American Women's Fashion Trends and Times by Decade, Part 3 - 70's, 80's, 90's and Now

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The 1970’s - (catching That ‘70’s Show on re-runs, you can see it all)By 1970, most public schools, as well as colleges and universities, had given up on their lingering attempts to uphold dress codes requiring girls to wear dresses or skirts.   If you were young, whatever you paired them with, jeans were the “bottoms” of choice--bell-bottomed early on in the decade, and trimming down to merely “flares” by the end. Knit tops were more comfortable and easier-care than blouses (no ironing!), and were available in a wide variety of styles and colors. And essentially, this description of common day-to-day apparel in the 1970’s was not appreciably different for men than for women.

The “counterculture” and its gypsylike fashion of the late ‘60’s “Love Culture” continued to flourish for the first years of the 1970’s, sustained by continued outcry at the continuation of the Vietnam War and disillusionment with the political structure that came with the Watergate scandal and the resultant disgrace and resignation of President Nixon, despite the popularity of his having officially ended the Vietnam War. The much-publicized, drug-related deaths of high-profile musicians Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (both in 1970) and Jim Morrison (in1971) confirmed suspicions among the older generation that much of the “Love” in the “Culture” was narcotics-induced, alienating this community further from the mainstream.

For those of the younger generation who remained within traditional roles within “the establishment”--working and attending college--the business world for young women would accept shortened hemlines (but not the still-popular micro-mini skirts); and with polyester knit fabric at its height of popularity, women began to be allowed to wear pants to work in the form of pant-suits of the comfortable polyester knit--dressier, suit-like tops or tunics accompanied by matching pants.  Many businesses felt the need to set strict criteria about how many inches above the knee one’s hemline could be, and cranky supervisors delighted in forcing the wearer of a suspiciously short hemline to her knees for an actual measurement, followed by being sent home to change if found to be in violation.

While great strides were being made by women and minorities in the workplace as the efforts of bra-burning feminists of the 1960’s and the implementation of a policy of Affirmative Action in the workplace began to bear fruit in ensuring that women and minorities did not fail to get hired, promoted, and paid equally (or somewhere on the road  to “equally”) based on failing to be white males.  Young adults were now the chosen demographic target for fashion.  Middle-aged women, largely neglected by fashion, shortened their hems by an inch or two and continued to wear fairly nondescript dresses and suits for a work environment, and moved comfortably into blouses or knit tops with slacks instead of house-dresses for casual or at-home wear.  Some older women clung to the idea of dresses, but most grandmothers welcomed the comfort and ease of the transition to pants for everything but dressy occasions.

For men of middle age or beyond, outside of a conservative environment requiring a traditional business suit, the leisure suit, comfortable and boxy and of soft polyester knit, was the trendiest look of the ‘70’s. As John Travolta showed everyone, however, in “Saturday Night Fever,” that conservative 3-piece suit was still alive and well.  And Disco was King.

Although high fashion repeatedly offered up the “midi skirt” of below-knee length, it found little widespread acceptance, viewed as a dowdy throwback to the 1940’s. The platform heels from the 1940’s, however, were welcomed back enthusiastically.

As a matter of fact, young women were prepared to show even MORE leg!  Outside of the office, “hotpants” were a new fashion statement--as short-shorts worn with tops, or paired with a micro-mini tunic dress with the pants barely peaking out beneath the hemline. Some versions of hotpants were built into a micro-miniskirt, giving the appearance of a scandalously short skirt, but with the shorts beneath providing coverage.


From the mid-70’s on, much was made of actress Farrah Fawcett’s full and flipped-back hairstyle, and everyone seemed to have their own version, from short hair to long.

Formalwear in the ‘70’s was more casual than previously seen, with young women often choosing frilly, lace-trimmed Victorian-reproduction dresses by Gunne Sax and Jessica McClintock.  Mature women might choose something full and float-y, or a one-piece jumpsuit, either done in a beautiful luxury fabric; or, as is the comforting aspect of formalwear, knee-length (semi-formal) or long (formal) simple dresses with matching jackets in luxury fabrics.

