The History and Evolution of Dresses

Last updated on : January 31 2023

Vintage Mannequin Bust Showing Age And Wear

Article Summary

Dresses have been a fundamental part of women's fashion for centuries, evolving with cultural and societal changes.

In ancient times, dresses were simple and draped, while in the Middle Ages, they became more elaborate. The Renaissance saw a return to classical styles, and the Victorian era brought restrictive and ornate garments. In the 20th century we saw new fabrics and manufacturing techniques, leading to lighter and more relaxed styles.

From the flapper dresses of the 1920s to the minimalist styles of the 1990s, dresses have been a staple in women's fashion and continue to evolve with new styles and trends.

Dresses Through The Ages

From serving as a means of covering your body to beautifiers and even protection against harsh weather conditions, we cannot overemphasize the importance of dresses.

The fashion world has taken us through various stages of evolution of the dress, seeing it adapted for different climates and eras. Many styles have come and gone with more still evolving, even though the pace might differ.

With inspirations taken from nature, culture, religion, climatic conditions, events, and a lot more, dresses keep on evolving.

Like everything else, dresses fulfill a set purpose. Fortunately, history has preserved vital information about their evolution. We will first discuss the origin of the dress, then how it has evolved.

Ancient History of the Dress

Experts believe the world's oldest dress is the Tarkhan Dress, made and worn in Egypt over 5000 years ago. However, there is some evidence that dresses existed before this.

We can trace the origin of dresses back to the beginning of humanity when humans formed different social groups or tribes. These social groups grew into communities and even cities.

The expansion led to a need to distinguish one tribe from another, and dresses helped to do this.

Mesopotamian Dresses

The Mesopotamian dresses began the fad. Fortunately, Mesopotamia has lots of wool, a significant fabric for dressmaking. They mixed wool with sheepskin to make all of their outfits, not just dresses.

Mesopotamian dresses covered the entire upper body, with the most common garment being the Kaunake. The people of Mesopotamia didn't just introduce dresses; they also added elaborate embroidery.

Egyptian Dresses

After the Mesopotamians, the Egyptian dresses followed. 

Due to the dry and hot climate of Egypt, Egyptians didn't make their dresses for grandeur or in elaborate patterns.

Clothes did not trend in Egypt. They were simply a means of covering up. Linen fiber from the stems of flax plants was the primary source of material for clothing.

The wealthy and highly placed Egyptians added fabrics woven with beads and pleats. Their religious beliefs led to it becoming customary to attach objects of worship to their dresses.

Minoan Dresses

Minoan cultural dresses played a significant part in dress history.

The Minoans used dyed linen and wool produced locally to make their dresses. They also featured intricate patterns that they carefully created by both simple and complex weaving procedures and embroidery.

Greek Dresses

The Greek dresses followed. The significant difference compared to that of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Minoa was their love for a range of vivid colors, as well as comfort and functionality. 

Other Dresses

Ancient times also saw Etruscan and Roman dresses. These dresses were remarkably similar to Greek dresses and identified the different social statuses of the wearer.

Fabrics of Ancient Dresses

The early ages displayed similarities in fabrics and styles.

According to historians, the most commonly used materials were sheer linen, animal skin, and silk, while social status and weather were the major determining factors in fabric use and style.

Draped and tailored dresses took their places as the most common fashion styles.

The draped dresses were quite suitable for warm climates, wrapping around the body and usually not sewn.

Tailored dresses, on the other hand, had to go through the process of being sewn. They were suitable for cold climates and sewn to fit the wearer. Tailored dresses ultimately led to the invention of bodycon and bandage dresses.

Dress Styles over the Ages

Not surprisingly, dress styles evolved drastically over the years, decades, and even centuries. Beauty and elegance were paramount, with every occasion and season having its varied exotic dress trends.

Interestingly, dresses were evolving through the modification of specific parts of garments. Hence, trends came focusing on just the sleeves, necklines, waists, shoulders, or hems of the dresses.

Early century designers created intricate designs, empire waists, and high necklines. There was also a combination of petticoats and open-fronted dresses.

Modesty was an underlying factor behind the creation of these styles, in which a lady should not show skin. Appropriate humility helped a woman find a suitable husband as, at the time, if a woman covered her skin, she was seen as more pure and innocent.

19th Century Dresses

By the 19th Century, amazing styles thrilled the fashion scene. The Century began with stunning but straightforward dress styles. And, as the years went by, louder and more beautiful fashion ideas came in.

The Century birthed puffy sleeves and oversized silhouettes and paid attention to every part of the dress, including the frames designed with steel wire or whalebone to enhance the bust and enlarge the hips.

In the later part of the 19th Century, fashionistas placed their focus on the waist, introducing cinch corsets to make them smaller. 

Small waists blended well with the Victorian dress style introduced later in the Century. Although this style seemed like the most fashionable, it disappeared before the end of the 1890s.

As for fabrics, muslin fabric had its turn in the 19th Century. Off-shoulder sleeves, long sleeves, and cap sleeves also had their moments.

20th Century Dresses

Like the preceding Century, morals influenced 20th Century fashion.

