Editorial Feature

A Look at European Fashion Through the Centuries

A brief look at how trends evolved around the continent and influenced each other

European countries have long since been a source of sartorial inspiration to each other. As one of the most visual aspects of self-expression, clothing provides a fascinating insight into how taste and style has connected cultures across the centuries. We take a look at how fashion has made an impact across the continent and how trends spread from city to city through differing fabrics, color and cuts.

Fabrics: Tricks of the trade

In general terms, fashion is categorized as constantly changing styles of dress that are mass produced and mass consumed. Of course, a couple of centuries ago, we didn’t have Instagram or ASOS or an H&M you could pop to in the nearest town, so trends didn’t spread like wildfire like they do today. Clothing was handmade so took longer to make, was not available in the same quantities as it is today and there were also regional limitations: each area would have only had access to its own natural resources, so a certain type of fabric may only have been available in a certain area.

Buff coat (From the collection of York Castle Museum)

An increase in trade from country to country began to show previously isolated communities the variety of materials on offer and led budding fashionistas to desire other, more exotic textiles for their wardrobe. European cities such as Flanders were able to provide high-quality wool; Italy, trading with the Ottoman Empire, offered expensive materials like silk and damask; and northern European countries such as Scandinavia were able to provide luxurious furs, such as sable, ermine and Nordic squirrel. Likewise, important centers of trade such as Brussels, Cologne, Antwerp, Florence, Venice and Paris allowed the transfer of dyes, such as indigo, saffron, and scarlet. Fashion began to get interesting.

Colors and the original influencers

In medieval times, color had been less of a fashion statement, and more of a statement of status and wealth. Bright colors were expensive to produce and considered the pinnacle of luxury, only appearing in the clothes of nobles. The royals were the original influencers of the day, and when they started wearing a particular color, others would follow.

For instance, when King Louis IX of France began to regularly dress in blue, it made it the most revered color of the time. Charles the Bold, who ruled as the Duke of Burgundy, a kingdom that encompassed areas of France, Italy and Switzerland, used his proximity to Flanders to bring brightly colored and lavish clothing to his courts, which other courts across Europe were keen to imitate. And as for when black was the new black? That was thanks to Philip II of Spain, who convinced others that wearing black was á la mode to boost his country's sale of the dye. The upper classes in England, North Germany, Scandinavia all followed suit.

Louis XIV, king of France (1638-1715), by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1702 (From the collection of Palace of Versailles)
Portrait of Philip II, Antonis Mor, c.1549-1550 (From the collection of Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao)

The extravagant style of the European courts began to trickle down to lower classes as supply of materials and dyes increased, and fashions began to spread. Cities began to implement laws, known as sumptuary laws, to try and control how people dressed: regulations were set in Germany in the late medieval period, but also appeared in Italy in 1157, France in 1180, Spain in 1234 and England in 1363.

Instead of reducing the extravagance of dress pervading the lower social classes (so that the peasants weren't dressing the same way as the nobles) they accidentally encouraged fashion innovation by inadvertently circulating descriptions of different types of dress. Thus courtly dress in France or Spain, would influence the nobles of somewhere like England, then the trends would gradually reach to the other classes in the country, and likewise all across Europe.

Mantua (1), by Leconte (Madame) (From the collection of The Victoria and Albert Museum)

Cutting shapes

Before the mid-14th century, clothing was not sewn, and just consisted of cloth draped around the body. So when craftsmanship began to improve, it enabled more variation in tailoring and more room to experiment. In the late medieval period, there may not have been copies of Vogue lying round to show off these new designs, but there was literature and poetry. If shapes began to change in a particular court, such as a lengthening of a hem or the emphasis of a waist, this may be described in rhyme or writing and passed along by people who travelled between these places. Hearing of a radical style of close-fitting tunic in an far-off land, or even seeing exotic visitors from foreign courts, will have inspired others to experiment with the cut of their clothes.

Formal ensemble (France, 1990/1800) (From the collection of The Victoria and Albert Museum)

As time passed, with the advent of printing, it became easier to circulate images of what people were wearing, whether through portraits or costume books. What would start as a new cut in one country, would spread to another, where it would then be recreated with different materials or different colors, allowing fashions to evolve. Trends began to standardize and influence at the same time.

Modebild: Fünf Figuren, Kostüme für Maskenbälle, Unbekannt,1841 (From the collection of Wien Museum)

With every new invention, no matter how small, fashion improved: buttons made for creative fastenings, prescription eye glasses allowed for seeing delicate craft work better, right up to the industrial revolution when fabric could be mass produced. Throughout all this, fashions were shared and innovated, and similar styles can be seen across the different cities of Europe adapted with different cultural twists.

Take a look at some examples of fashion evolution across Europe:

Dress with train: France circa 1810 and Spain circa 1820

Court train, Unknown, circa 1810 (From the collection of Centraal Museum)
Court Dress, c.1820 (From the collection of The Kyoto Costume Institute)

Traditional Costume: Northern Greece early 1900s and Bulgaria early 1900s

Sarakatsani costume from Alexandroupolis, northern Greece, early 1900s (From the collection of British Museum)
Bulgarian costume, bridal headdress (kaitsa)early 1900s

Man's suit: Sweden 1778/1785 and England 1750-60s

National costume, for men, Unknown, 1778/1785 (From the collection of Nordiska Museet)
Man's Suit (coat, waistcoat, and breeches),1750-60s (From the collection of The Kyoto Costume Institute)

Corset: Netherlands 1770/1790 and Italy 1770/1779

Corset [Netherlands], 1770/1790 (From the collection of MoMu - Fashion Museum Antwerp)
Corset (From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
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