I enjoy fashion and looking trendy on a budget. I also create art, take photos, and save money by doing things myself.
Costumes Through the Decades: 1920-1990
Vintage costumes are timeless! If you're trying to create an authentic, old-school costume, you've come to the right place. I'll show you how to dress and accessorize using your grandma's old duds and a few new pieces!
Everyone recognizes the 1920s flapper style. It's a classic look and is often emulated for Halloween costumes. Draw some inspiration from The Great Gatsby as we take a closer look at the 1920s style.
Basic 20s Style
- Sheath dresses - These dresses are often just below knee-length. The waistline should sit low on your hips. These dresses aren't form-fitting! Sheaths are cut relatively straight and just hang off of your body.
- Fishnet tights - For extra authenticity, find nylons with seams running up the back.
- Low heels - You've got to be able to dance!
- Long beaded necklaces - Necklaces are often worn tied in a knot, and they hang down low!
- Fur Wraps - Typically, shoulders are bare (except for the straps on your dress). But a fur wrap or shawl looks great draped on your arms!
- Gloves - If you're going to wear gloves, opt for a solid-colored, silky looking fabric.
So what about hair and makeup? The '20s were a time when women started "breaking the rules!" They chopped off their hair, wearing it close to their faces. If you're looking for something to do for '20s hair, try out finger waves. If your hair is long, you can always throw it in a low bun and wear a beaded headband.
As for makeup, go for a smokey eye and dark red lips.
1920s Gallery of Historic Fashion
When you think of old Hollywood glamour, you're probably thinking of the 1930s. Ladies like Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Greta Garbo graced this decade with class. This is definitely the fanciest style I'll be covering, so if you're looking for something more casual, jump up a few decades! Here are some things to remember for the 1930s:
- Floor-length dresses - Like I said, glam it up!
- Luxurious fabrics - More so silk than lace. Lots of shine and dazzle!
- Fitted waists - In the 1920s, the style was a drop-waist. In the '30s, they brought it back up to the natural waistline. Accentuate your figure!
- Big, bouncy curls - You can use hot rollers to achieve these glamorous curls.
- Minimal accessories - You don't see too many necklaces or accessories on the ladies of the 1930s. If anything, go for some sparkly earrings.
For makeup, think matte foundation, thin arched eyebrows, false eyelashes, and dramatic dark lipstick.
1940s wartime fashion has got to be my favorite. This is when the pinup style you're used to seeing started!
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What to Remember from the 40s
- Knee-length, A-line skirts - Skirts were usually not too full—there wasn't much poof until the '50s!
- Sleeves - One of my favorite parts: the sleeves! Blazers were very common, but even day dresses had sleeves.
- Buttons - As women started entering the workforce during the war effort, fashion started to get more professional-looking. Lots of button-down skirt suits in this era!
- Oxfords and Mary Jane Pumps - Mostly closed-toed, professional-looking shoes here.
- Hats - "Doll" hats that perch on the top of your head work very well, as well as 40s-style bonnet-style hats and halo hats.
Hair of the 1940s was fabulous: get ready to pin-curl! This era is when those wonderful pinup styles of voluminous waves and victory rolls started to emerge. For makeup, eyeshadow is minimal, but a red lip suits this decade well.
Christian Dior created the "New Look" in 1947, and it launched a whole new silhouette for women's fashion. Tiny waists, full skirts, and pointed busts became the hot new look.
What to Keep in Mind for the '50s
- Bright colors/patterns - Go bold! The '50s were a color explosion.
- Full skirts or narrow skirts - There really was no in-between. The skirts went mid-calf and were either super fitted or super full!
- Halter dresses - Necklines got lower, and halter dresses became quite popular. You can find a lot of these around today!
- Short shorts - High-waisted, of course. No muffin top!
- Peplum tops - These shirts followed the trends, highlighting a narrow waist.
- Stilletos - The magic of high heels was born! If you don't have any low heels from the 1920s, '30s, or '40s, I'd go with a '50s era costume.
- Oxfords - Always a more casual option, the oxford was quite popular in the footwear world.
Typical '50s makeup includes the cat eye and bright lipstick. Hair was typically short and curled, with a hat for nearly every occasion. The late '50s saw more straight hair and ponytails.
This decade is much fun to replicate and gives you so many options by way of costume. You could go the poodle skirt route or full-on pinup glamour. You could also pull out your best housewife or go in the complete opposite direction with retro-futuristic space-age stuff.
Fashion evolved quickly in the '60s, after a lot of social change. There are a few options for '60s costumes, including mod and hippie.
Mod '60s Trends
- Bright color blocking/geometric patterns
- Sleeveless tops
- Capri pants
- Box dresses
- Mini skirts
- Go-go boots
- Big sunglasses and chunky jewelry
Mod makeup usually consists of defined lashes and sharp cat eyes with nude lipstick. Hair trends of the time were pixie cuts or long hair that were flipped out at the bottoms with bangs.
Late '60s Hippie Look
- Bell bottom jeans - Need I say more? You saw this style re-emerge in the '90s.
- Long Beads - Long strands of beads were often worn in the hippie era.
- Headbands - Headbands were worn across the forehead and over your hair.
- Sandals - Or no shoes at all!
- Vests - Look for vests with fringe.
- Tye-Dye - Shirts, headbands, bags, whatever.
Hippie hair was worn very long and very straight. Probably not brushed.
The 1970s were basically like the late 60s and early 80s in terms of fashion. It changed dramatically throughout the decade, but there are a lot of good costume pieces to be had.
