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10 Modern Fashion Trends And Their Fascinating Histories

by Oscar Covarrubias
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Did you ever notice that the buttons on a shirt are on opposite sides for men and women? Curious to find out how World War II changed women’s shaving habits? Ever thought about why men stopped wearing high heels? And what makes the fourth finger on our left hand the “ring finger”?

These aren’t just random happenings or frivolous decisions by fashion magazines. Sometimes, war or other serious considerations influenced how we dress. In fact, there is a fascinating history behind many modern fashion trends. Read on to get the scoop behind some of our more puzzling style choices.

10 Why Women Shave Their Legs

Women have not always shaved their legs. Indeed, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who was a trendsetter of her time, women weren’t expected to remove body hair. Instead, the fashion police of that era dictated that women ought to remove eyebrows and hair from their foreheads to make their faces appear longer. But leg hair? No need to shave.

So why did that change?

The simple answer is World War II. During the war, the US experienced a stockings shortage as the government redirected the use of nylon from stockings to war parachutes. For women, the nylon shortage meant having to bare their legs in public. To be deemed socially acceptable, women began to shave their legs. After the war, as skirts became shorter, the trend stuck around.[1]

9 Why Girls Wear Pink And Boys Wear Blue

We have all been there. At a baby shower, the color of everything—from the tablecloths to the napkins—corresponds to the gender of the baby. Blue is for boys, and pink is for girls. But things were not always this way.

For centuries, children younger than six mostly wore flowing white dresses according to University of Maryland historian Jo B. Paoletti, who wrote Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. “White cotton can be bleached,” she says, which made it a practical choice.

In the 1900s, colors began to be used as gender signifiers. But the colors did not mean what they do now. For instance, a June 1918 article from a popular fashion magazine declared:

“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”[2]

Still, Paoletti says that these trends weren’t particularly widespread.

Around 1985, that all changed with the rise of prenatal testing, which allowed parents to determine the gender of the child. As expectant parents learned the sex of their babies, they began to shop for “girl” or “boy” merchandise. Retailers noticed and individualized clothing to increase their sales.

For the most part, this trend appears to have stuck. But Paoletti warns that it presents challenges for children who do not conform to the colors assigned to their gender.

8 Why Women’s And Men’s Buttons Are On Opposite Sides

Photo credit: The Atlantic

Odds are you own a button-up shirt. Take a look at which side the buttons are on. If you’re a man, chances are the buttons are on the right. If you’re a woman, you’ll likely find your buttons on the left.

There’s an interesting historical reason for this. Melanie M. Moore, who created women’s blouse brand Elizabeth & Clarke, explains: “When buttons were invented in the 13th century, they were, like most new technology, very expensive. [ . . . ] Wealthy women back then did not dress themselves—their lady’s maid did. Since most people were right-handed, this made it easier for someone standing across from you to button your dress.”[3]

As for men’s shirts, fashion historian Chloe Chapin traces the fashion quirk to the military. “Access to a weapon . . . practically trumped everything,” she says, noting that a firearm tucked inside a shirt would be easier to reach from the dominant side.

7 Why Men Stopped Wearing High Heels

Photo credit: Hyacinthe Rigaud

For generations, a pair of high heels has signaled feminine beauty. But before then, high heels were a staple in men’s closets.

Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto says, “The high heel was worn for centuries throughout the Near East as a form of riding footwear. [ . . . ] When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped him to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more effectively.”[4]

About the 15th century, when Persian-European cultural exchange heightened, European aristocrats adopted high-heeled shoes as a symbol of their wealth. According to Semmelhack, elites have always used impractical clothing to showcase their privileged status.

Fast-forward to the Enlightenment era, which ostensibly brought with it an appreciation for the practical, and men began to renounce the impractical high heel. But sexism prohibited women from being viewed as rational beings. Semmelhack suggests that the desirability of women was then seen in terms of irrational style choices like the high heel.

6 Why We Paint Our Nails

If you thought the manicure was a new phenomenon, you would be wrong. Did you know that the world’s oldest manicure set, made from solid gold dating to 3200 BC, is over 5,000 years old? The ancient Babylonians, who created that set, were known to have loved caring for their nails.