The Excessive 80’s. Suddenly, as the Baby Boomers--such a large chunk of the population--began to re-enter the mainstream by returning from the “counter-culture” to settle into careers and child-raising, a backlash from the anti-establishment 1970’s occurred; this generation now wanted full advantage of the somewhat-more-equal workplace, and women competed ruthlessly with men for high-paying (but still to this day not equal -paying) jobs, perks, and the trappings of success in white-collar jobs. The generation as a whole wanted to understand the principles of building wealth and power; to understand and participate in the stockmarket and other investments.


Power-suits with oversized shoulder pads were the workplace look for both "young upwardly-mobile professional" men AND women (who came to be known as YUPPIES)--who accessorized with small handbags and flashy costume jewelry. Ladies dresses, blouses--even casual T-shirts and knit tops--all came fully-equipped with shoulder pads.

For formal occasions, dresses were heavily embellished with glitter, sequins and rhinestones, and often featured voluminous rhumba-ruffles. With the world’s eyes--and certainly the eyes of fashion--focused on the young Princess Diana of England as she developed her style into womanhood, everyone’s aspirations seemed possible; why not dress the part?

The formerly-banished permanent wave returned with a vengeance for the era’s “big hair” look, often with long bangs lifted high off the forehead with gels and sprays (male or female) and falling back onto the forehead at one side.  A favorite television show, "Dynasty" (photo above), featured the ruthlessly back-stabbing machinations of a family of ultra-rich businessmen and -women, and left us with some of the best examples of the overblown fashion of the day.

Physical fitness had become almost a religion, and as Jazzercize and Jane Fonda’s home videos brought the concept of a daily exercise regimen into the home, department stores began setting aside a section for “fitness” attire--spandex tights and leotards and often leg warmers as movies such as “Flashdance,” and “Dirty Dancing,” brought the hard work and physicality of professional dance into public focus, also bolstered by the unexpected notoriety and popularity of Russian-born dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, which created a renewed interest in ballet.  The leg-warmers went on to become outerwear, rather than just exercise wear, worn over leggings.

For casual wear, the preferred silhouette was skin-tight jeans (tight as in, requiring a shoe horn to put on) or skinny stretch leggings paired with oversized tops. Neon colors were popular.

During the 1980's, middle-class parents became aware that their children might be approached by drug dealers in their middle-class schools.  The use of  cocaine, once considered exotic and dangerous, became--while not necessarily accepted--at least not unusual.  Heroine use was more clandestine, but still increasing exponentially. 

 When Punk Rock made its debut along with MTV, along with it came spiky and often unnaturally-colored hair (still seen today) such as blue or fuchsia; and Mohawks (mostly but not always for men). Body piercings, acid-washed jeans and an overabundance of zippers, grommets and other metal décor on clothing--an intentional debauched look.  In sharp contrast to this otherwise “unisex” look, Madonna burst onto the scene, encouraging the daring to try underwear as outerwear, accessorized with fingerless lace gloves--and sadly, many rose/sank to the occasion.  The Punk trend shared a blurry borderline with the newly-popular “Goth” trend in fashion, which found a theatrical appeal in the appearance of death with corpselike white makeup, black lipstick and eye treatment, and even black nail polish to match, with unusual spikey or asymmetrical hairstyles most often in flat-black hair color; body piercings, tattoos, predominantly black attire heavily influenced by the Victorian era.  Goth actually grew into a type of lifestyle, peaking in the 1990’s, and is still seen around today.

In a whole different interpretation of counter-culture, “Skinheads” (visualize shaved heads, body piercings and tattoos, denim and leather or military-style camouflage garments) began moving to remote areas such as in Idaho and Arizona, to stockpile weapons, and living in loose communities where Neo-Nazism and often violently hostile racial discrimination flourished--and still do today.

From the beginning of the 1980's, the gay and lesbian community began to become more visible and vocal, tired of hiding their sexual orientation in shame. Unfortunately timed in coinciding with gay citizens beginning to “come out of the closet” en masse  was the simultaneous arrival and identification of the HIV/AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) virus, largely limited to its spread within the gay male population. This previously-unknown, wasting illness with its grim prognosis, and its shadowy initial limitation to this particular demographic, created a backlash of fear and hatred of homosexuals that set back their acceptance and assimilation into society as a whole substantially.  As a society, Americans had largely ceased to worry about danger from transmittable diseases.   As the illness gradually spread into the heterosexual population, it slowly ceased to be identified as a “gay men’s” disease.  However, since sexual intercourse was identified as its chief means of transmission, it continued to be viewed as a disease of the promiscuous, and carry with it some residual stigma and fear from others.

