The sartorial world is about more than just looking pretty. Fashion trends can be used as social dialogue and can sometimes help change the world for the better. While that good pair of boots or the dress with twirling potential can make some of our hearts somersault in our chests, it's fashion in and of itself that can be more than just what sits in your closet. It can serve as a social commentary tool.
Trends can evolve to show the changing climate of a particular decade and can pinpoint the moment a generation started to shift its ideals and change the world for the better. Women ditched corsets in the early 1900s as the suffrage movement gained steam; girls raised the hems of their skirts in the '60s as the second wave of feminism rolled through the States; and the youth of the '90s chose "non-fashion" grunge as a "no thank ya" nod to the sellout ideals of "the man." They weren't going to follow the business-card-slinging ways of American Psycho, and their thrift-store plaids proved it.
Below are six trends that not only changed the dialogue of an era, but helped the youth of that generation find its identity and use fashion as a tool to change the social conversation of their time.
1. The Flappers Of The 1920s
Gatsby! Capone! Speakeasies! Automobiles! The 1920s was a transformative decade of flash and glitter, as its youth was all too eager to leave oppressive Victorian ideals behind. It was the decade women won the right to vote, the year gin was taken out of cupboards, and it signaled the moment when the Harlem Renaissance took over the nation. Not to mention it was the age of swing dance and flappers.
Just a decade prior, women were still widely perceived as obedient, plain-living, pious creatures. The '20s girl wanted to go against every single one of those traits.
So she applied lipstick in public, smoked cigarettes, kissed boys, and bared her ankles and shoulders, much to the shock of her mother. Flappers were arguably the first youth rebellion in America, and their style reflected it.
What fueled this change? The success of the suffrage movement and women's newfound voice had something to do with it, but 1920s fashion was also a direct rejection of stuffy Victorian gender roles and the idea of the Gibson Girl, a pen-and-ink version of the ideal woman created by illustrator Charles Gibson, who combined the "fragile lady" and the "voluptuous woman" into one male-fantasy super hybrid.
She was the personification of what a "true woman" should be, and the youth of the '20s was done with her and her boring chignons. Whereas in the Victorian era woman often tried to look older than their age, the flappers aimed to be androgynous and almost pre-pubescent, hiding their curves and traditional femininity in baggy drop-waist dresses, but still giving off a casually sexual vibe.
Joshua Zeitz, social historian and author of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, quoted Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, a noted liberal writer at the time: "Rather they were 'feminists — New Style — and truly modern Americans who admit that a full life calls for marriage and children but at the same time ... are moved by an inescapable inner compulsion to be individuals in their own right.'"
2. The Miniskirts Of The 1960s
The 1960s took the cooling-pie-on-the-windowsill years of the '50s and flipped it on its head. The new decade was all about change and revolution. Beatlemania was taking over, the Civil Rights Act changed the fabric of society, brothers and boyfriends were being sent to Vietnam, birth control pills hit 6.5 million American women by 1965, and some women began burning their bras. As all this was happening, the young generation reflected the wild change by keeping the momentum going and taking scissors to their skirts.
Before the 1960s, young women were expected to dress like their mothers, in full skirts and ankle-skimming dresses — every inch of a businessman's respectable wife. According to Valerie Steele, fashion historian and author of 50 Years of Fashion: New Look to Now, "Looking back on the late 1950s, the English designer Sally Tuffin recalled that, 'There weren’t any clothes for young people at all. One just looked like their mother.'"
As the social climate changed, however, so did the style. Many feminists saw the mini as a symbol of their right to show off their bodies however they wanted, and it no longer felt like the "right thing" for the daughters of Suburbia USA to dress to please their future husbands. They wanted to dress to please themselves and whoever wanted to look. Because of that, a new feminine ideal was created: The Single Girl.
She was young, made her own money, and didn't occupy her mind or time with men — not that she was disinterested; she just had more important things to worry about. According to Hilary Radner, history professor and author of Swinging Single: Representing Sexuality in the 1960s, "The Single Girl does not consider the possibility of a world without men; she has more concrete things on her mind, like paying rent."
