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You've Come a Long Way, Baby!

A century of fashion innovation, novelty, and faux pas

By Dara Colwell

While fashion largely remains in the eye of the beholder, clothing has always served its purpose--be it social, sexual, cultural, or individual. Since man evolved from his naked-ape status (and because nudity is often perceived as a threat), he has cloaked himself in threads, accentuated this, minimized that, tucked those neatly away and managed to avoid sitting on cold surfaces unprepared.

Now that we've arrived at the early 21st century, fashion will no doubt take new, unexpected turns. But one thing remains certain: Western fashion has gone through such rapid changes and bizarre extremes that looking back inevitably evokes morbid fascination.

What better time to start than at the turn of the last century. The popular figure at the time was the "Grecian bend"--a pigeon-breasted bosom, tiny corseted waist, and full swayback hips.

The corset itself had appeared in the late 19th century and caused considerable debate. The popular practice of tight-lacing and the inward-curving busk at the corset's front raised the question whether it was harmful to the wearer's health. (Pretty much a no-brainer.) Dress was, of course, exceedingly formal and reflected social status.

The 1920s was a decade notorious for scandalous changes in fashion, drinking habits, and Mafia activity. It was the era of the streamlined, curveless figure. Skirts fell sordidly short, between the knee and mid-calf depending on the season, and formal clothes hardly differed from casual ones. Clothing was straight, hairstyles were tomboyish, and fashion was much less restrictive, giving both sexes ample room to run when the cops crashed the local speakeasy.

Let's skip to the bouncy and bubbly '50s (the previous two decades everyone dressed like their parents), a time when cardigan twin-sets were all the rage. Full-length, shawl-collared coats and furs draped glamorously across the shoulders of starlets. Women waltzed into rooms in full, wide skirts layered in taffeta, while men--who still dressed like their fathers--wore casual sweaters. Of course there were also the incredibly engineered bullet bras, which will likely cause us to mix metaphors, so we'll mention them only in passing.

The '60s signaled a time of fashion innovation: PVC designs, straight Nehru jackets, shapeless capes, tweed reversible coats, and--who can forget--the miniskirt.

Because '70s retro fashion is currently en vogue, there's little need to go into polyester three-piece suits, platform shoes, floral muumuus and free-flowing bell-bottoms. Just watch That '70s Show.

As for the '80s slew of grotesque fashion--skinny leather ties, ripped sweatshirts, suburban punk fashion, and bandannas--some things deserve to be forgotten by history.

Today, fashion seems influenced more by advertising and our television screen than, say, those bra-burning episodes of yesteryear. But it's also more fun. There are fewer constraints dictating what is formal or casual, office wear or leisure.

So whatever the fashion era, the next time "What could they have been thinking?!" flits through the unschooled mind, just remember: Decades from now, you might have to explain that those sausage-casings you donned in the '80s were actually jeans.

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From the October 3-9, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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