Layers made dresses conservative, but the emphasis on the waist remained. Lace was the most common fabric, to begin with, with lighter materials like chiffon introduced later on. Extra details such as ruffles, beadings, velvet sashes, and feathers were the trend.

The 1920s

By the 1920s, a style revolution inspired the creation of more modern styles. Fashionable women abandoned floor-length dresses for knee-length dresses, the new chic item of clothing for women.

The flapper movement also created new styles of dresses, as well as a push for female empowerment.

For fashion, the decade was undoubtedly one of fun and decadence.

The 1930s

By the 1930s, femininity returned to dress styles with floral prints, bias cuts, and broad shoulders dominating.

Sadly, World War II destabilized fashion, and during the late 1930s and 1940s, women made their dresses from whatever they found in the home, such as bed sheets or curtains - the impact of the war limiting the use of fabrics. 

A-line skirts, belted waist dresses, and other simple, fashionable styles became the norm during the war period. Also, dressmakers replaced luxurious fabrics such as wool, nylon, and silk with viscose and rayon in line with the war movement. 

The 1940s

Fashion bounced back after the war when, in 1947, Christian Dior introduced a range of new styles inspired by the feminine figure.

Consequently, tea-length dresses with narrowed waists alongside coat dresses became the new look, complemented with a full range of accessories. Dresses now served to enhance the female figure rather than hide it, as had been the norm before.

The 1960s

The 1960s dress styles continued to move away from the design of their historical counterparts.

By 1964, Mary Quant introduced mini skirts and dresses, adopted wholeheartedly in a much-loved trend.

Although the mini-trend was less formal, girls wore it comfortably to all kinds of occasions, incited by celebrities of the time. The mini skirt look was usually mixed with bold, exciting patterns and rounded up with low heels or knee-high boots.

The mini-skirt trend evolved into jumper dresses later in the same Century.

The 1960s, and the rest of the 20th Century, gave us sweatshirts, broad-shouldered power suits, boxy blazers, flowing maxi dresses, and slip dresses that we still wear today.

Music and movies, as well as celebrity culture, played significant roles in debuting the various styles of the season, with black, white, grey, and silver the most common colors. 

Clothing Inventions

As dresses evolved, so did the new clothing inventions needed for them - and the 19th Century the most significant contributing period for these inventions.

Thomas Hancock invented elastic during this period, Walter Hunt the safety pin and Whitcomb Judson, zip fasteners. These inventions still play a significant role in evolving dress trends in use today.

Modern dresses

In today's society, we wear a wide range of styles, many exotic, filling fashion runways with mind-blowing dresses.

Some of these trends include t-shirts, polo shirts, blazers, dusters, maxi dresses, and lots more.

Amazingly, vintage fashion is a significant inspiration for trends in the Century. Many retro designs are classic, meaning they stand the test of time. Due to this, designers often bring throwback styles to the runways and modify them to fit in with the current times.

These styles take their turns in the fashion scene, although the time they spend trending cannot be determined.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the questions most frequently asked by our readers on this topic:

1. What is the history of dresses?

The history of dresses dates back thousands of years, reflecting the cultural and societal norms of different eras. From simple, draped garments in ancient civilizations to the elaborate and restrictive dresses of the Victorian era, dresses have been a staple of women's fashion for centuries and continue to evolve with new styles and trends.

2. How have dresses changed throughout history?

Dresses have changed dramatically throughout history, reflecting changes in cultural and societal norms. The style, cut, and fabrics of dresses have varied greatly, from the classical form-fitting styles of the Renaissance to the loose and flowing flapper dresses of the 1920s.

3. What was the impact of the 20th century on the history of dresses?

The 20th century significantly affected the history of dresses -introducing new synthetic fabrics and manufacturing techniques allowed for lighter, more flexible styles, giving women greater freedom of movement. These changes led to a revolution in women's fashion, with new styles and trends emerging regularly.

4. What role did social norms play in the history of dresses?

Throughout history, social norms have played a significant role in shaping the style and cut of dresses. In the Victorian era, for example, dresses became more restrictive and ornate, reflecting the strict social norms of the time. In contrast, the flapper dresses of the 1920s were a symbol of the newfound independence of women.

5. What is the significance of dresses in women's fashion?

Dresses have been a staple of women's fashion for centuries and are essential to many women's wardrobes. They offer versatility and can be dressed up or down for various occasions. Dresses also serve as a means of self-expression and can be used to make a statement or reflect personal style.

6. What role have cultural and societal changes played in the evolution of dresses?

Cultural and societal changes have played a significant role in the development of dresses. Throughout history, the style and cut of dresses have reflected the cultural and societal norms of the time, from the simple, draped garments of ancient civilizations to the bold, bright prints of the 1960s. As cultural and societal norms change, so too do the styles and designs of dresses.


Dress trends have always been, and will always be, limitless, giving you plenty of choice in styles today. You can choose to wear a new style or go way back in time to dress retro, and still look glamourous.

No matter which style of dress you choose, you will always look fashionable as long as it fits and is comfortable. And your choice might just incite a new trend or bring back a vintage one.

Bonus Read: 12 Most Iconic Movie Dresses

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