How Formal Wear Was Born: A Look into the Past

Nazy Rafaeil
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Have you ever wondered how formal wear came to be what it is today? The history of formal wear is an enthralling journey through time, reflecting societal changes, fashion trends, and the influence of iconic figures. As you explore this captivating story, you’ll discover “how formal wear was born: a look into the past”, the aristocratic beginnings of formal wear, its evolution through various styles, and the impact of fashion icons and modern influencers on its development.

From exquisite frock coats and morning coats of the 19th century to the daring flapper style of the Roaring Twenties, and the rise of ready-to-wear clothing, the world of formal wear is as rich and diverse as the history that shaped it. Let’s delve into the fascinating tale of how formal wear was born and how it continues to evolve in modern times.

Key Takeaways

  • Formal wear has its roots in aristocratic and military dress, which evolved over time due to societal changes.

  • Fashion icons such as Christian Dior have had a profound impact on the evolution of formal wear, introducing new styles and redefining traditional ones.

  • Business casual is becoming increasingly popular for workplace attire, reflecting the dynamic nature of fashion today.

The Genesis of Formal Wear

The origins of formal wear can be traced back to aristocratic beginnings and military dress influences, which play a significant role in fashion history. The transition from traditional court dress to modern formal wear, including evening dress, occurred rapidly, yet many changes transpired during times of social upheaval and conflicts between the upper and lower classes. Wars, revolutions, and societal transformations all contributed to the evolution of men’s attire, such as the dress coat.

Fashion-forward men of the Regency Era even wore corsets to create the coveted waistline. Meanwhile, the 1820s Romantic movement inspired more extroverted and theatrical men’s clothing styles, including fine dress. Originating in Paris, haute couture quickly permeated other countries. Dresses from this fashion movement were often adorned with decorative elements like:

  • trains

  • buttons

  • ruffles

  • ribbons

Aristocratic Beginnings

Before the Regency era, men’s formal attire in England and continental Europe consisted of:

  • Elaborate, ornate, and largely unfitted coats

  • Doublets

  • Tight hose

  • Extravagant wigs, often powdered or dyed white

As young aristocrats began to favor more comfortable clothing, older generations resisted the changes, much like today’s generational clashes over fashion.

During the 1820s, young boys and girls wore short dresses over long, narrow drawers or trousers, with white cotton being the most popular material for baby clothes. This period marked the beginning of a shift towards simpler and more comfortable styles in men’s and women’s formal wear, setting the stage for further evolution in the centuries to come.

Military Dress Influence

Military dress significantly influenced men’s formal wear with its structured and tailored aesthetic. The popularity of simpler dress served as a political statement, reflecting the changing sense of power post-American Revolution and support for equality leading up to the French Revolution. Elements such as:

  • Epaulettes

  • Double-breasted jackets

  • Trousers with a stripe

  • Medals and badges

All played a role in shaping formal wear.

This military influence not only impacted the design of men’s formal attire, but also echoed the societal changes and power shifts that were taking place. Consequently, military dress laid the groundwork for the evolution of evening wear.

The Evolution of Evening Wear

Over the years, evening wear has evolved with many styles like frock coats and morning coats rising and falling in popularity. In the 1920s, women’s fashion took a turn towards simplicity, as convenient and modern styles that rejected formality and multiple layers emerged, favoring comfort and a more natural appearance. Evening wear during this period could be more elaborate, adorned with beads, embroidery, and sequins. Renowned designer Coco Chanel played a significant role in promoting this style.

In contrast to the androgynous look popularized by Chanel, designer Jeanne Lanvin created feminine and romantic dresses with long, full skirts, offering an alternative perspective on formal wear during the Roaring Twenties. The 1920s marked a significant turning point in the history of evening wear, with styles such as the flapper dress revolutionizing women’s formal attire.

Frock Coats and Morning Coats

Frock coats and morning coats were prevalent men’s formal wear styles in the 19th century. The frock coat, characterized by its knee-length cut, fitted waist, and full skirt, was typically made from heavy fabric, such as wool, and worn for formal occasions and business attire during the Victorian era.

