H.C.'s abstract oversimplified conceptual overview schema of the history of the Western fashion cycle

*Return to H.C.'s Slightly Silly Victorian page
*Go to a discussion on conspicuous consumption in dress by Thorstein Veblen
*See also notes and illustrations of Regency/Empire women's clothing styles
*And an account of the only known martyr for Directoire fashions?
*And other illustrations of the Regency period

The chart below is intended to give an idea of the main types of changes in women's clothing styles that have occurred in western and central European (and European-derived) cultures during the last thousand years or so. There are three important dates in this abstract simplified conceptual overview.

[Fashion Cycle History Conceptual Overview Chart]

  1. The first crucial date is the 14th century. Before the 14th century, the fashion cycle barely existed (in anything like the form it would take on in later centuries) -- the long, somewhat loose gowns that women wore had largely been derived by successive slight gradual changes from those of the Byzantine empire and late antiquity, and there was no particular expectation that a daughter would wear anything very different from what her mother had worn at the same age (unless she ended up in a very different social or geographical situation). This is not to deny that some women had their own personal sense of style, or that there were variations in women's costume. But though upper-class women might proclaim their status by wearing floor-length robes, while lower-class women's clothes were a more practical ankle or lower-calf length, the ever-changing extremes and extravagancies of later centuries didn't yet occur.
    After the 14th century, these conspicuous excesses -- such as extremely high headgear, huge farthingale hoopskirts, and so on down the centuries -- were a regular feature of changing women's fashions, and it was taken for granted that women's fashions would regularly change. Near the beginning of this period, fifty years was enough to change women's costume more radically than it had changed over a number of centuries leading up to the 14th century -- and the fashion cycle got faster over time, so that by the Victorian period of the 19th century it took little more than a decade to shift from one ridiculous extreme to another (and completely different) extreme (such as from enormous crinolines to tightly-skirted dresses with bustles).
    Here's "The Various forms of the Hoop-skirt during Three Centuries", a modern costume plate (containing redrawn versions of various contemporary illustrations) which compares the development of the late 16th century farthingale, the mid 18th century hoop skirt and the mid 19th century crinoline (from Tilke's Kostümschnitte, 1945):
    [Tilke Hoop-Skirt History] (Click on thumbnail to see large image; the missing date under the first costume of the second row should probably be ca. 1695-1700.)
    This historical overview image reveals an important difference between men's fashion history and women's: if you take two points in time at least twenty or thirty years apart, then the men's clothing styles of a third intermediate point in time will quite often be more or less intermediate between the men's clothing styles of the two endpoints (i.e. a more or less linear evolution over time, at an abstract conceptual level) -- while women's high fashions have fluctuated more wildly (i.e. tend more to wild veerings in one direction then another, resulting in eventual circular returns to styles which are rather similar to styles of an earlier period, but quite different from the fashions of the intervening periods).

  2. The second important date is ca. 1800. During a period from the last years of the 18th century up through the first two decades of the 19th century, the fashion cycle took a big lurch outside of its normal parameters, giving rise to "Directoire"/"Empire"/"Regency" styles. While the practicality, lightness, class-neutrality, and unburdensome and unconstricting nature of these fashions can be exaggerated, it is still true that the upper-class women's clothes of this period possessed these qualities to a much greater degree than upper-class women's styles had done for centuries (going back to at least the 1520's), and also to a much greater degree than upper-class women's styles were to do from 1825 to the end of the 19th century.
    Here's an interesting sketch by Alfred Roller which gives an overview of women's fashions 1794-1887 (the caption at the top of the image was added by your humble web-page maintainer):
    [1794-1887 Women's Clothing Styles Overview .GIF Image] (Click on thumbnail to see large image.)

  3. The third important date is World War I. A few years before the war, the fashion cycle appeared to be still functioning as usual (i.e. according to the same general pattern that it had been following for centuries) -- but by a few years after the end of the war, a radical and unprecedented change had occurred. Though the importance of fluctuating hemlines has sometimes been exaggerated, in this case the degree to which women's skirt lengths changed in the years surrounding WWI does give an idea of the fashion discontinuity which occurred over the course of those years (see the second chart below). During the thousand years preceding WWI, it was often true that skirts as high as lower-calf length were considered a vulgar déclassé stigma of lower-class women's dress, and it is basically true that during this millennium skirts shorter than lower-calf length were considered to be positively shameful and indecent (or were only considered appropriate in certain restricted and highly specialized contexts, such as ballerinas performing on stage, or women's sea-bathing clothes). And in 1912, society had only recently become accustomed to a change in upper-class women's gowns from floor-length to ankle-length. Yet by 1927, hemlines were creeping close to the knee, so that centuries of tradition had been thrown out the window. Similarly, a constricted waist had been a feature of most upper-class women's clothing styles since the 16th century, and had been a constant feature of fashions between 1825 and 1910 (even increasing in severity during the later part of this period, when technical advances in corset construction made tight-lacing somewhat more feasible). But by 1927, the wasp-waisted look had gone entirely out of fashion.
    Therefore fashion changes and cycles since WWI have taken place according to completely separate parameters (i.e. within an entirely different range of posssible variations) than those of fashion cycles between the 14th century and WWI. This new fashion regime is shown on the diagram above by putting post-WWI fashion cycles in a different region of the chart than pre-WWI fashion cycles.
    Finally, a new feature of fashion which has been especially prominent since the mid-1970's (but which I have not attempted to show on the first chart above) is that the range of acceptable choices has become much wider -- there is no longer really one single skirt-length that a woman has to wear in order to be considered stylish, and in many situations a woman is free to wear either pants or a dress, etc. etc. (See the grey area in the second chart below.) Another feature of this latest period is that Parisian haute couture has dwindled to become merely a kind of abstract conceptual performance art that has almost nothing whatever to do with what the vast majority of women wear on most occasions (this trend had its first early beginnings with Paul Poiret around 1909, and became rather obvious to anyone who cared enough to bother to notice after the "midi" flap of the early 1970's). As Pierre Cardin said in 2005: "Intelligent women work nowadays, they drive cars, and the cars are smaller and smaller, while the dresses at Dior are bigger and bigger. It's very beautiful, but it's not fashion -- it's something else. It's costume."
    Go to this page for information on a haute couture designer who made his name with an exhibition entitled "Twelve Unwearable Dresses", and "has produced clothes out of plastic, chain-metal, fluorescent leather, ostrich feathers, aluminium, paper, laser discs, fiber-optic wire, plastic bottles, socks, and doorknobs", and who, though he sometimes condescends to "make garments out of traditional fabrics, seems possessed by an almost malignant need to ``deform'' them. His dresses composed of a multitude of riveted leather triangles, knitted strips of mink, and strip-torn silk are examples of his high-minded euclidean couture."
    (As Anna Russell would say, "I'm not making this up, you know!")

