Art is a reflection of when it was created. We all know that. So why are people surprised when someone suggests that fashion also reflects the time of its creation? Clothing and how it changes over the years can represent turmoil, peace, celebration, and sorrow. It can even represent the success of the economy, if you have faith in the hemline index.

But just the length of a skirt (or absence of a skirt) can say so much about the time period. This article will cover how the dress length and fashion of the following decades are indicators of the larger political themes at the time, specifically the:

  • 1920s
  • 1930s
  • 1940s
  • 1950s
  • 1960s
  • 1970s

With that said, let’s get started!

Standard 1920s drop-waisted dress.
Dresses from the 1920s were often knee length or shorter, a major departure from floor-length skirts of the past. Image courtesy of Enchanted Mountains.

Roaring ‘20s

The 1920s were an revolutionary time for women and fashion, In the 1910s and before, women had always been expected to wear long, practically floor length skirts and dresses. This shifted thanks to the flapper girls. Where the name came from is widely debated, but flappers ignored the traditionally feminine appearance of the time.

Flappers and the Controversial Knee Dresses

Flappers were party girls– young women who smoked, drank, voted(!), and drove. These were considered masculine activities at the time, hence why flappers were considered unladylike. They furthered their distaste for gender norms by shedding their corsets, chopping their hair, and wearing dresses with drop waists to achieve a boyish look.

The length of the dresses in the 1920s shortening was widely a political statement. The feminist movement had just earned the right to vote in 1920, and women were changing their style to reflect their feminist beliefs. At first, hemlines raised a few inches, but eventually shrank to above the knee, unheard of at the time. However, it was also a practical choice. The most popular dance trend at the time, the Charleston, involved swinging their arms and legs. One simply couldn’t dance the Charleston or party until the sun came up in a long, ‘ladylike’ dress.

1930s evening gowns.
For those who were able to afford it, going out dresses were form-fitted and floor-length to reflect glamor seen in Hollywood movies. Image courtesy of Fashion History Timeline.

Crashing ‘30s

After the fall of the stock market in 1929, the time of short party dresses was over. At the beginning of the 1930s, women started gravitating back towards longer length dresses in an attempt to look/feel classy during economic hardships. Women started trying to emphasize their waistline once again, preferring exaggerated sleeves and belts to achieve a feminine look.

Outfit Inspiration from Hollywood Glamor

Skirts went back to their lower hemlines. During the day, a calf length was acceptable, but floor-length was a necessity for nighttime events. No longer could you go out in a knee-length dress to party. Hemlines had to be longer because women had fewer dresses– their pieces need to be versatile for different weather and locations.

Despite the Great Depression, movies opened up ideas for glamorous outfits women wanted to wear. Actresses would wear dresses with low-backs that were widely considered too scandalous for everyday wear, but close-fitted, sleek dresses let women feel sexy and glamorous in their normal lives.

Christian Dior suit from mid-to-late 1940s.
Christian Dior’s rise to popularity began in the mid 1940s. He liked to highlight the feminine figure with a tight waistband and flowing peplum or skirt. Image courtesy of Lehza Vintage.

Wartime ‘40s

Women’s fashion in the 1940s was largely limited by WWII, meaning women had to be especially creative with outfit combinations and updating looks they’d previously worn. Dresses and skirts had raised ever so slightly to knee length, making it easier for women to move around for their newly acquired jobs. Those who worked in factories, doing manual labor, often wore pants and jumpsuits.

1940s: Two women workers standing near a drill press, eating sandwiches and drinking milk.
Women whose jobs required more physical labor dressed in jumpsuits and pants instead of fitted skirts.

Working Wartime Women

With women entering the corporate workforce, tailored suits with knee length skirts became popular. Sometimes women would use contrasting stitching for a fun fashion touch, while sewing up any holes. Lapels were another way women could cover up imperfections while embracing femininity. Women would adorn the suit lapels with fur or contrasting fabrics. Oftentimes the jacket had a peplum to emphasize the waist. Red lipstick and elaborate hairstyles also helped women maintain their femininity as they entered new jobs, a task that was always considered to be masculine.

The 1940s wartime was a difficult period as society’s previous expectations of what women could do was turned on its head.

Three women wearing dresses with long, full skirts.
Christian Dior's fashion evolved to fully make women look like flowers, with full skirts and tight waistbands to highlight an hourglass shape. Image courtesy of Vintag.

