Photo by Erik Almas.

The background of traditional contemporary Western dress codes as fixed in 20th century relied on several steps of replacement of preexisting formal wear, while in turn increasing the formality levels of the previously less formal alternatives. Thus was the case with the ceasing of the justacorps, extensively worn from the 1660s until the 1790s, followed by the same fate of the 18th century frock (not to be confused with frock coat), in turn followed by the frock coat.

Before the modern system of formal, semi-formal, and informal was consolidated in the 20th century, the terms were looser. In the 19th century, during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, the principal classifications of clothing were full dress and undress, and, less commonly the intermediate half dress. Full dress covered the most formal option: frock coat for day attire, and dress coat (white tie) for evening attire (sometimes with supplementary alternative being a full dress uniform independent of what time of the day). As such, full dress may still appear in use designating formal wear.

When morning dress became common (in the modern sense, using a morning tailcoat rather than a frock coat), it was considered less formal than a frock coat, and even when the frock coat was increasingly phased out, morning dress never achieved full dress status. Therefore, in the 21st century, full dress often refers to white tie only.

Today’s semi-formal black tie (originally dinner clothes) was initially described as informal attire, while the “lounge suit,” now standard business attire, was originally considered (as its name suggests) casual attire. Half dress, when used, was variously applied at different times, but was used to cover modern morning dress (note that the term morning dress is fairly undescriptive and has not always meant modern morning dress). Undress (not to be confused with naked) in turn was similarly loose in meaning, corresponding to anything from a dressing gown to a lounge suit or its evening equivalent of dinner clothes (now one of the more formal dress codes seen in many Western regions).

For women Europeans styles in dresses increased dramatically to the hoopskirt and crinoline-supported styles of the 1860s, then fullness was draped and drawn to the back. Dresses had a “day” bodice with a high neckline and long sleeves, and an “evening” bodice with a low neckline (décolleté) and very short sleeves. In Russia, metal hoopskirts were known as “malakhovs.” Skirts of the 1860s were heavily decorated.

The Victorian era’s dresses were tight-fitting and decorated with pleats, rouching and frills. Women in the United States who were involved in dress reform in the 1850s found themselves the center of attention, both positive and negative. By 1881, the Rational Dress Society had formed in reaction to the restrictive dress of the era. By 1920, the “new woman” was a trend that saw lighter fabrics and dresses that were easier to put on. Younger women were also setting the trends that older women started to follow. The dresses of the 1920s could be pulled over the head, were short and straight. It was acceptable to wear sleeveless dresses during the day. Flapper dresses were popular until end of the decade.

During World War II, dresses were slimmer and inspired by military uniforms. After WWII, the New Look, promoted by Christian Dior was very influential on fashion and the look of women’s dresses for about a decade.

Since the 1970s, no one dress type or length has dominated fashion for long, with short and ankle-length styles often appearing side-by-side in fashion magazines and catalogs. In the 21st century everything goes which is not always good.

Story by Annika Sharber.