[Abstract conceptual skirt height (hemlines) overview chart (1805-2005 fashions)]
(See also a vector SVG version of this second chart.)

The first (general fashion-cycle) chart above is partially loosely based on my own interpretation of On Human Finery by Quentin Bell (2nd. ed. 1976), which contains interesting discussion of the "fashion cycle".

A Martyr for Directoire Fashions?

[La Parure est Belle - al-Tabarruj Sayyi']

According to al-Jabarti's history of Egypt, on the date 24 Rabi` I, 1216 A.H. of the Islamic calendar (August 4th 1801 A.D.) -- soon after the French Napoleonic army had finally withdrawn from Cairo after a long confused bloody sequence of events, and anti-French feelings were running high among the Muslim population -- two agents of the incoming vizier of the returning Ottoman administration tracked down the daughter of religious leader Sheikh al-Bakri, and accused her of committing tabarruj with the French. After her loving father disclaimed all responsibility for her activities, the two aides summarily broke her neck. The interesting thing is that this Arabic word tabarruj does not necessarily refer to any definite immoral act or overt sexual transgression as Europeans or Americans would have understood this. Instead, in Islamic terminology tabarruj can refer to anything that a woman does for the purpose of attracting a man (in any situation other than what goes on between husband and wife in private). So in different circumstances tabarruj can mean: not wearing a veil, not wearing a head-covering, wearing an insufficiently-encompassing head-covering, wearing publicly-visible cosmetics, wearing perfume, wearing jewelry considered inappropriate, wearing insufficiently all-covering garments, wearing insufficiently opaque garments, wearing somewhat tight-fitting garments which reveal the shape of the body (instead of shapeless garments which conceal the outline of the body), wearing garments considered too elaborate or costly, or even walking in a manner considered flaunting, or stamping on the ground so that her ankle-rings (concealed by her clothing) make a jingling sound. In short, any external alteration or gesture that a woman undertakes in order to attract attention to herself in public with the intention of exciting general male admiration (or "displaying her charms", as some dictionaries translate it). What this word tabarruj (which appears in Qur'an verses 24:60 and 33:33) is most often used to condemn, is not just adornment and beautifying which is considered excessive or tasteless -- but rather the whole idea that any female adornment or beautifying for public view should be tolerated at all as a legitimate or permissible social activity. So there's a good possibility that (as David Pryce-Jones has concluded) the daughter of Bakri was killed mainly for the "crime" of going about dressed as a Frenchwoman, or publicly wearing clothes that made her appearance somewhat resemble a Frenchwoman's (since in an earlier passage Jabarti complains about Muslim women of Cairo who committed the tabarruj of wearing French-style clothes in public) -- in which case, she would be the only known literal martyr for Directoire fashions!

It's interesting to contrast the daughter of Bakri in Egypt with her contemporary Elizabeth Paterson -- or "Betsy Bonaparte" -- in the United States. Betsy tried to keep up-to-date with the very latest French fashions, so that she wore cutting-edge French styles which often seemed extreme in the eyes of Americans (one Margaret Bayard Smith wrote: "She has made a great noise here, and mobs of boys have crowded round her splendid equipage [horses and carriage] to see what I hope will not often be seen in this country, an almost naked woman."). Betsy also married a brother of the ruler of France, even though the French (and especially the French government) were extremely unpopular in the United States during the "XYZ Affair" scandal of 1798 and the 1798-1800 undeclared naval war with France, just a few years before. No one broke Betsy Bonaparte's neck (though there was much gossip about her choice of attire, and the fact that her marriage was annulled by the French government -- but not the Catholic church -- by order of Napoleon), and she lived to a ripe old age of 94 years, and her grandson became Attorney-General of the U.S. under Teddy Roosevelt.

Here's an illustration of the "Bill Ward" theory of fashion change (WARNING: sexist 1950's cartoon containing a bad pun):
[1950's Bill Ward Fashion Cartoon]
(Some noted fashion historians have proposed a slightly more nuanced and scholarly version of this same theory. ;-).)

*Return to H.C.'s Slightly Silly Victorian page
*Go to a discussion on conspicuous consumption in dress by Thorstein Veblen
*See also notes and illustrations of Regency/Empire women's clothing styles
*And other illustrations of the Regency period

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