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07.09.2009- Decades of Decadence.

By sheer luck whilst browsing BBC iPlayer, I found a wonderful programme originally broadcast on BBC Four entitled 'Style on Trial: The Finale'. Advocates including Brix Smith-Start, Caryn Franklin and Ben de Lisi put forward cases for their respective decades (from the 1940's to the 1990's) to a panel of judges (including designers Lulu Guinness, the adorable Celia Birtwell and editor of British GQ Dylan Jones) before the judges proceeded in deciding which decade to crown the most stylish. Inspired by this, I have collated my own retrospective of the last sixty years in fashion below with a view to deciding which era I think can be called the 'most stylish'.

The era of 'make do and mend', rationing and the beginnings of the golden age of couture under the leadership of Christian Dior in Paris in 1947. Rationing saw women becoming far more creative in their dressing, and accessorising became an instant way to update an old outfit. The Women's Land Army 'dug for victory' in jumpers, headscarves and trousers and the Blitz spirit manifested itself more than ever in the way women dressed. Tea dresses, red lipstick and high heels all belong to the 1940's, and remain staple items in the clothing and cosmetic collections of many women today. Without the hardship and rationing of wartime in the 40's it is doubtful whether the post-war golden age of couture would have unfolded in such glamorous and elegant fashion, as designers and women alike celebrated the excesses they were allowed to enjoy in peacetime once again.

The true era of luxury, sophistication and elegance. The 50's witnessed the birth of real tailoring and the genesis of, amongst others, the sack dress, the empire line dress and cocoon coat. Thanks to the designs of Christian Dior, the traditional hourglass silhouette was born, and women ever since have been slaves to achieving perfect proportions. The 1950's also saw the emergence of the teenager and youth culture inspired by cinematic rebels such as James Dean in 'Rebel Without a Cause' and Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One'. However, perhaps the most revolutionary development in the world of fashion happened when denim made the transition from workwear to fashionable clothing; ever since, jeans have been dominant in every wardrobe all over the world. The 50's then, appear to be years of transitory fashion; the decade begins with elegant tailoring and ends with the adoption of denim into the mainstream. The metamorphosis from formalwear to casualwear within the collective cultural consciousness of the era is something which is perhaps symbolic of the greater freedoms which were to be experienced in the coming 60's, specifically within youth culture. 

The 1960's is perhaps the richest decade when it comes to fashion history; one the one hand, the 'free love' movement saw the beginnings of flower power and hippy chic (think maxi dresses and wavy hair accessorised with flowers) and on the other the Chelsea Girls, mods and rockers and the beatnik Carnabetian army with their Quant designed mini skirts, leather jackets and Mondrian inspired graphic prints. The recently relaunched BIBA label was born in 1964, founded by Barbara Hulanicki, providing the young, cosmopolitan woman with designs inspired by those seen on the catwalks of Paris, but at a far more accessible price point. BIBA also launched a mail order catalogue, which saw the fashions which had become so popular in London spread across the UK. Many of today's most recognisable high street names were also born in the 60's, including Topshop and Miss Selfridge, and a young designer named Ossie Clark was dubbed 'the king of the King's Road' by the British press after his entire first collection was bought by Henri Bendel in New York City, an amazing feat, and something which many young designers still aspire to.

The 1970's; the era of kitsch disco glamour and aggressive punk, which, let's be honest, couldn't be further apart if they tried. Flares were compulsory, and men everywhere tried (and failed) to replicate Tony Manero's killer moves on the dancefloor. Ali MacGraw's hairstyle in Love Story was the look that launched a deluge of middle partings and Farrah Fawcett's blown out bouffant was replicated the world over. With the beginnings of punk music, black became regulation uniform for followers of the movement; skinny jeans, band t-shirts and weather beaten leather jackets combined with a 'devil may care attitude' clearly differentiated the punk tribe from their disco dancing, sequin clad counterparts and more than ever demonstrated the symbiosis which exists between music and fashion.

Yuppies, power dressing and Dynasty inspired shoulder-pads. Although the thought of 1980's fashion returning to vogue sends a shiver down my spine, thanks to Balmain, this time around it doesn't seem quite so horrible. Androgyny (think Annie Lennox in the 'Sweet Dreams' video) was a big look in the 80's, and accessories were oversized, brash and bold, with little regard for practicality (or taste, some would argue). Colours were fluorescent, often clashing and shell suits are a crime which should be forever condemned to the rubbish bin. Whenever I think of the 80's, I have to confess I feel a little bit ill, and think that we need to remember that the fashion of the decade wasn't that great the first time around, so I am filled with little confidence that shoulder pads will be any less ridiculous the second time around.

 The 1990's saw the minimalist aesthetic emerge, in a welcome contrast to the excesses of the money hungry 1980's, white was the new black, and the dresses of Gianni Versace became famous the world over for their figure enhancing tailoring. Supermodels including Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista dominated runways and editorials alike, and ingenue Kate Moss soon became the face which launched a thousand campaigns. Grunge was also a massive look in the 90's, but many found it difficult to tread the thin line between heroin chic and simply looking like a hobo who you might find lurking outside your local supermarket.

So, to conclude, it seems that nothing can match the sophistication and elegance of the 40's and 50's, although the 60's comes very close in terms of the sheer range of fashion and trends the decade encompasses. There is something about the magical tailoring, accessorising and attitudes of the earlier decades which is enchanting, especially as the closest many of us are able to get to that period is through the fashions we see repeated so often from season to season; we can be forever sure that trends from the past are never far away.

What do you think? Which fashion decade is your favourite?

The programme 'Style on Trial: The Finale' is available to watch on BBCiPlayer here, but is available to UK residents only.

(Photo credit: Google Images). 


  1. i read this post the other day but it is really well written my love :) xxxxx


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