As the question of HIV/AIDS became a global issue of pressing urgency, many Americans gained perspective for the first time since World War Two on our country as part of a greater whole, and began to understand the relevance of conditions in other countries to our own well-being. There remains no cure for HIV/AIDS, but treatment has progressed to the medical ability to maintain the virus in its HIV state for years, delaying progression to AIDS and giving its victims meaningful additional years of quality life.

While the 1960’s had let the moral genie out of the bottle with birth-control pill and the sexual revolution, the message to practice “safe sex” (by use of condoms) became the mantra of the ‘80’s. The most meaningful fashion accessory of the 1980’s was the condom.

From a fashion perspective, the emergence of the gay community from out of the shadows was found in an increasingly popular androgynous (or "unisex") look, starting with the most popular music performers being invited into homes on the now-ever-present MTV, many men with heavy eyeliner and blush, feminine hairstyles and intentionally ambiguous garments from both sides of the gender mix.   While not as dramatic when translated to streetwear, androgyny remains a hallmark of 1980's fashion.

The 1990’s was “backlash” time yet again, as Americans looked in the mirror at the unbridled greed of the ‘80’s, and didn’t like what they saw, many facing future years of paying off stifling loads of consumer debt.

As the influence of the ‘80’s receded, the short, fitted ladies’ jackets became longer and straighter, more tunic-like; and similarly, tunic-length sweaters were popular over leggings in winter months. The oversized shoulder pads lingered for a few more years, then began to shrink away a bit more each year.   For the office, young women tucked dressy blouses into short, straight skirts, not belted. Ensembles of plain sleeveless dresses with matching duster-length coats became more common as the Power Suit faded, as people distanced themselves from the materialistic consumerism of the ‘80’s.  Flat shoes were “in” but for a dressier look, many wore heels with light-colored or white hosiery.  Shirts and blouses became boxier and shorter in cut.  “Business Casual” became a permanent part of the workplace vernacular, and of the "formality paradigm" of the etiquette of correct attire, with slacks of comfortable and more-casual fabric for both men and women with less-dressy shirts (no tie) for men and blouses and tops for women (add classic jacket if desired).

Having become accustomed to physical fitness regimes in the ‘80’s, many urban working women began an apparently permanent custom of arriving at work in full business dress but wearing athletic shoes and carrying their dress shoes--easier on the pavement of downtown streets, running to catch the bus, and on-hand for a run at lunchtime, which became common.

Outside of the office, it became trendy to boldly showcase “cleavage”--the word itself became popular--and the Wonderbra created a sensation for enhancing (or creating) the view. With each decade the ages of women wearing jeans as daily casual wear advanced, as those accustomed to wearing jeans in their youth did not leave them behind (although they became more comfortable in style). This "aging-jeans" trend has continued for several decades, with Grandma just as often in denim as the grandkids.

Ladies formalwear became minimalist: sleek, often in dark colors with a single accent of sparkle, such as rhinestones. For the daring, not only was showing cleavage “in,” but many dresses had cutouts, showing slender waists, or extremely low-dipping backs.  The idea was to move away from the fashion "overkill" of the 1980's.

For the younger generation, “grunge” and “punk” continued for both genders. Denim jackets were a must-have item, and other cropped, fitted jackets of more businesslike fabrics were in fashion as well for young women in the office. Cargo pants with their numerous zippered compartments, became popular (and remain so to this day). The arrival and universal acceptance of stretch denim alleviated the discomfort of tight-fitting jeans, preferably acid-washed (and, for the young and hip, ripped and holey) in the early ‘90’s.   Men--teens and young men in particular, began “sagging” baggy jeans or shorts to ridiculously low-riding positions, allowing them to pile up on their shoes. Comfort was the order of the day, with at-home fashion often found in T-shirts, sweatshirts and fleeces. Logo’d fitness wear was very popular, such as that of Nike or Adidas. 

When the teenaged pop princess Britney Spears exploded onto the entertainment scene in the late 1990's, young women's fashion took a dramatic turn toward Spears' midriff-revealing and micro-mini'd costumes, sending everyone under 30 back to the gym to work on their abs.  This trend continued to the mid-2000's.

