11 fashion staples from each decade and their impact on contemporary wardrobes

By Gwen Soriano, Dec. 5, 2023

Cal Poly Pomona student organizations like Fashion Society and Apparel Scapes utilizing vintage influences within recent work shows the ongoing power of nostalgia in fashion and reviving trends from past eras.

Over the decades, the landscape of fashion has undergone change through cultural and societal movements, leaving a mark on the evolution of style.

The trend cycle not only reflects societal shifts but also plays a pivotal role in shaping individual identities. As CPP students navigate the complexities of life, their fashion choices reflect a visual narrative of their experiences and emotional expressions.

With the industry of apparel continuing to reinvent itself, the newer generations of fashion find themselves at the forefront of tradition and innovation.

Any modern, popularized piece of clothing takes elements of inspiration from the past. Whether it is subtle or widely recognized, former stylistic trends are curated into the apparel seen by today’s contemporary retailers.

Here’s a look at some previous American fashion trends that have influenced styles currently worn by consumers:

  1. The 1920s

Known as a revolutionary era in female fashion, the Roaring Twenties introduced style in the form of glitz and glamor. The culture at the time involved embellished dresses and luxurious accessories to match the vibrancy of flappers and jazz music.

Women of the 1920s also began to wear luxe fabrics as a demonstration of wealth, such as thick furs. E-commerce resellers of higher end brands, such as FarFetch, sell lengthy faux fur coats that are highly resemblant of coat models seen in the 1920s. Contemporary retailers like ASOS incorporate heavy fur into modern-day apparel, less so as a representation of prosperity and more so for functionality and style.

  1. The 1930s

After the influence of the Great Depression, a shift in stylistic tone took place in the world of fashion as well. The dazzling themes of the 1920s were quickly traded in for more refined and conservative designs.

Fashion in the 1930s also showed a desire for tenderness and femininity, as opposed to the boxy flapper dresses of the ‘20s. An age for softer silhouettes called for unique shapes, like the invention of the puff sleeve. Taking inspiration from the Romanticism movement, today’s puff sleeve structures can be found on a simple crop top or flattering dress.

  1. The 1940s

Stylistic decisions in the 1940s were determined by the socio-economic and political climate post-WWII, with themes of utility and modesty in mind. A DW article by Jan Tomes described designer Christian Dior’s revolutionary New Look in 1947 as “the name by which Dior’s style eventually went down in history, appealing strongly to the nostalgic mood of the post-war society.”

With the mass appeal of knee-length hemlines and civilian styles, fashion trends like empire waist trousers both flattered the female body and instilled a sense of practicality into closets. Nowadays, slacks with a cinched waistline are a staple in contemporary business attire.

  1. The 1950s

Female fashion in the 1950s was a quick departure from the seriousness of the wartime years. Marked by a sense of optimism and a return to femininity, trends of the 1950s embraced elegance, grace and a celebration of the hourglass figure.

Soft pastel colors and femme designs dominated 1950s fashion, contributing back to the Romanticism movement. Along with the popularity of vintage-style diners and poodle skirts, shades of pastel were widespread and can be found in various forms of modern clothing, such as lounge sets, crop tops and bathing suits from common retailers like PrettyLittleThing.

  1. The 1960s

The ‘60s brought an era of fashion that was a dynamic expression of youthful rebellion and desire for experimentation. This decade’s styles embraced a structured mod look that was free-spirited and eclectic, heavily inspired by the hippie movement that left a lasting impact on the world of fashion.

A culture of progression and psychedelia, the 1960s birthed the gogo boot, a pair of knee-high footwear that proved as a defining accessory for its era. Worn with miniskirts or dresses, these boots became an emblem of the decade’s grooviness and are seen on today’s fashion icons, such as pop sensation Sabrina Carpenter, who’s been putting her own modern twist on the old trend.

  1. The 1970s

Combining the free-spirited bohemian aesthetic and disco mystique, trends of the 1970s brought  groovy looks unique to its culture.

Much like today’s fashion, denim was a staple fabric in this decade. Bell-bottom jeans, denim jackets, and denim skirts were popular casualwear choices, which are all trends that carried themselves to the modern landscape of fashion. In the U.S., a pair of denim jeans has become a symbol of western roots that can be seen on students nationwide.

