieve a certain look. And fashion is no different. To be a good fashion-insider (or Fashionista) you have to know the history of fashion. The best magazine editors (who are seated front row at the runway shows around the globe) already know this. They know what type of fabric the outfit is made with, or what inspired the designer to make that gorgeous skirt, pants or shirt that is being displayed before them.

Daydream with me or a moment: remember when you were (or maybe still are) in high school, and the subject of the last period on a Friday afternoon was History and the whole class moaned? Well, fashion isn’t like that. Fashion is so multidimensional and fun! Fashion is in movies, music, film and you see it all the time. So welcome to Fashion History 101…


Through the sands of time, clothing has always followed two separate lines of development, resulting in two contrasting types of garment. The most obvious line of division to modern eyes is between male and female, his and hers, pants and skirts. The Greeks and Romans wore tunics, that is to say, skirts. Mountain people like the Scots and the modern Greeks also wear what are, in effect, skirts. Far Eastern and Near Eastern women have worn trousers, and many continue to do so today. We have ‘fitted’ and ‘draped’ clothes. History has shown many variations in this respect.


Dating back to fashion girl Queen Cleopatra (late 68 BC), people and societies have used clothing and embellishments (belts, trim, buttons, zippers) to express their rank or even occupation. What you chose to wear on any particular day is communicating if you are wealthy, poor, sexually available, or to which social class or group affiliation you belong. The psychology of clothes has always communicated non-verbally; that is, the poor just always looked poor and the rich, well, they always wore the best, pressed clothes and looked… rich.

Flash forward and the 1963 blockbuster movie Cleopatra, starring Dame Elizabeth Taylor, had the best fashion of that period and won Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards (nominated for nine categories, and won four). New York Fashion Week in Spring of 2009 was all about the gladiator sandal. Christian Dior created “Nefertiti-chic” hairstyles for his models, with the straight bangs to match and Ralph Lauren evoked the snake charmer with jewelry. Other designers, such as Alberta Ferretti, took a Roman approach and utilized golden-winged breast plates over long, flowing white gowns; a look fit for an Egyptian goddess herself (and reminding me of the current Maxi dress).


The historical comedy-drama film Marie Antoinette, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 2006. That same year the film’s lead actress, Kirsten Dunst, graced the September cover of American Vogue donned in similar 18th century wardrobe. Marie Antoinette was royalty, and was truly the Haute Couture of modern fashion in her day. Antoinette was just 15 years old when she married the future French king Louis XVI and yes, she looked so much older with all of the clothing she had to wear.

Women of that day had lots of clothes: day clothes, a court dress, a coronation dress, and so on. The queen’s dressmaker and milliner, Rose Bertin (known to many as the “Minister of Fashion”) was renowned for making very ostentatious gowns which were not only colorful, but also rich in decorations and made the ladies stand out and “impose with their presence.” Her creations became so popular all over Europe that they definitely helped with establishing France as the center of fashion and couture.

The most popular dress styles of that era were the robe a la Francaise and the robe a l’Anglaise (literally the dress of French and the dress of English). The first consisted of back pleats hanging loosely from the neckline all the way to the floor and “a very fitted bodice held the front of the gown closely to the figure.” It was very common at that time to have the skirt open in front to show decorative petticoats, which were worn underneath. Panniers sometimes replaced hoop skirts, which varied in size and quite often prevented the person wearing it from sitting down. (reminds me of tight jeans when first they come out of the dryer!). The sleeves back then were very tight and reaching only the elbows, and decorated with embellishments such as ruffles and separate under-ruffles made of lace or fine linen.


Times have changed. And thankfully, so has fashion. Or, has it? The women of the 1800’s had many wardrobe changes on any given day, just as we do today. They had a morning dress, an evening dress, a walking dress, or a carriage dress. Don’t you throw a different pair of shoes or piece of clothing into your work or school bag to change or add to your outfit before you go out for a social evening? These are habits carried over from centuries ago.

Men also had several types or styles of clothing, including coats. There were morning coats, day coats, walking coats, over coats, rain coats, suit coats and cutaway coats. And as the world evolved, clothes became much simpler. By the late 1800s men were saying good bye to the pinched-in waists and padded shoulder jackets. Evening clothing usually still meant black, which remains a popular trend today.

Wendy Evens