- Bell bottoms
- Tight t-shirts - Think That '70s Show: you would always see Kelso and Fez in super-tight shirts with flared pants.
- Platform shoes - Like, two inches or more.
- Revealing dresses - Disco dresses often featured open backs and plunging necklines.
- Suits - Suits everywhere! Pants suits, jumpsuits, tracksuits, you name it.
- Flower power - Still rocking those super bright patterns in this decade.
Hair and makeup were pretty diverse. On one side, there were the feminists who opted for the natural look. On the other side, there was disco: The bigger, brighter, and flashier, the better!
The 1980s saw a vast array of fashion developments, many of which were completely awful. That's why it's so fun to dress up from this era! Workout clothes, tacky sweaters, and the iconic '80s rock and pop stars will inspire exciting costume ideas for years to come. Check out some of these ideas:
- Tracksuits - Swishy fabric, bright colors, and geometric patterns.
- Sweatbands - They were put to good use. Wear it with a tracksuit or a dance aerobics outfit.
- Cutoff sweatshirts - Think Flashdance. Throw this on over a leotard and some tights!
- Headbands - Grab a long piece of fabric and tie it around your head, leaving the tie hanging down on one side, or opt for a bandana.
- Leather and stone-washed pants - The pant of choice for rockers.
- Layers - Layer up. Jacket on the vest, vest on a tank top, and layered necklaces.
- Cutoff sleeves - Cut the sleeves off of a t-shirt to easily achieve a rock-star shirt.
- Jackets - Leather jackets, stone-washed jackets, or vests work great, especially if they're studded, fringed, or frayed.
- Studs - Sport some studded jewelry, like armbands and chokers. Think Billy Idol.
The Pop Star
- Leggings or leg warmers - Madonna and Cyndi Lauper popularized this look, one that is often associated with the '80s style.
- Horizontal strips - Blondie and others often wore horizontally striped shirts on stage.
- Fingerless gloves - You can find lace or fishnet fingerless gloves for very cheap!
- Denim or acid-wash jackets - Do you remember the part in 13 Going on 30 when the six chicks all have brightly-colored denim acid-washed jackets? Just like that.
- Shoulder pads - A regrettable trend from the past.
- Tutu skirts - Madonna often rocked tutus over her leg warmers.
- Printed, old man sweater - Something so horribly unfashionable, a hipster would wear it.
- High-waisted jeans - Fitted, but with a very high waist.
- Loafers - Call it the grandpa look.
- Floral dresses - You know, like a granny would wear.
- Oversized, knit sweaters - Emphasis on the oversized. Wear these over your floral dress.
- Granny boots - This is a thing, I promise. Just look them up; they are lace-up boots with a low, square heel and a pointed toe.
- Brooches - Pin them onto your granny sweater!
- Lace socks - These peeked out over boots, coming to about mid-calf.
All throughout, the '80s were a maximalist time, featuring big hair and lots of brightly-colored makeup. Go overboard!
The '90s were a pretty embarrassing time for fashion, but that can make for some great costumes, as we learned in the '80s.
- Plaid flannel - Grunge hit in full force. Pair this with some baggy jeans, and you've captured the look.
- Sweats - The '90s look was pretty relaxed.
- Baseball caps - Pretty much everyone was wearing a ball cap, any which way a ball cap can go.
- Sneakers - Opt for some Jordans!
- T-shirts - Oversized, like three sizes too big.
- Crop tops - Let your belly button be free!
Hair in the 1990s usually featured bangs, mini ponytails, tons of little clips, or scrunchies. You would also see the occasional mullet or bowl cut. Makeup was mostly neutral tones, with blush and dark lips.
80 Years of Costumes
There you have it—nearly a century's worth of costume ideas, all in one place. Next time you're in need of a last-minute costume, look here! Even if you're planning months in advance, these costumes are fun and fairly easy to replicate with a few key pieces. You probably already have something to make at least one of these happen.
Elaine Govia on November 24, 2019:
Great work on presenting such useful information. Thanks for the pictures and discriptions of the era.
HoloUnicorn on April 11, 2018:
I like all the pictures. They helped with my costume a lot!
ABC on November 02, 2017:
como fazer sapatinho de bebe on October 06, 2017:
Very good, beauty pictures1
on September 13, 2017:
Very helpful- pinpointed all the main points
ashley khan on August 02, 2017:
wow love it.....its very goood article i love fashion and these fashion ar sooo good am going to apply your ideas on my self....in parties nd university function..
SUNSHYNE from California, US on May 24, 2017:
Wow, great article. I have always liked to up-cycle old clothing to create costumes rather than purchase a pre made costume. Thanks for the ideas and tips.
Robert Sacchi on March 11, 2017:
Thank you for the trip down memory lane.
Martine on August 12, 2015:
One thing ALL those eras had in common is a higher rise. The jeggings that allow for a low rise fit is something that happened in the late 90's, and is only starting to leave now. I would say that to embrace any of those looks, you needs to make sure that waist is at the waist, except for the drop waist dresses of the 1920's/30's. Personally, I don't think any fashion era is "tacky". I think most of the things from the 80's look very modern to me, but people differ.
Mackenzie Sage Wright on January 24, 2014:
Wow, these are cool. Some of them are a blast from my past, it makes me feel old to think of some of these fashions as so old they qualify as costumes, lol. Great ideas here. I love how each decade in the 20th century had such a distinct look. Nice hub, I enjoyed it very much and am going to keep your ideas in mind for parties.