The Historical Fashion Resource

Written by Leanna Serras

Fashion has evolved throughout the centuries, from medieval times to the modern era, with the colors, hemlines, silhouettes, and fabrics used changing to meet the needs and trends of the times. Like with clothing, the use of perfume and other forms of fragrance has also evolved, along with the wearing of jewelry and other accessories. For some, the evolution of fashion is merely a curiosity, but for others, such as professional historical re-enactors and writers of literary works set in the past, it can be critical to their livelihoods that they learn about what people wore in a given time period down to the tiniest detail.

Medieval Clothing

The medieval period began around the fall of the Roman Empire and lasted until the beginning of the Renaissance. The clothing worn during this era was largely indicative of a person's social class. Men of noble descent in the early medieval period wore tunics made of wool that featured embroidery. Women of the same social class wore full-length dresses made of wool, often with a headdress. Peasant men in the same time period wore short tunics over trousers, while women wore simple wool dresses that reached their ankles. Noblemen in the later Middle Ages often wore large hats as an outward sign of their wealth, and their tunics were made of velvet with fur trim. Noblewomen also wore gowns trimmed in fur along with linen headdresses. Peasant garments did not change significantly between the early and late Middle Ages.

Renaissance Fashion

As the Middle Ages came to an end, the Renaissance began. Originating in Italy in the 14th century and moving throughout Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Renaissance was a time of figurative rebirth during which people pursued more civilized and classical interests such as art and music. Renaissance fashion featured ornamental flourishes such as feathers and lace. Women's dresses were full and flowing, while men usually wore garments with puffed sleeves and form-fitting waists over tights. Men wore berets and caps, and women wore berets, veils, or garlands in their hair. In some places, laws were in place to regulate what people of different classes were allowed to wear, called sumptuary laws. Generally, those of the higher classes would wear clothing that was both more expensive and more cumbersome to move about it, while those of the lower classes, lacking servants to dress them and needing to do more work in their everyday lives, wore clothing that was simpler in style.

Regency Fashion

The Regency era occurred between 1811 and 1820 in England. This era coincided with the prince of Wales assuming the title of prince regent after King George III was removed from rule in 1811. The Regency era ended when the prince regent became king in 1820. Empire waistlines were a strong fashion point for women during this era, as dresses temporarily moved away from more restrictive styles. Dress lengths shortened slightly, to the ankles. Men's styles became less flamboyant, typically including a top hat and tails in understated colors.

Civil War Fashion

The clothing styles worn by men and women during the Civil War era depended on their socioeconomic status. Men and women living in rural areas usually wore less ornate clothing than people who lived in cities. Affluent women's outfits were decorated with accessories such as fringe, braids, lace, and ribbon. With the popularity of the hourglass figure, women's dresses required that they wore tight corsets to create small waists and larger busts and hips. Crinoline underskirts also made dress skirts very full. Wealthy men wore white shirts and silk or felt hats, and men of all economic positions wore vests with suspenders underneath to hold up their pants. Men's shirts may have been stiffened with paper, and the collars were starched.

Victorian Fashion

Queen Victoria was on the throne in England between 1837 and the first weeks of 1901. During this time, women's fashion became a prominent part of society, as women began dressing to show their husbands' status in a community. The long duration of Victoria's reign meant that clothing went in and out of style during this period. At the onset of the Victorian era, women were not wearing hoop skirts. This fashion came and went, replaced by bustles and finally a slimmer skirt silhouette at the close of the 19th century. Men's fashion included long-sleeved cuffed shirts, waistcoats, vests, trousers with suspenders, and boots.

1900s Styles

The turn of the century was the start of the Edwardian era, beginning in 1901 and lasting through 1910, the length of King Edward VII's reign in England. Women's styles of this era involved sweeping trains, flowing fabrics, and molded bodices. Corsets were different during this era, designed to push the bust forward and the posterior back, a shape known as the "S" bend. Ostentatious hats were also popular among women and those who could afford to do so would bath themselves in popular perfumes and colognes. Men's fashion did not change significantly during this era, featuring dark colors and slim fits for jackets and trousers. But big changes were in store in the following decade, as the Roaring '20s brought women's styles featuring flowing and shapeless dresses, often sleeveless and adorned with feathers, sequins, and fringe. Men experimented with less formal styles for suits, and pinstripes were a popular fashion choice. Men also wore homburg hats and colorful neckties.