The laid-back, comfortable style of denim reflected the era’s casual approach in society and has since been reformed into various versions of the versatile material, like jean vests, dresses and even purses.

Inspired by America’s changing social landscape at the time, Apparel Merchandising and Management professor Nichole Dwyer talked about the relevance behind a trend’s history.

“If you pay attention to the spirit of the time, you might often spot how certain trends were influenced,” said Dwyer. “Like in the ‘70s, when non-conformity was a huge theme, trends such as loose bell-bottoms were really reflective of that cultural emotion.”

  1. The 1980s

During the ‘80s, a person’s style was characterized by a mix of contrasting apparel elements, ranging from powerful workplace pieces to bold and eclectic street fashion. The era’s emphasis on self-expression and individuality made it a symbol of diversity and creativity.

Iconic symbols and media influenced the decade’s vivacity in style, as some were specifically analyzed by Apparel Merchandising and Management professor Nancy Hahn.

“With the Ken and Barbie influence of the ‘80s, we saw big shoulder pads and colorful athleisure,” said Hahn. “It was a very vivid, yet short lived decade of fashion, but we might see it again in later years.”

Although most clothing with pink and turquoise color schemes have made its way to the sales rack, there are elements of playful athleisure continuing to make modern day reappearances.

In the same year actress and music artist Olivia Newton-John released her hit song, “Let’s Get Physical,” she’s seen on the track’s cover art sporting legwarmers, which made a surprise comeback in 2023. Yet, instead of withholding its ‘80s athleisure origins, a pair of legwarmers have become a modern form of hosiery for today’s fashion icons.

  1. The 1990s

Taking more of a minimalistic approach, female fashion in the 1990s drew inspiration from various subcultures, including the grunge movement and the rise of casual streetwear.

This decade rejected many previous themes of luxury and embraced a more relaxed approach to fashion. The ‘90s saw the emergence of slip dresses as a versatile wardrobe staple, commonly layering them underneath baggy T-shirts and chunky knit sweaters. Modern day fashion embraces casual forms of lingerie, including the incorporation of slip dresses and lace camisoles into everyday streetwear.

  1. The 2000s

Styles born from the 2000s heavily involved the growing popularity of streetwear, with a variety of baggy pant styles and logo-centric fashion. Its huge pop culture influence shaped this decade’s fashion landscape, brought up by its growing impact of technology and the introduction of celebrity endorsements.

Followers of contemporary fashion like fourth year AMM student Jordan Starr reflected on the decade’s influence in apparel seen today.

“Y2K is basically the culprit of every brand right now,” said Starr. “When I think of the year 2000, I definitely think of unique denim.”

With the uprise in bold streetwear, diverse denim styles like low-rise jeans became a defining trend. This style, popularized by celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, became an emblem of early 2000s fashion. Today’s clothing retailers prove the trend’s resurgence, as a pair of low rise jeans continue to sell from popular denim brands like Levi’s.

  1. The 2010s

Nearing close to what fashion culture looks like today, the rise of social media allowed many trends to resurface and rapidly circulate. Digital connectivity and an increased emphasis on environmental consciousness allowed for fast fashion companies like Zara and H&M to gain popularity.

With this shift in style came a dominance in athleisure. Differing from the athletic themes from the 1980s, leggings, sports bras and sneakers became the cultural norm. The fusion of comfort and style defined this decade’s approach to activewear and remains significantly relevant in today’s fashion, with trending retailers such as SKIMS and Alo Yoga ruling the youth’s apparel.

  1. The 2020s

As for the current decade, there is a large emphasis on inclusivity and body positivity that has revolutionized the fashion industry.

Consumers today celebrate diversity and originality through their style, embracing a wide range of sizes, ethnicities and gender identities, further reflected in fashion fanatics like Dwyer.

“When looking for various aspects of inspiration, many of today’s designers tend to encourage this newer idea of individuality,” said Dwyer. “It’s more about freedom of expression and what speaks to the wearer, which wasn’t always the common narrative in the fashion industry.”

Feature image courtesy of Ben Berwers

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