Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez at the premiere of "In The Custody of Strangers" in 1982. EmailA the link to your Flickr, Tumblr, blog, or other site, or put the pics in a Word or PDF doc which Ia€™ll upload to the site!
Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. Now that the jeans-and-T-shirts plague has reached our fancy restaurants, cocktail parties, and nightclubs, it seems as though nobody cares about dressing up anymore. It’s a perfect question for Jacqueline WayneGuite, a writer, researcher, and fashion archivist who’s worked with institutions across the U.S. Just in time for the Oscars, WayneGuite helped us compile a gorgeous, decade-by-decade guide to the best party dresses of the 20th century, looks as show-stopping today as when they first hit the scene. More than a hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have had enough clothing to designate certain dresses for special occasions. Not only are the rhinestones and fabrics cheaper today, but the literal foundation of the garment is of much lower quality. Nowadays, designers make up a lot through stretch fabrics, instead of better tailoring or putting in boning or a petersham, which was like a waistband that was put inside a dress to attach the bodice to your waist.
Girls in boxy sack dresses and beehive hairdos on the set of American Bandstand, circa 1965. Silent-film star Lillian Gish wears a robe with kimono-style sleeves, as captured by Edward Steichen in 1927. Collectors Weekly: Why were Eastern-influenced prints and fabrics so trendy during the 1910s? WayneGuite: When Japan opened up to Western trade in 1850, you had this steadily increasing amount of Japanese and Eastern influence in all areas of art and design. Left, models wearing dresses and sheer tunic coverings by the London-based designer Lucile.
A popular party dress style was a looser tunic worn over a slimmer dress underneath, with a different kind of silhouette than we’re familiar with. Actress Colleen Moore wears the definitive flapper look, in a short-cut dress with a flattened bust and plenty of looser layers to showcase her moves.
It was also one of the first times women were moving more than just their feet when they danced. Publicity stills taken of Norma Shearer (left, in 1935) and Jean Harlow (right, in 1933) flaunt their sultry, bias-cut silk dresses. WayneGuite: When you lay a pattern out on a piece of fabric, you have two grains to choose from. Left, this 1930s advertisement shows the diagonal seams and limited ornamentation of popular bias-cut dresses.
Barbara Stanwyck (left, in 1941), and Ella Fitzgerald (right, in 1940) both wore long-sleeved dresses with elaborate embellishment.
WayneGuite: Everyday dress definitely became more conservative, in regards to how much skin was shown, because women were dressing in this new style of masculine clothing during the daytime. In contrast, you also had this patriotic duty to be beautiful for the soldiers, so evening attire needed to be glamorous.
Two coat-dress illustrations for the Andre label show the stylish dolman sleeve and prominent buttons, circa 1941. The dolman sleeve was very popular, even though it used much more material than a set-in sleeve would. Audrey Hepburn works the hourglass-shaped, prom-queen look while in costume for Funny Face, circa 1956. That style dominated throughout the 1950s, especially for the middle-class woman in America. Left, pattern makers like McCall’s and Vogue made the New Look available to middle-American women, like this set from 1953. Novelty prints got started in the 1940s, but you definitely see them in the ’50s, mostly small florals. Collectors Weekly: Were shorter hemlines and tighter skirts of the 1960s a backlash to the overblown hourglass shape? The pop art of that period and the music people listened to were all converging and influencing fashion, and fashion was also influencing them.
Collectors Weekly: Why did fashion of the 1970s move toward more complicated, layered looks? WayneGuite: In the 1970s, there was a return to romanticism, as nature references grew more popular. Collectors Weekly: Did the natural influence relate to hippie culture, the rise of feminism, and the sexual revolution? We recently had a one-shoulder dress from the ’80s donated to the Columbia collection, and the shoulder with a strap has these giant fabric flowers.
Left, this Yves Saint Laurent ensemble from 1980 raised the bar for bold shoulder detailing.

