Fashion Rules

When these two words are used together, I hear two different meanings. On the one, Fashion Rules seems to need the punctuation of exclamation points and to perhaps be preceded by “Dude!” It is a call to those obsessed with the newest, the latest, the trendiest to confirm just how important fashion is in their lives. And, I do have to agree with them.

Fashion Rules! – because it is so important to the communication of our beliefs, our opinions, our social status, our definition of self that it can be the visual representation of “us”. As William Blake wrote: “….the human person is composed of three parts: body, soul and clothes.”
And so for some (many?) the choice of our fashion is rarely random. We take the time to consider how we are representing ourselves, even if all we are concerned with is being appropriately clothed for the weather.

But “Fashion Rules” can also be taken to mean defining what exactly “appropriately” clothed means.

I had a discussion about this topic with a recent donor and visitor to the Fashion Resource Centre. She and I were talking about the change in expectations regarding appearance. She told me about a recent event that two of her adult children had attended. The event was held outside at a very well-to-do couple’s home and before attending they were wondering what the other guests would be wearing and what they should wear. If it was a garden party should she wear a dress? And if so, what kind of dress? How “dressed” up should they be? How “casual” was too casual? As it happened when they arrived most guests had opted for jeans!

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Not that long ago (ok maybe not that long ago if you are my age) there were Fashion Rules about what to wear to what occasion. We both decried the loss of those opportunities where “dressing up” was a requirement, not just from the perspective of acceptance by others but as a sign of respect to those you were with. The chance to wear a more formal dress or suit seems to be acceptable at very few occasions – prom, as parents of the bride/groom and if you happen to be a celebrity. (Maybe that is why there are so many of those dresses and gowns on racks in many department stores?)

I thought it might be interesting to look back at some of these no longer observed Fashion Rules.


When Prince Albert passed away his heartbroken wife Queen Victoria sunk into mourning in a way that we certainly no longer do. This became another way to show respect for family members who had passed but it was also a way to demonstrate to others your social status and wealth. The etiquette books dictated not only what you could wear but how long you should do so in order to show the proper respect.

The stages of mourning included: deep mourning which was to last a minimum of one year plus one day. All colour in your wardrobe was replaced with black and not just any black. It was necessary that all things with shine be put away too. Your lovely gold jewelry would be replaced with jet beads and mourning jewelry made of bog oak as well as hair (from the deceased of course). Your clothing had a matte rather than shiny finish to the fabric and you were draped in unrelenting black.

The next stage was Second Mourning and this lasted for an additional year. Black was still your colour but it could now be made of a fabric like silk which has a bit of shine to it.
After this came Ordinary mourning in which a bit of white might be added to your collars and the cuffs of your long sleeved dresses. This stage lasted a further six months.

And finally your last six months of mourning called Half Mourning would allow you to slowly (ever so slowly) to add colour to your wardrobe. But, this was also restricted to specific colours: white, grey (black mixed with white) and finally a mauve colour (grey mixed with purple).
This applied to women’s fashions and men were only required to wear a black arm band, and for considerably less time than the three years plus one day that women adhered to. This type of mourning ritual was thankfully reserved for those relations closest to you: your mother, father, siblings, and husbands.

However, if in the midst of this process, another close relation passed away you were expected to begin the process once again.

Hats were an essential part of a fashionable woman’s wardrobe until the Catholic Church decreed in the 1970s that women no longer needed to wear head coverings to church. Prior to this, women wouldn’t think about going to the grocery store, never mind church without a proper hat.
As well, beehive hair styles popular in the preceding decade had also made wearing hats something of a challenge and the young women of the 1960s also wanted to be less, rather than more like their mothers who had grown up with a wardrobe of headgear.

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During World War II hats were one of the few items not subject to rationing and became a creative outlet for women to achieve a smart new look. There were different types and styles of hats appropriate seasonally as well as by occasion.

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Dior’s New Look of 1947 influenced the silhouette through the 1950s and suggesting women who were fashionably attired did so by wearing accessories which matched and complemented their entire look and this became a very successful marketing strategy for the fashion house.

Looking at the silhouette created by the incredibly full, often pleated skirts of the 1950s, the large picture hat that is often shown with the New Look was the perfect complement from a design perspective. The female form is “bracketed” with a large circle created with the long and full skirt at her hem and with an almost equally large circle on the top of her head.

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Speaking of sparkle, rhinestone jewelry that was so popular in the 1950s was also something that was generally worn “after 5.” While Marilyn Monroe sang “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” women wore rhinestones as an acceptable alternative. They could be found adorning not only bracelets, brooches and earrings but handbags, shoes and, of course, dresses. But, any of these worn before 5:00 looked decidedly out of place.

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These are just a few examples of Fashion Rules that have disappeared, whether for good or bad is up to the individual to decide. And, while there are those who still live a life with the opportunity to dress for the red carpet I think it is sad that these folks are in the minority. Wouldn’t you love to have more occasions to wear a beautiful gown, with a wonderful hat, spectacular shoes and amazing bling?

Fashion does rule the day and in a very different way now than in the past.

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