Centuries of Style

National Museums Scotland

Explore over 400 years of fashion history at the National Museum of  Scotland.

Centuries of style
Designers, producers and consumers have all shaped fashion at different points in history. Constantly evolving, fashion design is influenced by new technologies, by different countries and cultures and creative individuals with their own sense of style. 

During the late 1820s and 30s, women's sleeves ballooned in shape and skirts grew more voluminous, emphasising a tiny waist. Large gigot sleeves were tightly pleated into the shoulder with a low, wide neckline, while sleeve puffs stuffed with down or constructed from cane held the shape.

Fashionable men in the 19th century wore the frock coat, an early example of everyday tailoring which set the tone for professional menswear in the 21st century.

The gamine look of the Roaring Twenties redefined modern womanhood. With its simpler silhouette and shorter hemlines, it freed the body for the energetic dance crazes sweeping Europe. Want to know how this dress was prepared for display? Find out here.

Designing and making textiles
Scientific and technological innovation has been fundamental to the evolution of textile design. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries transformed the work of weaving, knitting and printing fabrics by mechanising production. The innovation of synthetic dyes and fibres created an array of dye-fast, affordable and durable fabrics in a riot of unfamiliar colours and textures.

Bodice, c. 1870

The brilliant purple dye used on this dress was discovered in 1856 by the British teenage chemist William Henry Perkin (1838-1907). Called ‘mauveine’, or ‘mauve’ after the mallow flower, it was the first commercially successful synthetic dye production.

Woman's suit, Late 1950s
Janet Inglis Hutchison Sykes

This peacock-coloured woman's suit is made from rayon, the first semi-synthetic fibre. Here it imitates shot silk by weaving warp and weft yarns of two or more colours for an iridescent appearance.

Woman's suit, 1980-1981
Bernat Klein

Serbian artist, colourist and textile designer Bernat Klein (1922 – 2015) founded his business in the Scottish Borders in 1952, where he produced innovative fashion fabrics for the couture houses of Europe. The colour and texture of of the Scottish landscape that inspired Klein are evident in this suit. You can find out more about our Bernat Klein collection here.

Designing and making fashion
In the 17th and 18th centuries, court fashions inspired clothing choices. However, the beginning of haute couture in the mid-19th century put Paris at the centre of high fashion. But until the invention of the sewing machine, all clothes were stitched by hand, by tailors and dressmakers or at home.

This doublet would have been worn with an undershirt exposed at the waist, back and sleeves. Densely embroidered, it probably belonged to an upper-class fashionable young man. You can read more about the doublet on Mode, our online guide to the Fashion and Style gallery.

This jacket was probably worn by a woman as informal dress in the house. Hand-knitted on fine needles, the pattern imitates 17th-century woven silks.

The fashion house
Opening his Paris fashion house in 1858, British-born Charles Frederick Worth created the foundations for the modern haute couture industry, establishing the concept of the fashion designer as artist. Haute couture is a handcraft industry creating exclusive, made-to-measure garments for individual clients using the finest luxury fabrics.

Dresses by Mario Fortuny are highly prized for the designer's distinctively fine pleating technique, which is still a closely guarded secret. Rarely were any two pieces exactly alike. You can read more about this dress on Mode, our online guide to the Fashion and Style gallery.

In the 1920s, Jeanne Lanvin became known for her robe de style with its full pannier hips and her trademark use of intricate trimming and embroideries. In 1922, the illustrator Paul Iribe sketched Lanvin and her daughter both wearing a dress in this style. The sketch has appeared on labels and perfume bottles since 1927. You can read more about the robe de style on Mode, our online guide to the Fashion and Style gallery.

Paul Poiret's revolutionary designs allegedly freed women from corsetry and the rigid hourglass silhouette of the Belle Epoque. He often looked to eastern cultures for inspiration, choosing simple lines and patterns in a striking palette of primary colours. You can read more about this dress on Mode, our online guide to the Fashion and Style gallery.

The first London-based couturière to achieve international success, Lucile’s pioneering spirit engineered designs that exemplified luxury and liberation for women at the turn of the 20th century. You can find out more about this lovely dress here.

Off the peg
Fashion was transformed by the increasingly widespread use of the sewing machine from the mid-19th century. A century later, most well-known designers were producing ready-to-wear ranges, putting a lower price tag on fashionable clothing.

This black satin Jean Muir dress once belonged to Joanna Lumley. It was not only her first Muir purchase after becoming a house model for her in 1964, but also her first Little Black Dress. Fashion journalist Iain R Webb described Jean Muir as 'the ultimate practitioner of perfect Little Black Dress chic'.

