The Surprising Origins of 12 Popular Fashions

fortton via iStock/Getty Images Plus
fortton via iStock/Getty Images Plus / fortton via iStock/Getty Images Plus

As you toss on your coziest flannel button-down and slip on a pair of your comfiest jeans, do you ever think about their origins? Many popular fashion trends had meaningful beginnings. Let’s explore why we wear—or once wore—socks up to our knees, cloth around our neck, and pants down to the floor.

1. The Bowtie

This nifty neckwear was once more than a fashion statement—they literally brought an outfit together. Bowties likely trace their origin to 17th-century Croatia, and were inspired by knotted neck scarves. This rectangular cloth accessory, often called a cravat, was folded and tied to hold the tops of mens’ shirts together. Over time, and perhaps due to the French interest in and eventual popularization of the style, they evolved into the ascots, neckties, and bowties we know today.

2. Knee-High Socks

In yesteryear, “acceptable” women’s fashion had a certain expectation of how much leg could be shown and implemented methods for concealment—from requiring women to wear hose to measuring to dress length by yardstick. But when wartime rationing called for nylon and silk to be used elsewhere, department stores experienced a stocking shortage. Around the same time, it became more acceptable for women to wear shorts or skirts during leisure activity, but this often still meant putting a pair of ankle socks (also a growing trend) over the hose. In time, knee socks became an acceptable substitute. Between the pants or skirts ending at just about the knee, and the sock beginning, flesh was still out of sight.

3. The Buffalo Check Flannel Shirt

While the black-and-red flannel shirt is ubiquitous in the hipster community today, the iconic Woolrich “buffalo check” shirt goes back to the 19th century. The company began with an intent on keeping Pennsylvania lumberjacks warm. Flannel is an economical fabric, made from twilled wool or worsted yarn, usually brushed to give it that extra soft and snuggly feel—so whether you’re an actual lumberjack or are just ordering the Lumberjack Breakfast Special at your local diner, wearing this cozy, fashionable top is appropriate.

4. Cuffed Jeans

Rolling up your jeans may be reminiscent of '80s and early '90s fashion fads, but the practice dates back to the late 1800s when people bought longer pants because they knew the pants would shrink—when Levi Strauss got his start, pre-shrunk cotton wasn’t a thing yet. So, until their pants fit properly, men cuffed the bottoms, which created a handy storage space for things like tobacco, money, or gum.

5. The Choker Necklace

From a simple piece of lace to an extravagant string of diamonds and from a studded dog collar to an ornate beaded piece, choker necklaces have been in and out of fashion for centuries. Archaeology tells us that ancient people, from Africa to the Americas, wore chokers, and it’s said this was not just for adornment, but also to protect the delicate neck. (In fact, bracelets and anklets were born from this notion as well.) As we do today with plastic wristbands, French women supposedly wore chokers after the Revolution for a cause: They tied red ribbons around their necks as a memorial to the beheaded (though this may be a later invention). It’s also thought that during the 19th century, prostitutes would wear black chokers. Every few decades, the trend was revived, from Mary of Teck, Princess of Wales in the early 1900s to Mick Jagger in the '70s to Gwen Stefani in the '90s.

6. An Unbuttoned Bottom Suit Jacket Button

Young men wearing their first suit may quickly learn that just because that bottom button’s there doesn’t mean you should use it. This fashion rule is said to date back to the early 1900s when King Edward VII had a little trouble fitting into his waistcoat, so he left the final fastener unfinished for comfort. Out of respect for his majesty, the royal court—and, soon, the rest of Britain—followed, well, suit; soon, the tradition spread across the Atlantic. Alternately, it's been said that, specifically with suit coats, the bottom button rule may have originated as a holdover from the more casual riding jacket. While its wearer was on a horse, the coat lay better when the button is open.

7. The High Heel

The dressy shoes we know today did not become popular while on the female foot. In the late 1500s, Persian horsemen wore heeled shoes to help feet stay in stirrups. As Near Eastern ways influenced European aristocrats, high heels became a status symbol. One of those most famed early adopters was France’s King Louis XIV, who preferred a red heel to show his wealth (the dye was expensive). The extra height added also some inches to his short stature. By the late-1700s, the trend—for men and women—died out mostly due to practicality. But in the mid-19th century, they made a comeback thanks to French erotic photography.

8. The Little Black Dress

It wasn’t always an old standby for a cocktail party, and its origins go back much further than Coco Chanel. In the late 19th century, wearing a black dress indicated a wealthy woman was dressed down (or in mourning). Soon, the standard uniform for the elite’s domestic help became a black dress. This way, there’d be no confusing the lady of the house and her maid. Later, the LBD also became standard dress code for working women, such as New Jersey telephone operators. However, as clothing prices dropped, lower class women could now afford to dress more stylishly after work. According to The Atlantic, "Thanks to the sewing machine, the paper pattern, and affordable fabrics, the working classes could finally, feasibly, dress like high society—even if they were now only permitted to do so after work hours. ... Society matrons exacted their revenge by dressing like shopgirls and maids, reappropriating their little black dresses for the upper crust."

9. Ruffles

Way back in the 16th century, soldiers wore multiple layers of clothes and slashed the top garment to reveal what was underneath. According to Racked, "The natural wrinkles that appeared were then appropriated by garment makers, who sewed flexible strings into their clothes. These could be pulled tighter to give a fashionable ruffled appearance."

10. Footie Pajamas

Footie pajamas are most often associated with toddlers, but these practical PJs are likely related to the union suit, a one-piece undergarment meant to keep people warm. One of the most famous examples of this children’s wear was produced by Michigan-based Dr. Denton Sleeping Garment Mills; the “blanket sleeper” was marketed to parents as “covers that can’t be kicked off.” Perhaps the most iconic feature of the classic footie pajama is the butt flap (also called drop seat), a helpful feature allowing wearers to go to the bathroom without taking off the entire garment.

11. Bermuda Shorts

Bermuda shorts are cut for comfort—literally. In World War I, Bermuda became a hotbed of activity. As the legend goes, one of the few tea shops on the island saw a boom in business thanks to the influx of British soldiers (the Brits love their tea, after all). But the crowded quarters and summer heat didn’t create the best working conditions. Rather than buy new uniforms, the owner trimmed his workers’ pants to just below the knee. A naval officer was inspired by this style, so much so that he and his fellow officers mimicked the look, dubbed them Bermuda shorts, and eventually adopted the style as a standard summer uniform, which quickly caught on.

12. Bell Bottom Jeans

The bell bottom pants we fell in love with in the '60s and '70s were inspired by the flared legs of sailor uniforms (1800s to the 1990s in the U.S.!). The story goes that seamen could easily roll up these belled legs to make way for deck swabbing. They also have a safety feature: if someone fell overboard, the design allowed for pants to be pulled over shoes so that they could then be turned into a life preserver. (Though some Naval historians dispute this, saying, “There is no substantive factual reason for their adoption” and that they “appear to be a tailored version of the pantaloon, designed for a bit of flair which set the sailor apart from his civilian counterpart.”) Although Coco Chanel designed loose-fitting, sailor-inspired trousers in the '20s, the style really hit in the mid-'60s, and it was DIY at first. Civilians would purchase sailor pants at surplus stores, and did so at first out of thriftiness. Others, who liked the idea of bell bottoms but didn’t have an Army-Navy store nearby, made their own by cutting the seam and sewing in a triangle of patterned fabric. Clothing companies, including Levi’s, finally gave in to this counterculture style.