Fashion: History's shocking styles

Clockwise from top left: Madonna, punk, macaroni, mini skirt, Lady Gaga, teddy boy

London Fashion Week has kicked off and usually manages to cause some controversy. But that's only to be expected - style has been scandalising for centuries.

Last year it was a dress made from 3,000 cow and yak nipples - this year it's anyone's guess what will cause a storm at London Fashion Week (LFW).

Modern shocks

Shoes by designer Alexander McQueen
  • Alexander McQueen's 10-inch "hooves" in 2010
  • Lady Gaga's meat dress at 2010 MTV Video Music Awards
  • Hussein Chalayan's table skirt in 2000
  • Jean Paul Gaultier's man skirts in 1985

High fashion often seems to translate into some rather strange looks: shower cap shoes, Pac-Man helmets and table skirts to name just a few.

But LFW is lightweight compared with some of the shocking styles of the past. Trends from centuries gone by have caused public outcry, been branded indecent, decadent - even unpatriotic. Others have played their part in shaping history.

Fashion sometimes clashes with the prevailing social mores, says US fashion historian Katy Werlin.

"Change happens so quickly and often in our modern world that we don't really think twice about it.

"So a radical new fashion trend probably would not have the same shock value as it did 100 years ago."

So step aside Lady Gaga, here are styles from history that have startled and even outraged.


A macaroni
  • Hat: Tiny, finely styled and perched on top of a wig
  • Wig: Expensive, oversized and always intricately styled
  • Coat: Worn tight and decorated with lace, ribbons and very large buttons
  • Waistcoats: Brightly coloured and patterned, often dotted
  • Stockings: Also brightly coloured and patterned, often striped
  • Shoes: Had to be very narrow with big, decorative buckles

They would laugh in the face of today's metrosexual man and what he considers to be looking after his appearance. They'd scoff at David Beckham in his sarong. When it comes to male preening and blurring the gender divide, it was a group of young British aristocrats who led the way in the mid-1700s. Known as the Macaronis, they shocked and scandalised - and revelled in doing so.

The style was started by a group of rich young men who took the Grand Tour around Europe after finishing their formal education. Think of it as a very expensive and very exclusive 18th Century gap year.

They adopted the flamboyant continental styles of the French and Italians, but taking every detail to the very extreme. Supposedly, the name Macaroni came about because they also developed a taste for the food in Italy.

Reaction at the time

The Ladies Field

"There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male or female, a thing of neuter gender, lately started up among us. It is called a Macaroni"

Oxford Magazine, 1770

"Maccaronies [are] our spindle-snaked Gentry, who make the grand tour but to bring back the vices of our neighbours"

The Public Ledger, 1770

Towering, elaborate wigs were worn with tiny hats perched on top. Garishly patterned waistcoats clashed with brightly coloured stockings. Every detail, down to the buckles on their shoes, was over the top. They even developed their own form of language, mixing French and Italian words with English and using different pronunciation.

It was in stark contrast to well-to-do men's fashion at the time. It had toned down from the start of the century and was all about careful tailoring and simple, plain garments, says Werlin. It had developed out of the countrywear worn by the English gentleman. Heavily embroidered and jewelled silk coats were not practical for running a country estate.

But what also scandalised was the fact that Macaronis were so obsessed with fashion in the first place, regardless of their outlandish taste, says Werlin. The 18th Century was the period when fashion became gendered and they were ripping up the rules.

"For a variety of reasons, fashion became known as a woman's thing. So for a man to engage in such frippery was seen as silly and effeminate. In engaging with high fashion, they were taking on a woman's role, which was of course highly scandalous in this age of gender inequality."

Word of the Macaronis spread to other countries. In the song Yankee Doodle there is a reference to their fashion. The line: "Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni." Outcry soon turned to ridicule and they became the target of satirists of the time.

But ultimately it was a fad. Men's fashion quickly moved on to more simple styles championed by Beau Brummell, the arbiter of men's fashion in Regency England. He believed good dressing came across in immaculate details, not ostentatious display. His style was a direct reaction to the Macaronis, says fashion historian and trend forecaster Amber Butchart.

Chemise a la reine


It was this portrait that shocked a nation. Marie Antoinette, the queen of France in 1783, had already outraged the French with her opulence; now she managed to scandalise the nation by ditching the glitz and taking a more simple approach to her outfits.

So simple, in fact, that the nation thought she had posed for the portrait in her underwear. Imagine the reaction if the Duchess of Cambridge was thought to have posed in her briefs and you get an idea of the shock it created.

The French queen had adopted the new style of dress to go with the more simple lifestyle she was leading at her private country retreat. The Petit Trianon was situated in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles and while there, a lot of the elaborate ceremony of the French court was dropped - including the fashion.

Painting of Marie-Antoinette (L) and Jane Austin (R) Usually lavishly clothed, the Queen's new style led to simpler dresses

Marie Antoinette began wearing a light, shapeless dress called a gaulle. It was made of layers of simple muslin, loose-fitting and shaped by a sash tied around the waist. It also didn't have the usual panniers under the skirt, which were often so extreme that door frames had to be widened to accommodate dresses. It meant the material could mould around the legs, also shocking at the time.

Everything about it was in direct contrast to court fashion, which was incredibly elaborate and all about over-the-top luxury. When Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun painted the queen in her new dress and it went on public display, there was a huge scandal.

