Vintage Formal Dresses: How They Evolved

Are we really that much different from women back in the day in terms of our dressing? The answer may surprise you but no. Today's fashion undoubtedly takes its cue from vintage fashion by imitating its styles, embellishments, silhouttes, and lengths.

1920s Fashion

Back in the early 1920s, dresses were beautifully crafted with embellishments.

Wealthy women were expected to wear afternoon dresses (also known as "tea gowns") to formal luncheons and afternoon teas. These dresses featured long, flowing sleeves and were embellished with sashes, bows or artificial flowers at the waist. The waistline fell to the hip and the hemline tended to end at mid-calf or just above the ankle - more commonly known today as "tea length".

Evening dresses however, were usually slightly longer. The dresses were extravagant; having made from luxurious fabrics such as satin or velvet and commonly adorned with beads, rhinestones or fringe. If you've watched The Great Gatsby, you would have noticed Carey Mulligan's gorgeous evening gown (depicted below) which designers created based on a representation of the 1920s fashion.

A scene from the movie - The Great Gatsby

1930s Fashion

In the 1930s though, the attention shifted towards the arms - fluttering or puffed sleeves, butterfly sleeves and banjo sleeves. Evening gowns also came with matching jackets which were worn to the theater, nightclub and fancy restaurants. The photo below shows Bette Davis in her formal frock paired with a gold embroidered jacket.

Bette Davis in a formal gown with a jacket
The 1939 film Gone with the Wind saw Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara wearing Walter Plunkett's barbecue party dress - the costume that sprung full skirts worn over crinolines back into wedding fashion. The dress featured a bodice made of floral printed organza which fitted snugly to the body.

Vivien Leigh in the iconic Walter Plunkett barbecue party dress
Through the mid 1930s, an emphasis started to be placed on an empire waistline, where dresses were designed with a fitted midriff or seams below the bust which gave a high-waisted appearance and increased the focus on the breadth at the shoulder. By the end of the 1930s, the trend shifted towards the back with halter necklines and high-necked but backless evening gowns with sleeves.

1940s Fashion

The 1940s showcased a myriad of trends including shoulder pads, floral prints, neckerchiefs, pleats, zips, ruching and even statement head wear. But perhaps the most iconic dress was the one worn by Rita Hayworth in the 1946 film Gilda. The actress donned a seductive black satin sheath gown made by American costume designer Jean Louis in the movie's striptease scene.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda

1950s Fashion

The 1950s is probably one of my favorites decades. Gone were the padded shoulders and tubular silhouettes. Dress silhouettes became more feminine by featuring narrower shoulders, a cinched waist and longer skirts and more emphasis was placed on the bust. In fact, the hourglass figure was all the rage, which was why the dresses were slim at the waist.

One of the most memorable dresses would have to be the white dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in the movie The Seven Year Itch. The dress featured a halter bodice with a plunging neckline, a waistband and a softly pleated skirt.

Marilyn Monroe in her signature white dress
Ball gowns were also now made longer than ankle length dresses such that they reach the floor. These full skirted gowns for white tie occasions were worn to balls, just as how they are worn to formal or prom today. Take for instance this stunning Givenchy embroidered evening gown which Audrey Hepburn wore in the movie Sabrina.

Audrey Hepburn in her stunning Givenchy evening gown
Which decade is your favorite? Let us know in the comments section below!

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