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1990s Fashion History
The Mood of the Millennium
Part 1

By Pauline Weston Thomas for

1990's Fashion History - The Mood of the Millennium



Towards the Millennium - Dressing Down

Assessing a decade of fashion so close in time is complex. In terms of costume history it's only after a trend has been around for several years can we acknowledge that it's more than a passing fad and deserves recognition in the archives of history. We each see what we ourselves wore as what was worn and typical of the era. The mood of society in the final decade of the last millennium was more defining than what was actually worn.

So much more was on offer globally, and many people lost interest in fashion as necessary and important to their lives when business rules for dressing relaxed. Working from home became common. By the edge of the 21st century dressing down in every aspect of life became an acceptable norm. Ordinary retail clothing sales, textile manufacturing industries and stores all declined from a less active more casual marketplace.

The range of fashion goods available was huge in the 1990s, but no one knows the real answer why retail sales were often sluggish. The main thrust of fashion was the striving to achieve individuality. Fashion proliferated as fast as it could be relayed by the media and Internet and only by styling oneself rather than slavishly following a particular designer's fashion look, could individuality be achieved. Rapid dissemination of information and a more relaxed attitude to clothes has led to a certain inevitable uniformity in cities thousands of miles apart.

Comfort dressing with stretch, accounts for many sales today.   You are reading an original 'Fashion in the 1990s', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at ©

Less Became More

One thing about the decade we can say confidently was that after the conspicuous consuming years of the 1980s less became more in the 1990s. Not everyone adopted minimalism, but many did as they sought to blend and fit with an increasingly aggressive urban society. The silhouette became neater as shoulder pads finally died and jewellery became non existent or chic in its fineness and barely there quality.

The only concession to 80's glitz was a subtle, but new iridescent glitter shimmer on sheer and tulle fabrics that went through to skin make up and hair spray. For many the sleek hairstyle copied from Jennifer Aniston or the funkier choppier hairstyle of Meg Ryan was the only hairstyle to sport.


The 1990's Silhouette

Leftover Shoulder Pads

Remnants of the eighties were still around for the first years of the 90s and particularly in provincial areas. Short above knee straight skirts and stirrup ski pants masquerading as a refined version of leggings were worn with long chenille yarn sweater tunics, oversized shoulder padded shirts or big embellished T-shirts. The latter gradually reduced in size to become slimmer fitted and semi fitted garter stitch knits with fake fur collars, darted three-quarter shirts and screen printed t-tops minus the pads often worn with tie waist, easy loose trousers, jeans or boot leg trousers.

The Long Line Jacket

Several major silhouettes identify the decade. The decade began with short fitted jackets, a shoulder padded leftover from the eighties that sometimes sported peplums, fluted princess panels or hip basques with fabric swathed bertha style shoulders.

The first new different silhouette was the 1991-2 fingertip length straighter, longer line three-quarter narrower jacket that moved down an inch for every year of the era. It was worn with an above knee skirt or flirtatious circular layered or snappy pleated skirt in the early decade. Ra-Ra skirts, a froth of short frills or net set on a mini skirt were popular in the early 90s with the under twenty fives.

A short, sleeveless, boat neck shift dress that initially showed about 8 inches of the lower dress under the jacket was seen as a useful business outfit. This last look remained an acceptable fashion for the decade, one which could be dressed up or down and is still seen in the new decade, but mostly with the jacket longer at a matching length to the dress.  You are reading an original 'Fashion in the 1990s', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at ©.

Trousers for Everyone

Trouser silhouettes included the oversized baggy hip hop look of Adidas windpants and baggy jeans. Young people adopted loose cargo pants and fitness sportswear as a general uniform.

The other major silhouette was the same fingertip length jacket worn with trousers. The trouser suit became a mainstay of every woman's wardrobe. Trousers became straight legged and wider including variations of boot leg slightly flared trousers.

Earlier in the decade in 1992-3 before the trouser suit became a wardrobe staple, black narrow jeans were worn and often teamed with airman's aviator distressed jackets. Blue jeans were also worn with a navy blazer and classic white or blue shirt.

Leather and leather imitations reappeared as trousers mid decade. Later in the decade short, boxy, zippered, stand neck, rock chick leather jackets in pink or black mostly got teamed with jeans. Young girls imitating pop girl bands like the Spice Girls favoured skimpy bustier tops or midriff revealing halter tops worn also with jeans, trousers, cropped trousers or mini skirts. Skimpy, stretch and cling tops made from soft Lycra enhanced fabric in imitation of designs by Léger and Alaïa were used to enhance the figures of many with breast implants.