Contrastingly, the morning coat was crafted from lightweight fabrics like linen featuring a single-breasted front with buttons, making it another suitable choice for formal occasions and business attire. These styles reflected evolving societal norms and fashion trends of the 19th century.

The frock coat was a more formal style, while the morning coat allowed for a more relaxed appearance. Over time, the fabrics used for these coats changed, with wool being used for the frock coat and linen for the morning coat, showcasing the constant evolution of men’s formal wear.

Flapper Style and the Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties brought about the flapper style, which revolutionized women’s formal wear with shorter hemlines and more daring designs. The flapper style was characterized by short skirts, bobbed hair, and bold makeup, with flappers known for their rebellious and carefree demeanor.

World War I played a significant role in shaping women’s fashion, leading to more relaxed clothing and increased hemlines to the knee. Women’s suffrage also greatly influenced fashion, as women sought to express their strength and autonomy through their clothing choices.

The Roaring Twenties and the flapper style marked a significant transformation in women’s formal wear, challenging traditional styles and embracing more audacious designs.

The Rise of Ready-to-Wear Clothing

The rise of ready-to-wear clothing was driven by department stores, mass production, and the impact of World War II on fashion. Ready-to-wear clothing, or off-the-rack clothing, refers to garments that are mass-produced and available in standard sizes, offering convenience and affordability compared to made-to-measure or bespoke clothing.

The popularity of ready-to-wear clothing has surged due to its accessibility and affordability. The advent of department stores and mass production has ensured fashionable clothing’s widespread availability, thereby fostering the rise of ready-to-wear fashion.

Department Stores and Mass Production

Department stores have a long and prosperous history, dating back to the 19th century with the opening of Le Bon Marché in Paris in 1852. The success of Le Bon Marché led to the establishment of department stores in other countries, including the United States. Department stores gained popularity by offering a wide variety of merchandise under one roof and providing a convenient and luxurious shopping experience.

By advancing mass production and fostering consumer culture growth, department stores have been instrumental in popularising ready-to-wear clothing on a grand scale. This made fashionable clothing more accessible and affordable for the general public, promoting the popularization of ready-to-wear clothing.

World War II and Post-War Fashion

World War II and its aftermath had a significant influence on fashion trends, leading to a shift towards more utilitarian and practical clothing styles. Due to rationing and limited resources during the war, restrictions were placed on the production and availability of fabrics and materials used in formal wear. This caused a simplification of designs and a focus on practicality.

Men’s formal wear became more streamlined and less ornate, with shorter jackets and narrower lapels, while women’s formal wear experienced alterations with shorter hemlines and fewer embellishments. The war prompted a more subdued and functional approach to formal wear, setting the stage for the rise of ready-to-wear clothing and the ongoing evolution of fashion trends.

Fashion Icons and Their Impact on Formal Wear

Renowned fashion icons like Christian Dior, along with modern influencers, have greatly influenced formal wear’s evolution. For instance, Coco Chanel revolutionized formal wear with the introduction of the little black dress and popularized the use of trousers for women. Audrey Hepburn promoted the use of pearls and other accessories to add a touch of sophistication to formal wear.

Contemporary fashion icons like Marilyn Monroe, Kate Moss, and Rihanna have also made their mark on formal wear, advocating for bold colors, casual and relaxed styles, and daring and edgy designs, respectively. These influential figures have shaped the direction of formal wear, constantly pushing boundaries and redefining traditional styles, earning them the title of fashion icon.

Christian Dior and the New Look

Christian Dior, a renowned French fashion designer, revolutionized post-war fashion with his iconic designs and the popularization of the ‘New Look’ in women’s fashion in the 1940s and 1950s. The New Look, characterized by its emphasis on femininity and elegance, departed from the practical styles that dominated during the war years, establishing new criteria for formal attire.

Dior’s New Look set the stage for a shift in fashion, as women embraced more refined and sophisticated formal wear styles. This groundbreaking change in post-war fashion marked a new era in the history of formal wear, as Christian Dior’s designs continue to influence and inspire the world of fashion today.

Modern Fashion Influencers

Modern fashion influencers, such as:

  • Chiara Ferragni

  • Olivia Palermo

  • Aimee Song

  • Camila Coelho

  • Danielle Bernstein

Hold considerable sway over the fashion industry due to their style, social media presence, and partnerships with brands.