In the world of high fashion, drugs and couture became linked in the person of drug-troubled British high-fashion model, Kate Moss, whose anorexic body became the very symbol of elegance, and it was for her that the term "Heroine Chic" was coined. This set a new standard for body image, and the decades that followed have seen the tragic results in eating disorders in young women literally dying to achieve that image. The term, the drugs, and the disorders persist, amid controversy about the unrealistic body image put forth by runway fashion.

2000-2010, and Fashion Climate, Spring 2010: just as in the 1920’s, “Anything Goes”.

It IS true that from the beginning of the year 2000 through the present time, there have been no major, original changes or fashion trends strong enough to visibly influence the style of Middle American women. Part of this has certainly been economics--with a Recession building for years (before being officially acknowledged as one, and a doozey at that) this has not been the most “flush” of decades for America, giving us no choice but to change our spending habits.

In the early 2000’s, teenaged and young adult women switched to low-cut, hip-hugging jeans, and have clung to this new style tenaciously, despite its tendency to create the dreaded "muffin-top" at the beltline.  Higher-rise women’s jeans have become scornfully known as “mom jeans,” since older generations are now wearing jeans, and for the most part did not follow the lowcut trend. Despite challenging economic times, Middle America’s young women became willing to part with upwards of $200 for pair of big-name designer jeans, such as Joe’s Jeans or Seven for All Mankind. Also, in the early 2000’s, the Bohemian/”hippie” look of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was happily invited back by the young. Still, little change was seen for anyone else.

A large part of the fashion focus shifted to accessories throughout the 2000’s, with the popularity of the television show Sex and the City’s emphasis on ridiculously expensive shoes, particularly those by designer Manolo Blahnik, with gigantic totebags replacing handbags altogether, some fetching thousands of dollars. Knockoffs hit the shelves for Middle America for $200 or less, but after a season or two the impracticality of the large, floppy bags was relegated to actual tote-bag-type usage as women returned to average-sized bags.  Vans classic sneakers were popular for both men AND women, and Crocs plastic clogs were briefly popular among the earthy set.

At red-carpet events, a sprinkling of formal gowns with trains were seen here and there, but this was scarcely a trend Middle America had occasion to follow.

Much has been said about the latest trend being predicted to be the return of the giant shoulder pads, glitz, and big hair of the 1980’s.  But have we seen it in the shops? On the streets? Not so much--although sleeveless tank dresses of tunic length are being worn in the workplace with the leggings, harking back to the silhouette of those days, now paired with flat-heeled boots.  A theory has been bandied about since the 1920’s, that when hemlines rise, the economy improves; does that still work? Hard to say anymore, because it’s hard to say who’s calling the shots. Could it be possible that Middle America has simply realized it has more important things to think about when they dress for work in the morning?  Who, then, will tell the stores which styles to offer us?

As generally happens when a decade has come to a close, there are always fashion eulogists who attempt to find the common threads of popular thought defines them, and fashion is all about the threads:

The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout postulates that the availability of fashion, music, art and other trends having been made “instant” to view and/or purchase via the Internet means that all things are now available to all people at all times, so that Western culture is able to view both trends being currently presented and those from the past, and from a stylistic perspective, to choose whatever pleases them at that moment, which they tend to do in clique-ish groups.

Simon Doonam of the New York Observer welcomes the idea that since we’ve seen it all go out of style and seen it all come back in as a “retro trend,” there can no longer be anything that is “out.”

Are they right, that we will have no trends because whatever we want is readily available? Or because we’ve essentially “seen it all?”

Or are we experiencing some of what our Great-Depression great-grandparents found in the 1930’s--that based on having little disposable income for new wardrobes in a bleak financial landscape, everything  becomes acceptable--because we’re all in the same boat?

Time, of course, will tell. But ever since humans first clothed themselves for protection from the elements, fashion has been an ever-evolving tableau , sometimes changing overnight, and sometimes settling into periods of hibernation where slight trends aren’t identifiable except long afterwards, in retrospect; sometimes out of need, or societal reaction to events. It would be sad to think that as we continue to innovate to solve the world’s problems, there would be no fashion giants to come forward and push us in another direction--even if that direction is 180 degrees more practical than the runway.

Fashion forecast, Spring 2010:  FOGGY.

©KatieK, April 29, 2010


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