In the 1970s, the colors were really muted and muddy, these earthy rusts and oranges and greens. Scenes from Studio 54: Left, an Andy Warhol polaroid featuring Grace Jones (center), and right, a reveler captured by Tod Papageorge, both circa late 1970s. Did the CIA's Experiments With Psychedelic Drugs Unwittingly Create the Grateful Dead? There’s a lot of friction between tarot historians and card readers about the origins and purpose of tarot cards. Tom Cruise hadn't even heard of scientology, Julia Roberts still wore her hair curly and Meryl Streep rode the New York City subway.
As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. In order to post comments, please make sure JavaScript and Cookies are enabled, and reload the page. I'm Angela Watson, a National Board Certified Teacher based in Brooklyn, NY, with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. Accomplishments can be anything from gaining several new members to announcing the results of your latest successful event or fundraiser.
And yet, as fashions become increasingly casual, the perfect party dress is like a secret weapon—turning anyone into a rose among daisies.
Above: Esther Walls (center) hosts an informal party at her New York apartment in the 1960s. The way I define a party dress is not necessarily just evening attire—it’s for a social gathering of generally close family or friends. Sure, with movies like “The Great Gatsby,” looks from the ’20s are really popular, and in the bridal industry, you see a lot of 1930s influence.
When the strapless dress first became popular, its structural foundation was much stronger compared to modern dresses of stretch fabric. Some were less shapely and more sack-like, and then others had a lampshade look with a hoop around the hip area. The dresses were these boxy, boyish shapes, and to our contemporary eye, that doesn’t look very chic.
Right, a dress made in the popular sack-like shape with heavy layers of intricate beadwork, circa 1925. They’re climbing in and out of cars more, and so they need a shorter skirt to get in and out unescorted.
Photographer George Hurrell captured the glamour of Old Hollywood styles, which amped up the sex appeal using halter tops and low-cut backs. You have the lengthwise grain that runs up and down, and you have the crosswise grain that runs horizontally.
Right, this Vionnet gown shows how low-cut backs contrasted with excessively low hemlines, even in the Depression-era when extra fabric was a true luxury. Since we were in the Depression, you would think they’d use less fabric, yet the bias cut actually uses more fabric. One of the things they were rationing during the war was heat, by turning the temperature down to cut back on energy use, so for practical purposes, women needed sleeves.
It’s similar to a loose, kimono-style sleeve with no seam between the bodice and the sleeve. She was not buying Dior, but she was buying that trickle-down fashion, so the New Look worked its way down to her.
Right, teenage girls at a high-school dance in monochromatic, multi-textured dresses, circa 1956. You had this progression from the turn of the century through the war—women were gaining more independence, more mobility, more enfranchisement. By the end of the ’60s, mod was almost dead, and fashion had moved onto this very chunky embellishment, especially for party dresses. Instead of having clothing create a very stylized body, we wanted to see the natural shape of the body underneath.
I don’t think a lot of upper-class women would want to acknowledge that, but I think it was certainly one of the moments when we had trickle-up fashion. In the ’80s, people wanted something fresh and different, so we turned to super bright and neon colors.
Although I feel you missed that wonderful period in the late 70s of the disco era, as exemplified by the style in the movie American Hustle. I created this site in 2003 because I love sharing practical classroom ideas and helping teachers build a positive mindset so they can truly enjoy their work.
The collection I currently work with has some cheap 1950s dresses, things you would’ve bought at an inexpensive department store, but they all have built-in boning, because there was still this notion that the foundation had to be good. Right, an Asian-inspired robe is worn over a slimmer skirt in this outfit by Madeleine Laferriere from 1912. They generally went just past the hip, or fell somewhere between the knee and hip, and flared out around the hoop.

But when the garment went into motion, the whole dress was activated, creating an even more stimulating effect when she was dancing. Most clothing is cut on what we call the “straight of grain,” so the top of the dress will be at the top of the lengthwise grain, and then it runs straight down. There were restrictions on how much fabric you could buy or how much fabric could be in a particular dress, though there are many of examples of Hollywood and high-end designers completely flouting those rules.
Women were going back to the kitchen, and men were returning to the workforce. Christian Dior was really the epitome of 1950s style, and he came out with the New Look in 1947.
It’s really the first time we see Middle America wearing these cute, strapless, prom-style dresses.
The Beatles weren’t wearing party dresses, obviously, but they were wearing mod suits.
Instead of streamlined, women wanted heavier, more bohemian embellishments on their dresses. Designers incorporated these mock-necklaces that were actually sewn onto the dress around the collar or the neckline.
You have these flowy chiffons in muted earth-tones and florals, and if you were going to party, you wouldn’t wear a whole lot of undergarments beneath them. Typically, fashion is trickle-down, but in the 1970s, we definitely had trends being started by young or working-class people, and rising up to the upper classes.
Power suits had very strong shoulders, but the way that translated into party dresses was with weird shoulder pads or big, ruffled shoulder straps, just a lot of emphasis on shoulder details.
It’s that idea of the fashion cycle, that we want to see what we haven’t seen in a long time. You also had a lot of fabrics with more stretch to them, as Lycras and spandexes were entering the market in larger numbers, so tight party dresses were really popular. In the 1980s, again, we were in a very prosperous, economically healthy period, so people wanted to embrace luxury and flaunt wealth through their clothes. So while party dresses are evening attire, not all evening attire is made up of party dresses.
Paul Poiret, who was a very high-end designer working in France in the 1910s, heavily incorporated Eastern embellishment, prints, and design aesthetics into his fashion, but there were other designers doing it at the time, too. We have a robe in the Columbia collection that has Japanese kimono-style sleeves, Chinese-style metallic embroidery, and colors that look Indian-influenced.
But in a car, you could drive yourself, so you can’t have those long gowns constricting your legs. But then some were completely covered in beads, from shoulder to hem, with stylish, Art Deco designs in the beading. Again, it was this duality of a masculine style for day and for work, but evening attire that tried to make women look beautiful and feminine. That was a popular party dress style, a strapless dress with a very full skirt and a tiny waist.
If the dress was one color, it would probably have some netting, lace, silk satin, or rayon on it. And then suddenly in the 1950s we regressed, so the fashion of the 1960s definitely pushed against that. Or instead of wearing a bracelet, you’d have this big, chunky, embellished cuff on your dress.
There wasn’t a whole lot of purity in fashion—it was an amalgamation of all these cultures rolled into one garment. When I worked with the collection at North Dakota State University, we had a lampshade-style dress. You need a shorter skirt to do those moves and also to show off your body while doing them. Many garments were decorated in buttons, sequins, or anything people could get their hands on to embellish a party dress.
Its owner might have been upper class, but she lived in North Dakota, so clearly this was widespread. Generally, when you refer to the Old Hollywood look, most people are thinking of the 1930s, and it’s the idea of these silk satins or velvets that cling to the body. Hollywood movies in the 1930s are all about escaping the troubles of the economy and everyday life. Your party dress was probably a basic, A-line shift dress that hung its weight from the upper body. They cut back a whole heck of a lot more on everyday dresses and splurged a bit more on their party dress, because they wanted that freedom once in a while. It didn’t necessarily hug the bust, but it went straight from the shoulder to the hem, or had an A-line effect.

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