The Classic Blazer


The classic blazer, a late 80s early 90s fashion, remained popular with women over thirty five, especially with subdued worsted wool straight trousers. One blazer sold by Marks and Spencer rumoured to have been designed by Armani was voted a best buy by a national magazine. Many UK women owned at least one of the colours it came in, which ranged over a 10 year era from navy, bottle green, camel, black, wine, red, saxe blue and several dulled tartans. 

By mid decade, with its gold finish buttons now a leftover sign from the 80s, it began to look quite dated, even though the shoulder line was softened and narrowed. Still available it is worn mostly now by generations over sixty.  You are reading an original 'Fashion in the 1990s', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at ©.

Petticoat Dresses

The London company Ghost kept even private members of their shop Voyage waiting for their soft floaty designs that were feminine and distinctive. However they were very easy to copy and to run up at home and soon were everywhere. Nationwide the girly fashion for the petticoat dresses or cowl neck shoestring strap dress worn with a plain, velvet trimmed or beaded cashmere cardigan or Pashmina set a return to femininity. Flesh began to be exposed again and some of the fashions looked good on younger women with toned bodies.

Cleavage came back and a Wonderbra became as essential as it had been in the early 70s. When grunge fashion arrived, showing bra straps no longer seemed important. Underwear became outerwear and was often visible under jackets. 

Such was the demand for uplift bras for all sizes that in the late 1990s Charnos funded £1 million of research for the invention of the new Bioform Bra for fuller busted women.  

One of the best hits in bras was the Ultimo bra. This gel filled bra gives not only a natural look, but also cleavage to flat chested women. The actress Julia Roberts wore one to great effect in the film Erin Brockenvich. 

Oriental Influences 1990s 

In the mid 90s a fashion for Chinese cheongsam dresses and rich dress or interior brocade fabrics came at about the same time as interest in the British handover of Hong Kong. After 156 years the colony was given back to the Chinese on July 1 1997.

Straight dresses with mandarin collars and mandarin necks on long line brocade jackets followed a similar slim line. Other garments, shawls and knits were lavished with embroidery techniques made possible by new mass production embroidery machines. The opening up of China also heralded a new availability of decorative goods such as beaded and embroidered purses at affordable prices. The pretty beaded and ethnic purse style bags were similar to Victorian reticules and were used as a finishing touch to a special outfit, particularly at weddings.


Woollen picture and fair isle knitwear of the early and mid 80s was overtaken by the adoption of plain and patterned lightweight fleeces. In knits, silk and cashmere mixes for ultra fine knitted twin sets were a standard item. As a reaction to picture knit and fair isle sweaters of the eighties, knitwear was very plain for most of the early and mid decade. It relied on textured stitches for interest. Added on embellishment such as peasant wool embroidery and Swiss darning made a comeback at various times in the early 90s and very late 90s.

By the millennium there was evidence of fair isle patterning in subtle border bands often with beading on the pattern. By Christmas 2001 fair isle patterned knitwear made a return debut on Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman's video 'Something Stupid' when Nicole wore a Paul Smith snowflake sweater. Fair isle was once again seen in expensive boutiques. This time around, the millennium fair isle sweater is smaller, shorter, neater and less baggy than in the 1980s. You are reading an original 'Fashion in the 1990s', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at ©.

Long Cardigan Coats

Much longer versions of all straight dress varieties and skirts were usual from 1993. They were often worn with full length fine knitted cardigan coats or over trousers, especially in winter. Women everywhere adopted styles they felt most at ease with, whether long or short. Knitted suits in fine cashmeres and angora mixes in neutral tones were a feature of autumnal dressing. Clothing fabrics became softer and physically less hard edged than they had been in the eighties. 

Fleece Fashion for the Masses

Supplanting heavy outdoor jackets and thicker knits, easy cut fleece tops were a common sight for all age groups, although the quality of many later fleeces was dubious, some getting as bobbled and unattractive as old dressing gowns after one wash. The mass uniform of knobby fleeces hanging on from the 90s is a long way from the original high quality sportswear versions which are still available, but cost more. A fleece is a useful lightweight warm garment, but it's worth paying a little more for a quality item in a subtle colour that retains its appearance after washing and wearing. 

