Fashion holds up a mirror to society. Different cultural movements and moments in history can be seen in the trends of each decade. When looking back, we can see the women who became style icons, creating the look that came to define the decade.
What separates a style icon from the it-girl of the moment? Longevity and innovation. Style icons define the decade because they move fashion forward from the past decade and help to set the trends of the new one.
The 1920s: Colleen Moore
Colleen Moore was a young starlet in the 1920s in silent movies (I know before “talkies” came out…crazy). She was known for being the girl who inspired an entire generation of girls to go out and get bob haircuts. She loved her own so much that after getting a bob she never got a different haircut. Colleen Moore is actually a big reason why the bob is still such a popular haircut today!
She wore her bob haircut alongside the classic “flapper” look that so many people associate with the 1920s, although it should be noted that actual flappers were few and far between. And while her style definitely pushed the boundaries into the modern era, she was thought to be cuter than her contemporary silent film stars Louise Brooks or Clara Bow who took on roles more scandalous for the time period.
However, the looser silhouettes of Moore’s dresses that showed a bit of leg were one of her staples and a look that many women did wear in the ‘20s. It became common to wear dresses without any real waist emphasis. The freeing hemline came alongside women’s suffrage after the American public became convinced of their worthiness because of their efforts during World War I.
The 1930s: Katherine Hepburn
Katherine Hepburn was a true fashion icon. The award-winning actress carried her androgynous style onto movie sets where it would be shown in movie theaters across America, no doubt influencing fashion trends. Her signature menswear look strayed from the typical dresses of the time, making her choice bold. She would typically wear trousers, collared shirts, and blazers. Her outfits set the standard for the way women often wear menswear today.
Making menswear look more feminine comes down to color choice and the cut of the clothing. It’s typically something that you might want to try on in the store, especially if you’re playing with a more androgynous look for the first time.
The 1940s: Rita Hayworth
Fashion in this era was greatly affected by the American war effort. On the home front, this meant the rationing of fabric (needed for military uniforms), which meant that women’s dresses shortened from the ‘30s length of mid-calf to knee length. The dress designs of the era were also influenced by the war effort, with the uniforms of the men at war inspiring more masculine lines in the dresses, like the padded shoulders that created a more boxy neckline compared to the rounded shapes of the past decade.
And during this wartime era, Rita Hayworth was an absolute fashion icon and a sex symbol. She was an actress, singer, and dancer. (Hello, triple threat!) One of her most famous movies, Gilda, gained such popularity that a bomb crew on the Able test even taped her picture to the side of the weapon. She worked with designer Jean Louis who created all of the fabulous gowns she became most known for.
The 1950s: Audrey Hepburn
The polished look of the 1950s will forever be one of my favorites. I believe no decade ever comes to mind as having the same amount of glamor and elegance, which really translated into the way American women dressed. The ads of the time would show women with their hair and makeup done, wearing a beautiful dress and heels while making breakfast, cleaning, or greeting their husbands with a drink when he returned home from work. A lot of that formality and the elegance that it allowed for has escaped us in modern times. And I don’t think there’s ever been anyone more elegant than the great Audrey Hepburn.
Audrey Hepburn (if she even needs an introduction) was a famous actress in the ‘50s and ‘60s, had a ballerina figure from her years of dancing (which she actually preferred to acting), and did a lot of humanitarian work as she got older.
Where Rita Hayworth had Jean Louis, Audrey had Givenchy. She’s known for elegant gowns and dresses, and chic, simple outfits that she always kept very classic. Because her style on and off the set was trend-free, her chic ensembles could work for you today very easily. Look for knee-length dresses in classic cuts, keep pants simple as Audrey didn’t play with a wider leg, and go for classic blouses over t-shirts.
The 1960s: Jackie Kennedy
The 1960s were the beginning of a cultural revolution. The miniskirt of the 1960s was a shocking departure from some of the decorum and rules of the conservative ‘50s. The look of the decade was very distinctive. It’s very easy to spot the fashion trends of the era. But though she was not a part of the counter-cultural movement, no one more singularly affected the way women dressed in the 1960s than First Lady Jackie Kennedy.
Jackie Kennedy was the epitome of class and style. It’s hard to imagine American fashion without her influence on it. Starting with her iconic wedding dress designed by black dressmaker Ann Lowe, it’s clear Jackie always had great taste. It wasn't the original dress, as the first was ruined when a pipe burst in Lowe’s shop. Jackie’s first dress, that was eight weeks in the making, was recreated at a breakneck pace in just 10 days!
But it’s in her time as the first lady that Jackie was really able to make her mark upon American fashion with women all around the country trying to dress like her. She’s known for her more structured dresses and coordinated separates, which were often made of wool or other times had a more satin finish. Much like Audrey, she was never really one for trends, and when she wasn’t dressed up, a lot of the same rules applied.