Marks and Spencer's Best of British range formed part of a three-year partnership with the British Fashion Council. Knitwear was manufactured in Hawick, outerwear in Manchester and footwear in Northampton, while may of the fabrics used are woven in Great Britain, including Harris Tweed and cashmere from Todd & Duncan in Kinross.

Fashionable luxury
Keeping up appearances at home and in public was important for the upper classes in the 18th century. Aristocratic families showed their wealth and status by following the fashions worn by royalty, often emulating the styles made popular at the French court.

Until the late 18th century, children of the upper classes were dressed in imitation of their parents. Boys and girls were dressed alike as young children, both wearing petticoats until boys were breeched, usually between the ages of three and seven. Childish distinctions in dress appeared slowly, influenced by Enlightenment ideas around nature, health and liberty.

The banyan, or Indian nightgown, was influenced by Persian and Asian clothing. It was worn at home for ease, either as a dressing gown or an informal coat. You can read more about the banyan on Mode, our online guide to the Fashion and Style gallery.

Personal style
How we dress communicates our sense of self, expressing elements of our personality, gender and role in society. New ideas can be inspired by the taste of the wealthiest and most powerful in society, by artistic movements or the vision of high-end fashion houses. Inspiration is found in streetwear and subcultures, while political change, trade and global travel also influence personal styling.

In the mid-1870s, dresses began to be tailored with vertical darts and seams, removing the need for waist seams. The form became known as the princess line in dresses, or the cuirass in jackets and bodices extending over the hip. It was particularly associated with Alexandra, Princess of Wales, who was the subject of fashionable media coverage throughout her royal life. You can read more about this dress on Mode, our online guide to the Fashion and Style gallery.

During the 1930s and 40s, Elsa Schiaparelli was collaborating with the surrealist artists Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali and Leonor Fini. Her work from this period cemented her reputation for theatrical designs marrying art and dressmaking, with whimsical detailing, bold prints and eye-catching embroidery. This jacket is a simplified version of the one worn by Schiaparelli for her portrait by Horst P horst for Vogue, taken c1934. You can read more about this dress on Mode, our online guide to the Fashion and Style gallery.

Dreams and desire
From vibrant illustrations of imagined worlds to haute couture captured on the pages of Vogue, images of fashion are designed to captivate consumers. In the mid-20th century, this illusion of feminine grace and allure was embodied by the stars of Hollywood film studios. Imitating the fashions of screen and page, department stores capitalised on the growing ready-to-wear industry, bringing the seductive elegance of couture and glamour of film within the reach of many.

Luxurious evening coats reflected the 1920s vogue for exoticism, combining the cut of western fashion with colourful metallic embroideries. The fur markets of Europe and North American reached their peak in the 1920s and 30s and designers used fur in abundance on as trim for coats, with the most expensive being sable, ermine, mink and fox.

Jacques Fath is one of the designers credited with contributing to the rebirth of couture following the Second World War. Fans of his work include Ava Garnder, Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth, for whom he made both wedding dress and trousseau for her marriage to Prince Aly Khan. You can read more about this dress on Mode, our online guide to the Fashion and Style gallery.

Cecil Chapman designed for many of Hollywood's leading ladies in the 1940s and 50s, such as Deborah Kerr and Marilyn Monroe, and provided the trousseau for Elizabeth Taylor's 1950 wedding to hotel-chain heir Conrad Hilton, Jr.

Body image
For centuries, both men and women have tried to artificially attain an ideal silhouette. From wide-hipped pannier dresses to tight-laced corsets, bulging male torsos and false calves, a concealed architecture has moulded the body into the fashion able line of the time.

In 18th century, tightlacing was fashionable, particularly in England, where loose clothing was associated with loose morals. Stays like these were densely ribbed with cane or whalebone.

The appearance of the cage crinoline in 1856 offered a more practical alternative to layers of heavy petticoats stiffened with horsehair. The crinoline craze reached its bell-shaped peak during the late 1850s and early 1860s, before the fullness began to move towards the back and the crinoline reduced in size.

From the mid-1870s, the bustle, or dress improver, became a separate garment, consisting of pads stuffed with horsehair, hoops of cane or metal or sculpted pleats and ruffles. By the mid-1880s, the shape of the bustle was more extreme than ever before.

As fashions changed at the turn of the 19th century, men's underpants had to fit more snugly. Often made of linen, cotton or merino, machine-knitted silk was a more expensive choice suited to summer wear.

This modern lycra Shape-Allure body suit uses stretchy elastane and padding to enhance the female figure. The lace inserts add a desirable touch of romance to the lingerie.

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