Think of characters like the refreshingly selfish Polly Golightly, or successful Swinging London models like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton. Women no longer had to be housewives: They could be educated, could bring in their own paychecks, and didn't necessarily need to rely on the support of a man as in decades past. The teeny mini represented that new and excitingly radical idea.
3. London's Punk Scene In The 1970s
Ripped clothes, safety pins holding tattered shirts together, mile-high mohawks: London's '70s punk movement was everything furious, fast, and chaotic. These kids were social revolutionaries decked out in tartan and Dr. Martens, brewing a flashpoint of working class unrest.
According to The Telegraph, the debt crisis of 1976 left 2 million people unemployed in Britain. Much of the youth was broke and without work. The new scene that started to unfurl in London's underground was a direct and angry middle finger to the British ruling class. According to Jeffrey Banks, author of Tartan: Romancing the Plaid, "In the late 1970s punk music was a way for youth in the British Isles to voice their discontent with the ruling class."
Because of their empty wallets, punks hit thrift stores not as a statement, but out of necessity. They then shocked the upper middle class by tearing off sleeves and fraying pants. At a time when clothes were expected to be kept pristine and looking like new, this was a statement with quiet power.
On top of that, punks preferred a specific type of plaid when it came to their uniforms: Royal Stewart Tartan, the specific style Queen Elizabeth II favored. Banks wrote in his book that by tearing up the Queen's tartan, it was another way the young people of Britain could bare their teeth at the ruling class and show their anger for the treatment of the working class.
4. The Power Suits Of The 1980s
It's hard not to have Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" instantly playing in your head when you think of '80s power suits. All you need to do is slip your feet into white sneakers, brush back the wings of your hair, and you're ready to climb your way up that corporate ladder.
But the iconic power suit was more than just a way for women to show their authority in the office: It was also a symbol of their repressed anger about gender inequality. Done were the bra-burning days of the '60s and '70s. Since it looked like Mom was putting dinner on the table, the spotlight was turned away from women's issues.
But underneath it all, women were losing ground. In 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment failed in Congress — something women had been fighting for since 1923 — which likely didn't shock too many people what with the hyper-masculine, anti-feminist tone of the Reagan administration.
Not only did the President oppose the Amendment going through, but in 1982 Reagan went as far as blaming the rise of women in the workforce for high unemployment rates, making the stigma of a woman in a non-temp position even more severe. As he addressed in a speech to the union, “Part of the unemployment is not as much recession as it is the great increase of the people going out into the job market and — ladies, I’m not picking on anyone, but because of the increase in women who are working today and two-worker families and so forth."
The power suit was a subtle message of protest. Maybe women weren't bringing a lighter to their bras over a garbage can, but they were suiting up in strong lines and all-business silhouettes like their male counterparts, ready to prove that their shoulders could handle the weight of responsibility and success, too.
5. The Hipsters Of 2006
Even though it's considered just another nonconformist subculture, the hipster movement arguably has something a little different than its other youth rebellion predecessors: It's stubbornly opaque, and most folks don't get it.
As Millennials, many of us entered the worst job market since the Great Depression, but instead of ending up in the Dust Bowl, we're making ends meet and then some. That might be because we spend $4 on our living room couch and then $14 on organic kale, but it's working. We're a generation brought up on the Internet and the tech boom, yet we keep our distance from the over-connected tendencies of society by reaching into the past and opting for the records and two-speed bikes of a simpler time. We live in an era where women are often hyper-sexualized instead of sexually oppressed, and men are expected to be testosterone enraged. Yet both sexes can wear the same style jeans and swap fisherman sweaters and Dr. Martens if they so desire.
6. The Granny Chic Trend Of 2015
Where our mothers had the bra-burning movement or were powering through with their shoulder pads, we have the granny chic trend. Gray hair, cocoon coats, and frilly socks with block heels: This trend is all sweetness and innocence. You might be wondering how "ladylike" handbags (most of which are likely holding saltwater taffy) could possibly serve as social commentary. But here's the thing: The trend seems to signify our generation's wariness of youth culture.