"The simplicity and lightness of the dress design looked a lot like the chemise, which was the basic foundation garment worn by everyone at the time," says Werlin. As a result it gained the moniker "chemise a la reine".

Even when it was established she was wearing a new style of dress, the public furore did not die down. The simplicity of the garment was seen as an insult to the glory of the monarchy, as French queens were supposed to be a reflection of the greatness of the king.

She was also accused of trying to put French silk merchants out of business. At the time, they were a vital part of the French economy and by wearing imported fabric , the queen was considered to be supporting a rival textile industry.

But despite initially being decried as indecent, by the 1790s French and British women had started to adopt muslin chemise dresses, says Sonnet Stanfill, a fashion curator at the V&A. It was the precursor to the light, simpler styles of the early 19th Century, worn by the likes of Jane Austen.

Bloomer suit

Women in bloomers Bloomers eventually made it on to the sports pitch and then on to college girls

Woe betide a woman who showed an ankle in the mid-1800s. In large parts of the world, skirts were long to protect a woman's modesty, corsetry was tight and restrictive and wearing anything that was remotely masculine would raise the nation's collective eyebrow - to put it mildly.

Hence the outrage caused by the bloomer suit, even though the long trousers were worn under long skirts and tied at the ankle. Even that smallest flash of the bloomers was enough to work people up into a frenzy of disgust.

Designed by Elizabeth Smith Miller in New York in 1851 and championed by women's rights activist Amelia Bloomer, the small group of women wearing them regarded them as a healthy and rational alternative to the cumbersome skirts of the time. They made riding a bike and other tasks of daily life a lot easier.

Gender and fashion

Satire of woman in bloomers

Caroline Cox, fashion historian and trend forecaster with Heritage Modern

The blurring of traditional gender styles was often what shocked people the most.

When women adopted a more masculine look - like women in bloomers - they were seen as wanting to be more like men. They were seen as associating themselves with the gender that had more power.

When men were perceived to be wanting to look more like women - like the hippies of the 1960s - people understood even less because they viewed it as wanting to drop down the power scale.

But society was not ready for women in trousers, even if they were almost entirely hidden under a skirt.

"They became a political statement and the wearers were attacked publicly," says fashion historian Rebecca Tuite. "Bloomers became a derogatory term, a name hurled at women who were involved in the temperance and women's rights movement."

Again, satirists of the time jumped on the back of the moral outcry and ridiculed the look. They drew cartoons of women acting like men and dressed in bloomers. Conservative society won out this time and the bloomer suit went back in the wardrobe.

When it returned decades later, it had lost none of its power to scandalise. In the early 1900s, bloomers started to be worn again, but this time without a skirt on top and the trousers were tied at the knee. Most people still thought they robbed women of their femininity.

They were adopted by America's earliest female college students, but tight restrictions were put in place dictating where and when they were allowed. They were worn by women who played sports and basically only on the sports field.

It still wasn't until the 1930s that all-female colleges accepted the trousers anywhere else. Despite the struggle to get them accepted in mainstream society, the bloomer suit went on to change what women wore forever.

"The impact of the bloomer suit was an incredibly legacy whereby women could wear clothes that better suited their daily wants and needs," says Tuite.

The New Look


Nowadays it's wearing too few clothes that often creates a furore; not so for Christian Dior. In 1947, he showed his first collection since World War II in Paris. It shocked and outraged people and was even branded unpatriotic, simply because of the copious amount of fabric used to make the longer, more voluminous skirts.

The war had finished but a lot of European countries were still undergoing clothes rationing. The UK government's Making of Civilian Clothing (restriction order) prohibited the wasteful cutting of cloth. It also set a list of restrictions that tailors and dressmakers had to work to which dictated the number of buttons and pockets and amount of trim an outfit could have.

Making of Civilian Clothing (restriction order) 1941

Women in a clothes shop during World War II
  • Dresses to have no more than two pockets
  • Five buttons and five buttonholes for any opening
  • One button and one buttonhole on each sleeve
  • Six seams in skirt of woollen dress or seven seams in skirt of non-woollen dress
  • Use no more than 4m of stitching for every item

At the time, women's fashion had also become very tailored and masculine, with sharp shoulders. It was the influence of military styles and also reflected the work women had been doing during the war, in factories and fields.

In stark contrast, Dior's New Look featured long hemlines and full skirts that were tightly nipped in at the waist. It created the perfect hourglass silhouette. The fabrics he used were expensive too - satins, fine wools and taffeta.

With many people still hard-up and struggling, the lavish style was considered an insult by many. The designer was also backed by textile manufacturers, and some saw the design as a way to increase their profits.

"The New Look seemed incredibly decadent, even unpatriotic," says Butchart. "It caused a huge fuss when it was first seen."

Modern designers still cite Dior's New Look as a shocking and seminal part of fashion history. Alexander McQueen, famous for his own extreme styles, called it a "radical fashion moment".

It was also a return to an almost Victorian silhouette, with the nipped-in waist and softer shoulders. This was interpreted as sending a message to women.

"In this way, the Dior New Look really symbolised the 'return to the home' ethos that many governments were trying to impose on women since the end of the war," says Butchart.

It may have scandalised initially, but Dior's instinct proved right. Fed up with the restrictions imposed by the war, women eventually started to embrace the new style. It went on to influence women's fashion well into the next decade.

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.