Accessories, Mobile Phones and Pashminas

The Filofax died as many people now had Laptops or electronic organisers to keep records. At some time or other the only fashion accessories a smart woman could not be seen without in the 1990s was a mobile phone, a Pashmina, diamond solitaire ear studs or a small duffel back pack.

As with the patterned square fine wool shawl of the late 80s, the way the Pashmina was worn was important. The Fulham knot was the best way to cut down the bulk of the 2 yard long, 30 inch wide item which doubled as a stole with feminine dresses. Other accessories included painted panne velvet, beaded or animal print long narrow straight scarves, simple felt or leopard print fur hats and silver, white gold, or platinum jewellery. You are reading an original 'Fashion in the 1990s', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at ©.



The use of Lycra in all sorts of clothes increased and sexy styles based on bandage designs initially worked by Azzedine Alaïa were especially popular with women with good figures. Lycra takes well to hot day-glo colours and by 1991 continental women strutted their stuff wearing these styles across the seaside resorts of Spain and Italy. 

Lycra was mixed with many fibres to improve and enhance wearing and crease recovery qualities of fabrics. Trousers, jeans and skirt wools all benefited from approximately 2- 6% addition of an elastomeric such as Lycra or Spandex.

Clothes with a Lycra percentage are ideal for packing and travel. Many clothes with added elastomeric are sport clothes. Hugely popular with the masses worn as everyday casual clothes these are dealt with in Fitness Fashion.

Fabrics and Prints

Linen, silk, cashmere, devore velvets, Lycra, fleece, superior quality microfibre polyesters and Sympatex for outdoor weather were the main fabrics of the 90s. 

An updated new improved cellulosic textile called Tencel soon began to replace some uses of viscose rayon which had high visibility in the 80s. Courtauld's Tencel microfibres were introduced about 1992 and mass produced by 1995. Tencel's superior handle to viscose, excellent drape, colour retention and peachskin or plain finish helped ensure early success. Over £300 million was spent researching and developing this eco friendly superior man made regenerated fibre.  

Viscose which had also been used with polyester as an easy care substitute linen weave through the 80s was ousted by a craving for real linen and ramie goods. Natural creases and distressed fabrics became very acceptable so that disorder in dress was preferred to order and pressing. Such was the success of microfibres, that by 2001 the world saw the first closure of a Viscose Rayon factory as the demand for viscose declined.

Plain fabrics or subtle weaves and the novelty of computer generated abstract prints replaced floral chintz like prints throughout the nineties. Georgina Von Etzdorf a textile designer produced hand printed deeply luxurious velvet accessories and scarves in the 80s and 90s. 

Devore Silks, Velvets and Brocades

By way of substitute, organic floral forms did appear on luscious and rich devore velvet scarves, dress fabrics and shirts long enough to be worn as jacket coats. Silk devore fabric was first revived in the market by the American trained British designer Jasper Conran. The velvet fabric was burnt away with acid printing which left shadows of silk chiffon amid deep velvet pile. Hungry for something different and new the public loved the revived 20s fabric. Until the 1990s most velvet produced in the 20th century was rayon or acetate based, although velvet was first made as silk velvet in the Middle Ages.

Rich brocade fabrics in intricate scrolling patterns were popular through the nineties, especially in the Christmas season and for weddings. They were made into Principal Boy style jackets that got longer and longer as the decade progressed. By 2000 AD the slim shift under dress hemline and jacket hemlines met.

As if to make up for the sea of black that swept the country in the 1990s the eve of the millennium saw iridescent stoles and shimmering subtle glitter knits that took Cool Britannia into the year 2000.  You have been reading Part 1 of an original 'Fashion in the 1990s', fashion history article by Pauline Weston Thomas at ©.


 Go straight to Part 2 of The 1990s

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About looks at women's costume and fashion history and analyses the mood of an era.  Changes in technology, leisure, work, cultural and moral values. Homelife and politics also contribute to lifestyle trends, which in turn influence the clothes we wear.  These are the changes that make any era of society special in relation to the study of the costume of a period.Fashion History can take no responsibility for any information on the site which may cause you error, loss or costs incurred from use of the information and links either directly or indirectly.  This site is owned, designed, written and developed by author: Pauline Thomas and Guy Thomas. This site is designed to be viewed in 1024 X 768 or higher.

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