It’s easy to forget just how far women’s formalwear fashions have come in a very short time. Today, a well-fitted made-to-measure suit is just as likely to be a staple in the average woman’s formal wardrobe as is an evening gown, but this hasn’t always been the case. The history of women’s formalwear fashion is a history of discomfort, impracticality and excess. Take a look at these five women’s formalwear fashion items we’re glad to see the back of…


It’s hard to imagine today what it must have been like to wear a corset day-in, day-out, but for fashionable women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in particular, this was an unfortunate reality. Although originally designed as support garments, whalebone corsets eventually became highly restrictive items designed to replicate a fashionable posture and body shape. Corsets became so tight that they actually restricted the wearer’s breathing, preventing them from drawing a full breath. We’re incredibly glad that these items have since been consigned to the scrapheap of fashion.

Power dressing

A far more contemporary formalwear fashion, power dressing emerged as a concept in the 1970s and rose to prominence during the ‘80s. Power dressing was intended to make the wearer seem more competent and authoritative, and for women that meant lots of dark colours, matching jackets and trousers – and most crucially, shoulder pads. These ugly accoutrements have since fallen out of fashion, and we can’t say we’re disappointed – we find the idea that women in managerial positions ought to adopt a more masculine outline more than a little reductive.


Going much further back in history, farthingales were frames designed to support and shape a woman’s skirts in order to manufacture a fashionable outline. Farthingales rose to the height of ludicrousness in the 1590s, when Elizabeth I and other fashionable women of the time wore enormous, platter-shaped structures under their skirts. Next time you’re squeezing onto a crowded commuter train, be thankful that you aren’t carrying something resembling the Eiffel Tower under your skirt…

The Symington Side Lacer

During the Jazz Age of the 1920s, the ‘flapper’ look rose to prominence as the women’s fashion du jour. Slim, elegant evening gowns were the formalwear frocks of choice, and women sought a boyish physique to fit in with the flapper aesthetic. This meant a flat bust, and for many women necessitated the use of a contraption known as the Symington Side Lacer. This early bra was designed not only to provide support when dancing but also to flatten the bust and straighten the back. Thanks but no thanks…


Wigs have been worn by both men and women at various points throughout history, but the 17th century saw these ridiculous pieces of headgear achieve widespread popularity in fashionable circles. Apparently wigs were popularised by Louis XIV of France, who wore them as a means of covering up his thinning hair, although it’s just as likely that wigs were worn by the gentry as they were easier to de-louse than real human hair. Fashionable men and women would own at least two wigs – a smaller item for use around the home, and a more lavish affair to be worn when out in public. People also used to shave their heads in order to achieve a better fit. We can’t be alone in breathing a sigh of relief that this trend is well and truly a thing of the past…

Fortunately, women’s formalwear fashion has come a long way since these unfortunate items! Contact Hemingway Tailors today to arrange your first fitting appointment for your own made-to-measure suit.

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