How is Fashion Influenced by Significant Historic Events?

Events all around us have a tremendous impact in shaping our sartorial choices. As witnessed throughout history, major wars, economic downturns and pandemics have all played a huge influence in shaping fashion. In this blog, I discuss how the events of the 21st century have moulded fashion in the aftermath of major historic events.

World War I and the Spanish Flu Pandemic (1914 - 19)

In 1914, the world was thrown into the “war to end all wars” and was soon followed by the deadly Spanish flu in 1918. The flu took 50 million lives worldwide and 670,000 in the US. For comparison, the preceding WWI cost 17 million lives worldwide. The disastrous events inadvertently resulted in more women joining the workforce and even taking on leadership roles. Simple, utilitarian clothing and tunics worn over a skirt were popular wartime fashion. Women began to wear practical uniforms, including overalls and trousers, as they worked outdoors and in factories for the war effort.


Known as the "roaring 20s", the decade that followed WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic was known for its unprecedented economic prosperity. Women finally won the right to vote after politicians realized the significance of their contributions during the preceding crisis. After the war ended, instead of going back to the restrictive corsets of the pre-war years, women opted for more modern and comfortable fashion that portrayed their newfound voting power and liberation after the end of WWI and Spanish flu pandemic.



"Twenties fashion is often remembered for its glitz and glamour, though underlying this was a move toward simplicity in dress."
For women, this meant shorter skirts, simple shapes, and more boyish silhouettes. La Gorconne or the flapper dress with its dropped waistline, high hemline, comfortable and free-flowing design was popularized by Coco Chanel in the 1920s. 1920s was also the first time sportswear became acceptable for women and many looks were influenced by tennis outfits. In pop-culture, Jazz music became wildly popular. Socially, US citizens vied for material affluence, giving way to a culture of consumerism.

The Great Depression (1929 to 1941)

The stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, was the worst economic downturn in US history. As of 1933, more than 13 million people were unemployed with the unemployment rate at 25% (for comparison, US unemployment rate in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as of September 2020 is 8.4%).
Historical Fashion
Following the stock market crash in 1929, women's dresses became longer, sitting at a midi or ankle length. Dresses transformed from the 1920’s loose, tubular and boyish silhouette to a more feminine, form-fitting one with a defined waistline. The dresses retained the simpler lines of the previous decade but waistlines ascended back to their natural place on the body.
Bias Cut Gown
Perhaps as a way to escape the trauma of the depression era, people in the 1930s were highly influenced by Hollywood fashion. "Bias-cut" Hollywood evening gowns (cut at a 45 degree angle that resulted in figure hugging and flattering dresses in soft fabrics like crepe, silk and satin) became all the rage in the 30s attributed in great part to designer Madeleine Vionnet. In casual fashion, high waisted sailor pants and sports influenced shorts were hugely popular.

By the end of the 30s, Europe had entered into the Second World War (WW2) and the US still hadn't left the Great Depression behind. 

World War II (1939 to 45)

WW2 started at the heels of the Great Depression and fashion (or the lack thereof) in the first half of the 1940s, was significantly defined by the ongoing war. Uniforms and utility clothing dominated the mainstream clothing choices during this time as men went to fight in the war and women took on roles that were previously only filled by men.

Christian Dior
After the war ended, Christian Dior released his first haute couture collection in 1947 featuring elaborate dresses with cinched waists and full skirts. The collection was criticized by many as wasteful and flashy in the aftermath of the clothes rationing war era. However, it gained popularity among women who were ready to leave the war and its memories behind. The "Bar Suit" from Dior's collection served as inspiration for many designers for years to come and was the most recognizable silhouette of the late 40s and early 50s. Everyone wanted to wear Dior!

According to fashion historian, Gerda Buxbaum, “the long years of deprivation during World War II brought forth a yearning for luxury and fashionable things, and women made a special effort to dress appropriately for every occasion; it was considered imperative that one’s accessories matched perfectly” with their outfits. With an emphasis on accessories on the rise, Chanel released its first line of shoes, the infamous two-toned slingback in the late 50s - still covered to this day!

The fashion sentiment of the 1950s leaned into femininity and formality and it was increasingly important for women to have a pulled together look, influenced and encouraged by the high-glamour fashion photography of the time! 

