The pace of change accelerated considerably in the following century, and women and men’s fashion, especially in the dressing and adorning of the hair, became equally complex. Art historians are therefore able to use fashion with confidence and precision to date images, often to within five years, particularly in the case of images from the 15th century. Initially, changes in fashion led to a fragmentation across the upper classes of Europe of what had previously been a very similar style of dressing and the subsequent development of distinctive national styles. These national styles remained very different until a counter-movement in the 17th to 18th centuries imposed similar styles once again, mostly originating from Ancien Régime France.
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Though the rich usually led fashion, the increasing affluence of early modern Europe led to the bourgeoisie and even peasants following trends at a distance, but still uncomfortably close for the elites – a factor that Fernand Braudel regards as one of the main motors of changing fashion.
Albrecht Dürer’s drawing contrasts a well turned out bourgeoise from Nuremberg (left) with her counterpart from Venice. The Venetian lady’s high chopines make her look taller.
In the 16th century national differences were at their most pronounced. Ten 16th century portraits of German or Italian gentlemen may show ten entirely different hats. Albrecht Dürer illustrated the differences in his actual (or composite) contrast of Nuremberg and Venetian fashions at the close of the 15th century (illustration, right). The “Spanish style” of the late 16th century began the move back to synchronicity among upper-class Europeans, and after a struggle in the mid-17th century, French styles decisively took over leadership, a process completed in the 18th century.
Though textile colors and patterns changed from year to year, the cut of a gentleman’s coat and the length of his waistcoat, or the pattern to which a lady’s dress was cut, changed more slowly. Men’s fashions were largely derived from military models, and changes in a European male silhouette were galvanized in theaters of European war where gentleman officers had opportunities to make notes of foreign styles such as the “Steinkirk” cravat or necktie.
Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, leader of fashion
Though there had been distribution of dressed dolls from France since the 16th century and Abraham Bosse had produced engravings of fashion in the 1620s, the pace of change picked up in the 1780s with increased publication of French engravings illustrating the latest Paris styles. By 1800, all Western Europeans were dressing alike (or thought they were); local variation became first a sign of provincial culture and later a badge of the conservative peasant.
Although tailors and dressmakers were no doubt responsible for many innovations, and the textile industry certainly led many trends, the history of fashion design is normally understood to date from 1858 when the English-born Charles Frederick Worth opened the first true haute couture house in Paris. The Haute house was the name established by government for the fashion houses that met the standards of industry. These fashion houses have to adhere to standards such as keeping at least twenty employees engaged in making the clothes, showing two collections per year at fashion shows, and presenting a certain number of patterns to costumers. Since then, the professional designer has become an increasingly dominant figure, despite the origin of many fashions in street fashion. For women, the flapper styles of the 1920s marked the most significant alteration in Western women’s fashion in several centuries, with a drastic shortening of skirt-lengths and much looser-fitting clothes. With an occasional revival of long skirts, variations of the shorter length have remained dominant ever since. Though there were many variations, the “flapper uniform,” so to speak, consisted of high-heeled shoes, which were often embellished with buckles or gems, significant amounts of jewellery, especially pieces adorned with gems and pearls, and shorter dresses, the upper portion of which could be either loose or form-fitting. Flappers also often wore cloches, small hats often featuring narrow, downward-oriented brims, to frame their short hairstyles. Flappers were seen as especially seductive figures, and their fashion was at the time controversial for many.
The four major current fashion capitals are acknowledged to be Paris, Milan, New York City, and London, which are all headquarters to the greatest fashion companies and are renowned for their major influence on global fashion. Fashion weeks are held in these cities, where designers exhibit their new clothing collections to audiences. A succession of major designers such as Coco Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent have kept Paris as the center most watched by the rest of the world, although haute couture is now subsidized by the sale of ready-to-wear collections and perfume using the same branding.