Postwar ‘50s

At the end of the war, fashion shifted to a period that is considered the New Look. Inspired by Parisian fashion and Christian Dior, the New Look made use of access to material and took advantage of women leaving their jobs. Dresses had full skirts, slim waistlines, and softer shoulders. An optimist might say that women were wearing these dresses to celebrate the end of the war and make use of all the materials they have. A pessimist might claim that the New Look was a distraction to make women forget about their loss of independence and jobs.

A New Look Based on a Fantasy

1950s fashion was largely focused on escapism and the ideal of a perfect housewife. Men wanted women to stay at home, to return to simplicity. Men had been away at war and desired a classy, yet enticing woman, hence the billowy, feminine, conservative dresses of the time. Additionally, the threat of nuclear war and a better economy encouraged more consumerism.

Dresses were still a similar length, however, pants continued even after the forties. They started to become an item women could wear casually, instead of to a factory. Pants were not popular due to the trend of full skirts (not to mention men’s hatred of anything that could bring women liberation) but a seed was planted for future decades.

Women and girls walk down the street in mini dresses.
Thanks to popular boy bands and a newer teen culture, the miniskirt became a symbol of youth and rebellion. Image courtesy of Fashion-Era.

Swinging ‘60s

Women’s fashion in the 1960s took inspiration from three separate areas: Jackie Kennedy’s first lady looks, hippies, and Swinging London. The 1960s was a time of developing youth culture, with teenagers engaging in social change, listening to pop music, and simply having fun. Their fashion was largely inspired by Mary Quant popularizing the miniskirt. She realized that most fashions were designed for wives and workers, nothing for teenagers. So, she broke the traditional rules of fashion and introduced the miniskirt to the world.

Miniskirt Madness

Miniskirts embodied everything people hated about youth. It was scandalous, modern, and asked why women must cover up so much. Because everyone else seemed to hate the miniskirt, teens wore them even more, making it a staple of 1960s fashion.

Yves Saint Laurent suit for women. The blazer and pants are fitted, but a bow adorns the collar instead of a tie.
Yves Saint Laurent designed suits for women that featured pants, a new and bold decision for 1960s runways.

Due to events like the civil rights movement, the development of youth culture, and women still remaining in the workforce, fashion was turned on its head. Not only was the miniskirt popular, pants and shorts were open for women to wear for everyday life. Mary Quant and Yves Saint Laurent embraced rebellion and put models in suits and pants on the runway.

The 1960s were a period of immense social change. It only makes sense that the fashion reflects the change as well.

Three drawings of women in 1970s dresses with the waistline just below the bust and skirt length going to the floor or just at the knee.
Due to the Vietnam war and protests, people craved peace and simpler times. This inspired designers to create outfits gleaning from prairie dress styles. Image courtesy of Blue17.

Groovy ‘70s

Social and economic dissatisfaction erupted in the 1970s thanks to the US's intervention in the Vietnam war. Perhaps designers yearned for simpler times, or at least times that didn’t include war, because many took inspiration from prairie-style fashion. The maxi-skirt returned with a vengeance and much of daytime fashion took inspiration from previous decades.

Nightwear however took full inspiration from the modern with disco-inspired outfits. Flowy wide legged pants, mini or maxi-length skirts with groovy patterns, and sequins littered the dance floors of the 1970s. This could be another example of the desire for escapism from the Vietnam war, or another expression of youth culture.

1970s advertisement for suits and slacks with men and women modeling the clothes.
Androgynous and unisex fashion gained popularity thanks to the gay liberation movement and popular artists like Bowie who embraced feminine and masculine elements of clothing. Image courtesy of Fashion History Timeline.

Additionally, gay culture became more public in the 1970s. It is unclear whether androgynous fashion was inspired by gay culture or if unisex clothes allowed for more open expressions of queerness, but gender neutral fashion became a common sales point in the fashion industry.  It was still taboo for men to wear skirts and gender limitations were still strict (artists like Bowie and Mick Jagger fought these norms with their fashion) but suits were being made and sold with the purpose of men and women to share.

Androgyny and what we would consider “casual” took off in the 1980s and 1990s, but the 1970s was more or less the beginning of what we consider modern today.

Those are some ways the political climate affected skirt lengths and different fashion styles!

After the 1970s, pants became the predominant option for women to wear. The feminist movement pushed for women to wear pants to have the same range of motion as men. Now, it is perfectly common for a woman to wear pants, a floor-length skirt, shorts, or the tiniest micro-miniskirt on earth.

Fashion is an art form, and art is a reflection of its time period. Despite being looked down upon for appealing to an audience of mostly women, fashion is just as much of a reflection of politics as visual arts, music, and literature.