The September 11 Attacks (2001)

On 9/11/2001 - the 4th day of New York Fashion Week had just started with the 9am shows underway, when the camera crew suddenly started rushing out of the fashion shows. The twin towers had just been hit. 

The 2000s had started off with fashion that was heavily influenced by technology and the recent mainstream arrival of the internet. The turn of the new millennium was marked by the “Y2K” frenzy – a coding bug that could bring computers to a screeching halt globally. The anticipated technological apocalypse was all that people talked about. Y2K fashion, was evident in the sexy, futuristic looks represented through monochromatic fashion and a significant use of metallics, reflective blacks and grays (think matrix).

9/11 impacted fashion by bringing in a new wave of conservatism immediately after the events. New Yorkers opted for functional clothes and sturdy shoes, instead of clothing and accessories that could be described as pretty or sexy. In a 2001 news article, a woman described feeling “unconscionable and insensitive” in trying to be “up to the minute” after 9/11.

However, in the weeks and months after 9/11 and the rise in Islamophobia - images of veiled Afghan women under Taliban rule started flooding the media along with generalized narratives of the burqa. Suddenly the freedom of expression through clothes became an act of “consumer patriotism.” Fashion and consumerism were now encouraged and discussed in the same vein as American liberation and feminism; squarely juxtaposed against the stories of the oppressed and invisible burqa. According to a Deloitte survey, 74% of Americans believed it was their patriotic duty to shop after 9/11.

Gisele Bundchen
A white t-shirt with a heart shaped American flag being sewn together symbolized the “Fashion for America” campaign. “Cheap chic” became an integral part of American consumer values where high-end fashion designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Isaac Mizrahi collaborated with mass market retailers H&M and Target respectively. This new shift in consumer values resulted in brands being accessible to the everyday woman and a nod to the democratization of fashion.

The Great Recession (2008)

By mid-2000s, the housing boom was in full swing and the optimistic sentiment of the people was reflected in maximalist fashion with bold colors, logos and bling everywhere. However, with the burst of the housing bubble by the end of 2007, the mood and the preferred aesthetic shifted overnight. It was suddenly uncool to wear obvious brand logos and therein began the rise of minimalism. According to Vox.com, “the Great Recession of 2008 is believed to have kicked off the era of minimalism as was illustrated by clean lines, whites and grays color choices.”

Kate Middleton Bridal Gown

As a result of the great recession, values that rose to the surface for people were honesty, value, and economic transparency and independence. High unemployment rates resulted in a slew of startups whose fundamental values resonated with those of the consumers. Many direct-to-consumer lifestyle startups emerged post-recession with simplified business models and more value to millennial consumers for the money, including Everlane, Reformation, and Warby Parker. The aesthetic of these startups was steeped in minimalism and simplicity, without compromising on quality. White sneakers, leggings and athleisure became a huge fashion trend of the 2010s. In clothing, sleeves made a comeback thanks in large part to Kate Middleton’s Stella McCartney bridal gown from 2011. Nude pumps and lipstick were also defining trends.

Minimalism influenced other aspects of life too – light and airy home interiors with white cabinets and light walls and floors became a way of life in the next decade. With the popularity of Instagram in this decade, uncluttered and gram-worthy spaces were a must.

COVID-19 Pandemic (2020)

COVID-19 has forced many of us to re-evaluate our lifestyle and priorities and the silver lining to this awful disease is that we might come out of it changed in some ways that will reset our priorities and improve the future of our lives and planet. When it comes to fashion, the tide is shifting. I believe that once the world comes out of quarantine, we will pause as consumers before we buy multiple pieces at fast fashion corporations. Instead we will invest in beautiful pieces that tell a story and support and uplift the entire supply chain in an ethical manner.
Evidently, people came out of the stay-at-home orders cautiously. People were eager to don the bright summer colors but we hardly saw the flashy displays of brand logos that we were starting to see a lot more of in the second half of last decade. 

Do you agree? Let us know how COVID-19 has impacted your fashion choices in 2020 and beyond?

Research Credit:
1. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/
2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-1918-flu-pandemic-helped-advance-womens-rights-180968311/
3. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-16759233
4. https://www.vox.com
5. https://instagram.com/vintagegalblog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published