These influencers have been instrumental in guiding formal wear’s direction, challenging norms, and reimagining traditional styles. Graduates from a renowned fashion institute, these fashion influencers continually challenge conventional styles and embrace diverse and inclusive fashion trends, inspiring others to redefine their own formal wear choices.

The impact of these modern influencers on the world of formal wear is both significant and lasting, as they continue to shape the future of fashion.

Dress Codes and Social Norms

Over time, the evolution of dress codes and social norms have given rise to different styles of formal wear, including:

  • Evening wear

  • Business formal

  • Business casual

  • Contemporary trends

From its aristocratic origins in the 18th century, formal wear has developed and adapted to fit the needs and preferences of different eras and occasions.

With the constant transformation of society and fashion trends, dress codes and social norms also evolve. The rise of business casual attire and the continuous redefinition of formal wear attest to fashion’s dynamic nature and its interplay with societal changes.

Business Casual and the Changing Workplace

Business casual attire emerged as a response to changing workplace norms, offering a more relaxed yet professional alternative to traditional formal wear. This dress code allows for more flexibility and comfort while still maintaining a refined and organized look, generally consisting of dress pants or khakis, a collared shirt or blouse, and closed-toe shoes.

The emergence of business casual attire has enabled more diversity in the workplace, as it is less restrictive than traditional formal attire, providing employees with a more comfortable yet professional environment.

The future of business casual attire remains uncertain, as workplace standards continue to evolve, but it is likely to remain a favored choice for many workplaces.

Redefining Formal Wear for Modern Times

In modern times, formal wear is continually reimagined as individuals and designers defy traditional styles, embracing a more diverse and inclusive fashion ethos. Current trends in formal wear include:

  • Statement sleeves

  • Vibrant colors

  • Mix and match styles

  • Sustainable fabrics

  • Gender-neutral styles

These trends reflect the ever-changing landscape of women’s fashion.

As society progresses and values become more inclusive, formal wear will continue to evolve, reflecting the diverse tastes and preferences of individuals around the world. This ongoing redefinition of formal wear demonstrates the dynamic nature of fashion and its ability to adapt to the changing needs and desires of the people who wear it.


From its aristocratic beginnings and military dress influences to the rise of ready-to-wear clothing and the impact of fashion icons and modern influencers, the history of formal wear is a captivating journey through time. As dress codes and social norms continue to evolve, so too does formal wear, adapting to the changing tastes and preferences of individuals across the globe.

The fascinating tale of how formal wear was born and continues to evolve serves as a reminder of the ever-changing nature of fashion and its ability to reflect and shape societal values. As we embrace new styles and trends, we become part of this rich and diverse history, contributing to the ongoing evolution of formal wear for generations to come.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why did people dress so formal in the past?

In the past, people paid more for their clothing and chose pieces that could be worn for church and other formal occasions. Women rarely wore pants, and it was seen as unfashionable to dress down.

As a result, people usually dress more formally in order to appear wealthy or of higher social status.

When was formal wear invented?

Formal wear was first established in the early 19th century, as the upper class in Europe and America began wearing formal attire for evening events, typically comprising of a tailcoat, waistcoat, and trousers made from dark colors.

These garments were designed to be worn for special occasions, and were often made from expensive fabrics such as silk and velvet. The style of formal wear has evolved over the years, but the basic elements remain the same. Today, formal wear is still seen as a sign of sophistication and elegance, and is often worn for weddings.

Who invented formal wear?

Beau Brummell was the first to popularize formal wear in 19th century England, and is credited with inventing the suit as we know it today.

What is considered formal wear?

For formal wear, men should wear a matching business suit with a jacket and dress pants or skirt.

Women can wear an evening dress or full-length ball gown with optional evening gloves for the most formal events.

What were the main influences on the genesis of formal wear?

Formal wear has its roots in aristocratic attire and military dress, making these two sources the main influences for its genesis.

These two sources have shaped the way formal wear is designed and worn today, from the fabrics used to the silhouettes and colors. Traditional elements of formal wear have been adapted to fit modern trends, creating a timeless look.

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Last updated 8 months ago.

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