Fashion History Symbolism & Other Fun Facts

Fashion Timeline. (Photo Credit: Pinterest)

Welcome fashion aficionados and history buffs! Fashion is more than just clothes; it’s a rich tapestry woven with culture, politics, and whimsy. Join us on a stylish journey through time as we explore some delightful and surprising fashion facts that have shaped the way we dress today.


Portrait of Louis XIV of France in 1701. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Think high heels are a modern invention? Think again! High heels date back to the 10th century, and they weren’t originally worn by women. Persian men wore heels while riding horses; the heels helped them stay secure in their stirrups. It wasn’t until the 16th century that high heels became popular among European nobility, both male and female, as a status symbol.


An illustration of a Corset, 1893. (Photo Credit: The Vintage News)

Corsets have been a staple of women’s fashion for centuries, evolving significantly over time. During the 19th century, tight-lacing was common, creating an impossibly tiny waist. Yet, corsets were not just about aesthetics; they played roles in health and social status too. Ironically, the feminist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw women burning their corsets as a symbol of liberation.


Ancient Roman Tunics and Togas. (Image Credit: Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre)

Do you know that in Ancient Greek and Roman times pants were considered uncivilized. Before trousers became the norm, men in many cultures wore skirts and robes. Ancient Egyptians donned kilts, while Roman men sported togas. In fact, the Scottish kilt, a symbol of national pride, remains a traditional garment. Today, many designers have embraced the idea of men in skirts, challenging gender norms and pushing boundaries.


A day dress, French, c. 1870. (Photo Credit: Kent State University Museum)

Travel back to the 1880s, and you’d find women wearing dresses with a distinctive feature: the bustle. This padded undergarment was worn at the back of a skirt to create a pronounced silhouette. Bustle skirts were a marvel of Victorian engineering, often intricately decorated with ruffles, lace, and bows. Although they symbolized opulence, bustles were difficult to move in.


James Dean, in Rebel Without A Cause. (Photo Credit: John Kobal Foundation)

Denim jeans, a quintessential American garment, were invented in 1873 by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss as durable workwear for laborers. Originally called “waist overalls,” they gained popularity during the Gold Rush. By the 1950s, jeans became a symbol of rebellion among teenagers, thanks to cultural icons like James Dean. Today, denim is a fashion staple worldwide, transcending its humble beginnings.


Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972) wears a Bowler hat. (Photo Credit: Alamy)

Hats have made significant statements throughout history. In the Middle Ages, the type of hat you wore indicated your social status. The top hat, introduced in the late 18th century, became a symbol of sophistication along with other famous hats such as the bowler hat, the beret, and the cloche, while the Stetson symbolizes cowboy ruggedness and the American West.


Mary Phelps Jacob and one of the first bras she created. (Photo Credit: India Times)

Did you know that World War I played a pivotal role in the popularization of the bra? Before the war, corsets were the norm for women, often made with metal boning. As the war effort ramped up, the need for metal in military equipment led to a shortage. Enter Mary Phelps Jacob, an American socialite who invented the modern bra in 1914 using silk handkerchiefs and ribbon. Her invention marked the beginning of a new era in women’s undergarments. Now bras are even worn on the outside, a symbol of the avant-garde.


A flapper girl look. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

The 1920s roared with change, and nothing epitomized this era of liberation more than the flappers. These daring young women defied conventional norms with their short-bobbed hair, bold makeup, and knee-length dresses. Flappers embraced jazz music, dance, and a freer lifestyle. Coco Chanel played a significant role in this movement, designing clothes that allowed women to move freely and express their newfound independence. She also introduced The Little Black Dress (LBD), a symbol of an essential wardrobe piece.


Katharine Hepburn in 1939 wearing trousers. (Photo Credit: Shutterstck)

Long before pants became a staple in women’s wardrobes, one iconic figure in Hollywood was already breaking the mold: Katherine Hepburn. In the 1930s and 1940s, when it was still considered scandalous for women to wear trousers, her preference for high-waisted, wide-legged trousers made a powerful statement. A symbol of independence and defiance against gender norms.


French designer Louis Réard created the first bikini in 1946. (Photo Credit: Shutterstock)

Introduced in 1946 by French designer Louis Réard, the bikini was named after the Bikini Atoll, where atomic bomb tests were conducted. The daring design was initially a controversial symbol but has since become a beachwear staple.


Mary Quant’s 2019 exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (Photo Credit: Getty)

The miniskirt, introduced by Mary Quant in the 1960s, was more than just a fashion statement; it symbolized the liberation and empowerment of women during the Swinging Sixties. It was daring, bold, and reflected the youthful rebellion of the era. The miniskirt has since become an enduring icon of fashion history, continually reinvented by designers worldwide.


Jerry Hall in Armani’s spring 1980 show. (Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal)

In the 1980s, the Power Suit became a symbol of women’s rising influence in the workplace. Pioneered by designers like Giorgio Armani, the suit featured broad shoulders and tailored lines, exuding confidence and authority. It marked a significant shift in women’s fashion, blending femininity with the sharpness traditionally associated with men’s business attire.


Sustainability in fashion might seem like a modern concept, but it has deep historical roots. Before the rise of fast fashion, clothing was made to last and often recycled. In the early 20th century, it was common to repurpose and mend garments. The current movement towards sustainable fashion is a return to these values, emphasizing quality, longevity, both  symbols of environmental consciousness.

Care to share your favorite fashion history moments and symbols?

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Antonia Sardone

Antonia Sardone is a new contributor to the University of Fashion. She is also a freelance fashion consultant, stylist and writer. Antonia Sardone graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in Advertising Communications, Marketing and Fashion Journalism. She is an industry veteran having worked for WWD for over fifteen years and has strong relationships with designers worldwide. Today, Antonia Sardone continues to write reviews for WWD as well as work with many contemporary designers on a variety of projects from helping to re-launch their websites to writing their brand books. She enjoys raising her children to be creative individuals, as well as styling, writing and traveling.