An Image of Itself

Brown leather corset by Vivienne Westwood, c. 1991

Brown leather corset by Vivienne Westwood, c. 1991

‘I believe in copying if you can, there’s nothing better.’
(Vivienne Westwood, 1996)

Although Vivienne Westwood said this in the late twentieth century, the desire to copy older styles of dress for contemporary fashions stretches back many centuries. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ masques, sophisticated staged entertainment for royalty and aristocrats, required the participants to dress in costume all’antica; the dress of the ancient past. Elements from these fanciful masque costumes, loosely based on Roman dress, began to seep into contemporary dress.

The mantle, an embroidered shawl worn across the body and tied at the shoulder, was part of such a masque costume but became fashionable dress, as can be seen in many early seventeenth century portraits.

The eighteenth century was to see an increase in the adoption of historical dress elements into contemporary fashion. The influence of masquerades, popular and fashionable events attended by the elite in costume, on fashionable dress can be seen in the adoption of the Medici collar and masquerade caps. This blurring of the boundaries between fancy dress costume and fashion prompted social commentator Frederick Robinson to say on women’s fashions of the 1770s, ‘a few years ago they would have been thought fantastick [sic] for a Masquerade’.

If art hoped to create timeless images for posterity, dress was looking to evoke past times for renewed glories. Le style troubadour of the 1770s brought back late sixteenth century fashions of the French king Henry IV. It hoped, rather inauspiciously, to bestow Henry’s successes onto the newly crowned King Louis XVI. After the French Revolution a revival of dress from the ancient democracies based on classical art swept Europe, reflecting Napoleon’s new republic. The ever increasing pace of fashion in the nineteenth century demanded the rapid adoption of ‘new’ styles. Historical styles provided abundant inspiration with Victorian dress reflecting costume from ancient Greece to the eighteenth century.

Women’s fashions of the twentieth century would reflect their growing emancipation. Dress broke away from the conventions of the past with corsets falling out of fashion and clothing becoming less fussy in design and decoration. Twentieth-century dress was nevertheless still influenced by the clothing of the past. Poiret’s ‘Directoire’ designs of 1906 to 1911 took their inspiration from the 1790s and Dior’s 1947 collection, although known as the ‘New Look’, harked back to the mid-Victorian period. One of the twenty-first century’s greatest couturiers, John Galliano, based his first collection ‘Les Incroyables’ (1984) on the clothing of the French Revolution. This began a career defined by the obsessive plundering of the dress of the past for new design ideas.


Revivals and rebirths have characterised the arts from the Renaissance onwards with art, architecture and the decorative arts all being influenced by past styles. Historicism is a romantic and wistful looking back to the past, and it reached its height in the nineteenth century. The industrialisation of Britain brought criticism from social reformers. They believed that along with industry, workers’ lives had also been mechanised. Artistic revivals, most notably the Gothic Revival, illustrated lost worlds in the hope of regaining them once more. The work of the architect Pugin, the artist Rossetti and designer William Morris all re-created a gothic idyll, in opposition to Victorian mass production and consumption.

Fashion was more easily placed to adopt and adapt ideas from the past. Whilst classical dress was to dominate the Regency period, a multitude of other historical styles appeared later. Women’s fashions saw gothic dress in the 1820s, the ‘Grecian bend’ in the 1860s, and a plethora of historical styles influenced the aesthetic movement’s ideas on dress from the 1870s. The English Women’s Domestic Magazine declared in 1868 that, ‘Parisian couturiers study historical costumes of the period and think far more of copying than inventing.’ So popular was the demand for dress of a historical nature that Liberty & Co., which opened in 1875, launched a dress department nine years later which sold fashions from their ‘Artistic and Historic Costume Studio’.

The twentieth century fashion historian James Laver proposed a timeline outlining the aesthetic trajectory of fashionable dress. Laver’s Law states that a year after an item was fashionable it would be dowdy, twenty years would render it ridiculous and only after one hundred and fifty years would it again be considered beautiful.

Woman’s bodice by Doucet, c. 1900-19

Woman’s bodice by Doucet, c. 1900-19

Fashion Statements

Throughout modern history the adoption of dress from foreign countries, earlier historical periods or the opposite sex has been used in fashion in a deliberate attempt to make statements.

In 1660 King Charles II introduced a new form of men’s dress based on Middle Eastern clothing in an attempt to distance his newly restored monarchy from the frivolous French court. The French would adopt English country clothing in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a period known as Anglomania, displaying their loyalties to the republic and not the ancien regime, the recently destroyed French monarchy.

The Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artists, who were as the name suggests trying to re-create the style of art of Raphael and before, dressed their sitters in recreated period costume. This influenced the later aesthetic movement, which directly inspired contemporary fashion. The large gigot sleeves of the 1890s are a re-invention of the late Elizabethan sleeves of the 1590s. Aesthetic dress also influenced Mary Elizabeth Haweis who, in the 1870s, was an advocate of reformed dress for women based on aesthetic lines.

Sexual inequalities have also been expressed through dress. Dress’s increasing function, from the seventeenth century onwards, to display gender meant that women adopted elements of men’s dress, from the riding habit in the eighteenth century to trousers in the twentieth. This aspect of dress reflecting social equality has still to come full circle. Although many designers in the twentieth century, such as Gaultier and Westwood, have tried to introduce men to ‘skirts’ men have yet to embrace their wider sartorial world.

Silk chiffon dress by Ossie Clark

Silk chiffon dress by Ossie Clark, print design by Celia Birtwell, c.1970

Yesterday’s Tomorrows

The term retro has, since the 1970s, been used to describe artistic revivals from the not-so-distant past. Unlike historicism, which took the past and used it as a building block for further successes, retro revives styles in order to re-asses their meaning for a modern audience. The early 1960s saw a revival of art nouveau, an art movement which had become unfashionable just over half a century earlier. This relatively quick turnaround in an artistic style’s reassessment would herald a wave of similar retro ‘reviews’ in art exhibitions, film and fashion.

The late 1960s saw retro fashions become a driving force of the fashion industry. The Biba ‘empire’ (1964-1975) reworked art deco, with other designers such as Anthony Price and Mary Quant reinterpreting the glamour of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s for a young and modern audience. Vivienne Westwood began her career opening a shop, Let it Rock, with Malcolm McClaren in 1971. They sold original and replica 1950s clothes made by Westwood, together with original records and memorabilia from the era.

Clothes designers also worked with film makers, helping to create an illusion of the past. Westwood and McClaren would assist with the costumes for That’ll be the Day (1973), set in the 1950s. Cabaret (1972), set in the late 1930s, saw Ossie Clark dress the central character played by Liza Minnelli not in costumes but in his contemporary fashion designs.

If Laver’s Law spans 150 years, retro’s turnaround is considerably quicker. The graphic artist Paula Scher proposed her own retro timeline, with ideas and images going from the ‘ugly’ to the ‘great’ in just fifteen years.

Images by John Chase Photography