Fashion & Textile History Gallery
December 3, 2009 – May 11, 2010
Rules of fashion dictate how women should dress to suit the time of day, season, social occasion, or activity. They influence colors, materials, necklines, hemlines, and other elements of fashionable dress. Sometimes they operate as a flexible set of guidelines, at other times as strictly observed etiquette. Since the early nineteenth century, women's clothing has been primarily divided into daywear and eveningwear. Night & Day explored the evolution of the rules that have governed fashion over the past 250 years, revealing when they have been at their most extreme or so relaxed as to be barely perceptible.
Throughout most of the eighteenth century, women's fashion was categorized not according to the time of day, but rather by the degree of formality and the setting in which a garment was worn. By the end of the eighteenth century, new rules had begun to emerge, especially in France, where the Revolution of 1789 resulted in a new social order. Dressing according to the time of day and its associated activities and social occasions became the norm. In general, long sleeves and high necklines were meant for day and short sleeves and low necklines were considered appropriate for evening. These rules remained in force throughout the nineteenth century and beyond.
Dresses in plain wools and cottons were appropriate for mornings at home. For afternoon visits and promenades, women wore dresses that featured more luxurious fabrics and ornamentation. Different types of evening dresses were worn for entertaining at home or for going to the opera or a ball. Dinner dresses signaled the break with daytime fashion, but tended to be more demure than formal evening gowns. Embellished silk dresses prevailed for evening.
After World War I, fashion permitted a slightly more relaxed set of guidelines. In the 1920s, knit sportswear became fashionable as informal daywear. Cocktail dresses were another 1920s innovation. However, fashions of the 1950s demanded a strict set of rules corresponding to the renewal of formal society after World War II. Couturiers like Christian Dior created a panoply of styles that revived silhouettes and dress codes from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The line dividing daywear and eveningwear began to disappear in the 1960s, as dress codes disintegrated. Yves Saint Laurent introduced his version of an evening pantsuit in 1966, and by the 1970s, most fashion rules had been broken. Contemporary fashion adheres to very few traditional rules and promotes loose definitions of daywear and eveningwear. Although true day suits, cocktail dresses, and evening gowns still exist, there are many permutations of these and other styles that cannot be easily defined.
Organized by Molly Sorkin, associate curator of costume.