The 1970s: Farrah Fawcett
And if the 1960s were breaking away from the more conservative fashions of the ‘50s, the ‘70s got rid of them altogether. Styles became more casual in this era, and, while you can see the influence of some of the fashion of the ‘60s, the ‘70s style is distinctive and a whole lot funkier. It was the disco era after all. Are you picturing bell-bottoms yet?
And if anyone comes to mind for a 1970s style icon, it’s Farrah Fawcett. (You knew this was coming.) The actress and model’s wardrobe during the era was made up of different shirts and sweatshirts (in bright colors true to ‘70s style), flare jeans, and tennis shoes. She was tanned with a pretty smile and stole a lot of hearts.
And as cute as her outfits were, that’s not what really made her a style icon. It was her hair. She wore her thick blonde hair flipped outward. For a retro look, you can do the same; you'll just need a blow dryer with a cold shot. Blow hot air while holding the round brush the way you want it to bend, then switch to cold air to lock it in. Enough practice and you can have an extra bounce in your step at the grocery store (or wherever) knowing you’ve got the Farrah Fawcett waves.
The 1980s: Princess Diana
The ‘80s were a really fun time for fashion. Everything was bigger than it ever was or ever has been. Everyone had shoulder pads and big, teased hair. There was the whole aerobic exercise style trend (hello, legwarmers). And as fun and spunky as the fashion of the era was, nobody managed to make it look chicer than Princess Diana.
Her style was iconic and really influential as she was beloved by the British people (although the press was very mean to her). A former kindergarten teacher turned royal, Princess Diana got to have a lot of fun with her style while in the spotlight. Let’s start with her wedding day. She wore a true ‘80s wedding dress. It had a huge skirt and puff sleeves. It encompassed the trends of the time while still managing to look royal.
She wore lots of bright colors and was a fan of a peter pan or ruffled collar on her dresses. And in the early days, her blue eyeliner that she matched to her blue eyes was an example of a step away from more traditional choices that made her the “People’s Princess.”
The 1990s: Jennifer Anniston
Each decade has many different choices for the style icon who represents it. The ‘90s is no different; there was Clueless, the Spice Girls, and Winona Ryder. But I think Jennifer Anniston’s ‘90s style has been immortalized in a way other things haven’t because of the Friends phenomenon. While Friends has recently been moved to HBO Max, it’s time on Netflix allowed a whole new generation to discover and fall in love with the sitcom (and the fashion).
Jennifer Anniston’s ‘90s style was all about taking the basics and pairing them in unique ways. A slip dress over a t-shirt (an outfit Selena Gomez recently recreated). A black tank top with red cargo pants. Her style is minimalist, but definitely not without the creativity that makes a style icon.
And then of course there’s “the Rachel” — the haircut from season 3 of Friends that every girl was asking her hairdresser to do in the ‘90s. But let me save you the trouble, Anniston has said that the cut was really hard for her to style even though her hairdresser could make it look great. Maybe go for a similar short length with some layering that’s a little more friendly to those of us who aren’t wizards with a hairdryer.
The 2000s: Sarah Jessica Parker
The 2000s style often gets a bad rap, but in some ways, there was a lot of charm to the style (even if you cringe when you look at some of the things you thought looked good then). Sarah Jessica Parker certainly encompasses some of the funky looks of the decade, but ever the fashionista, she seems to pull it off in ways I don’t think I ever could.
Her look was lots of fun dresses that overlapped with her character Carrie Bradshaw on Sex in the City. In the 2000s, she wore lots of strapless cuts and even feathers! She wore a lot of soft pink, and fun heels were a must for her. And her curls, the stuff of dreams I tell you. A day in her closet would be a dream. You would never be bored!
The 2010s: Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner
Ah yes, the 2010s. We’re coming up to speed here, people. This is the decade where Instagram really starts to become a big thing and begins to have an influence over fashion. And I think it’s where we see the rise of the Kardashians and the whole influencer effect comes into play.
Can I give this one to two people? I’m going to — Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner. These models, who really found their influence on Instagram, have really shaped the fashion of the last decade, with the biggest trend I think being the way that athleisure has become a big part of fashion even when not exercising. Yoga pants everywhere might be a thing for that reason.
Kendall and Gigi both have a really versatile style. Both models get a chance to be in everything from gorgeous designer dresses to a t-shirt and jeans they styled to be paparazzi ready.
The 2020s: Zendaya
While we don’t have definitive fashion icons for this decade yet, I’d be willing to bet the influencer effect will continue. If I had to guess, I’d definitely put my money on Zendaya being a possible style icon in the decade to come (she’s definitely been one in the past decade). She wears a lot of fun dresses and more androgynous looks in bold colors and is always on the best-dressed list for red carpets due to her risk-taking styles.
And, as she only seems to be growing more popular with each passing year, I wouldn’t be surprised if looking back she’s a notable presence on the list of fashion icons for the upcoming decade.
And that’s all of the fashion icons from the past 100 years. It’s a little weird that 100 years now starts in the 1920s!