Fashion Through History

13 January 2023

Fashion has changed exponentially throughout time! This blog will explore some of the earliest fashions in history, how they change, why they change, and importantly, how it can help us as genealogists. It will mainly be focusing on women’s fashion but if you enjoy this blog there is an opportunity for another focusing on men’s fashion, there is just too much to fit into one!

Nowadays, fashion is mostly influenced by popular culture including social media and celebrities. People observe what others are wearing in films, television, music, and online and copy them, which results in fashion changes. Clothes are often an expression of who we are and how we want to present ourselves to the world. It is a very personal process, and we spend lots of time and money crafting our perfect look. However, clothing was first created to address the essential requirement for body covering, providing warmth or coolness, protection, and maintaining modesty. There is evidence that the earliest clothes were made from twigs, leaves and even the hides and skins of hunted animals! Luckily, we have evolved from here to fashion as we know it today, largely aided by the discovery of new materials in the textile industry, evolution occurred because of our desire to make products that provide better structure, function, and expression.

Why does fashion change over time?

Fashion changes over time due to the simple fact that people change. Clothing has been used to signify religious views and people’s political, cultural, and social ideals. There are numerous factors which affect the changes in fashion, but these are just some key ones which we see most often.

The economy plays a crucial role. When we were in a recession period, like the Great Depression, we didn’t have the money to buy or make clothes, so we used what materials we had access to, which changed fashion.

Social factors also have an impact on fashion. This can include place of living, educational and cultural background, status in society, and gender.

People’s professions also affect what they wear. For example, a sportsperson will often wear sports clothing, or back in the day, a domestic servant would have worn plain clothes with an apron over the top.

Political factors can also play a role in changing style either directly or indirectly. Sometimes governing bodies change laws, rules, and policies which influence fashion.

How did fashion change?

Some of the earliest fashions have been documented way back to the Roman Era (500 BC – 323 AD). The Roman’s dressed with a cultural bias, their clothing used to signify their social status and wealth. The women wore a palla, a shawl draped over her head, over a long dress known as a stola. The men would wear a toga over a tunic marking their citizenship.


Women's Fashion - PallaMen in togas


Moving into the Middle Ages (400 – 1200 AD), during the reign of the Anglo-Saxons, both men and women would wear a belted tunic. The colour of the clothes was used to represent their financial status. To further symbolise this, the women would also wear layers of dresses and the men’s tunic would be sewn up at the side, in contrast to the poor who had their tunics open from hem to waist.



Belted Tunic Fashion - womenBelted Tunic Fashion - men



14th century fashion


After the Norman Invasion and into the beginning of the 14th century fashion changed again. Women now wore close fitting gowns with long sleeves and a full skirt, while men wore tight-fitting hose under short tunics.







Elizabeth I in a renaissance era gown

Elizabeth I in a renaissance era gown




The Renaissance period (1350 – 1520) was a very important period in fashion history, because of the high interest in fashion among the aristocrats. Fashion was largely influenced by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I who both spent lavishly on their clothes. The dresses were very elaborate with a tight-fitting bodice and full skirt combined with wide shoulders and long poufy sleeves to give the appearance of an hourglass figure. They wore many layers of stockings, petticoats, and underskirts to make the gowns look more voluminous but also to protect from the cold.





Fast forward to the 1600’s and it all changed again. Fashion can be characterised by the disappearance of ruff in favour of broad lace or linen collars. In the early years, fashionable bodice necklines were either high or extremely low and rounded with short wings at the shoulders. Bodices were low waisted at the beginning but steadily rose into the mid 1630’s before dropping once more. In the second half of the 17th century, short tabs were attached to the bottom of the bodices to cover the bum-roll which supported the skirts. These tabs got longer as the century went on until they disappeared in favour of a longer and smoother figure. The long tight sleeves of the early 17th century grew shorter, fuller, and looser by the latter end of the century.

1600's fashion history - frilly gowns 17th century fashion

18th century fashion

18th century fashion

Finally, 1700’s fashion was greatly influenced by France. Women’s dresses consisted of a gown, a petticoat much like what we would call a skirt today, and a stomacher made in a triangular panel shape. The gown opened at the front and had large pleats folded up at the back. All of this would be worn with a corset and pannier which acted as under clothes. The women’s dress of the 18th century was characterised by the light pastel colour and decorations such as lace, ribbons, and artificial flowers. The skirt expanded on each side and was paired with an enormous hairstyle which was popular.

For a look at women’s fashion from the 1850’s onwards, make sure you check out THE Genealogy Show’s blog, ‘Identifying Relatives Through Fashion for Genealogists’.

How can this help us?

Knowing the different fashion trends can be extremely useful to genealogists as it can help provide a time frame for those pesky photos and paintings which don’t have dates. This can really help us place a person in a period of time and can give us a deeper understanding of who they were and their lives.

I hope you have found this useful and interesting! Please leave any feedback you have and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions!

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