Ming Dynasty elites were also fans of painted nails, using a mixture of egg whites, gelatin, and rubber to dye their nails crimson and black. In England, Elizabeth I, a fashion icon of her day, was widely admired for her manicured nails and beautiful hands.[5]

Suzanne Shapiro, a researcher at The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says that long fingernails are impractical for hard labor, so they have tended to signal an elite social status.

But Shapiro admits that nail trends come and go. During the 1920s and ’30s, the French manicure was in. However, during the 1960s, women preferred a more natural look and rarely painted their nails.

5 Why Long Hair Became A Thing For Women

While hair trends have fallen in and out of fashion, one thing across cultures and millennia has remained fairly constant: the expectation that women would have long hair. We’ve seen it from the depiction of a long-haired Aphrodite to St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in which he wrote, “If a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her.”

Kurt Stenn, author of Hair: A Human History, says that women almost always have longer hair than men. But why?

According to Stenn, a former professor of pathology and dermatology at Yale, hair is highly communicative. It sends messages about sexuality, religious beliefs, and power. In particular, he believes that long hair can communicate health and wealth.

“To have long hair, you have to be healthy,” Stenn says. “You have to eat well, have no diseases, no infectious organisms, you have to have good rest and exercise.” He adds, “To have long hair, you have to have your needs in life taken care of, which implies you have the wealth to do it.”[6]

4 Why Some People Sag Their Pants

Photo credit:

In 2014, the Ocala, Florida, city council passed an ordinance banning the practice of sagging (wearing one’s pants below the waistline or, in some cases, the buttocks) on city-owned property. An offender would receive a $500 fine or six months in jail.

Similar bans have surfaced from New Jersey to Tennessee. The rationale behind this sort of legislation usually goes something like this: Sagging represents a dangerous lack of self-respect and an embrace of gang culture. It is a symbol of moral decline.

But how did sagging originate?

According to University of Massachusetts historian Tanisha C. Ford, the origins of sagging can’t be definitively traced. But there are two leading theories. The first is that inmates, prohibited from wearing belts in prison, often sagged their uniforms. Then they continued the style after returning home. The second theory is that convicts wore their pants low as a means of letting other prisoners know they were sexually available.[7]

3 Why We Wear Wedding Bands On The ‘Ring Finger’

“With this ring, I thee wed.” The ring is slipped onto the fourth finger of the left hand, and there you have it—a bride and groom! But have you ever asked yourself why we slip our wedding bands onto the “ring finger”?

The tradition can be traced back to Roman times. The Romans believed that a vein ran directly from the heart to the ring finger. They named it the vena amoris (“vein of love”). Naturally, they thought it’d be fitting to place one’s wedding band on that finger. Quite romantic!

By the way, modern science has proven that all fingers have a vein connection to our hearts.[8]

2 Why Men Wear Ties

Ties. They don’t keep us warm, aren’t practical, and are often uncomfortable. So why do men wear them?

Most neckwear historians agree that the necktie grew in prominence around the time of the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s. To fight the war, King Louis XIII employed Croatian mercenaries who wore a piece of cloth around their necks.

While these early neckties were largely functional—they tied the tops of their jackets—King Louis XIII liked them as sartorial adornments. Indeed, he made these early neckties mandatory dress for formal gatherings and named them after the Croatian mercenaries: cravate. To this day, that means necktie in France.

Curiously, Croatia celebrates national Cravat Day every October 18. In 2003, they commemorated the holiday by tying an 808-meter (2,650 ft) tie around the historic Roman amphitheater in Pula.[9]

1 Why Women Shave Their Armpits

Women and men have had armpit hair for millennia. So why do roughly 95 percent of women shave or wax their underarms? Who woke up one day and decided that women with armpit hair are unsightly?

Well, we can thank a 1915 Harper’s Bazaar advertisement for that. Before then, women with bushy pits were the norm. But the ad told women that modern dancing and sleeveless dresses were the next big thing and that “objectionable hair” was out. The ad featured a photograph of a young woman in a sleeveless dress. Her arms were arched over her head, revealing perfectly clear armpits.

Within a few years and after an onslaught of advertisements promoting the trend, hairless armpits were a thing and natural hair was something embarrassing. Indeed, a 2013 Arizona State University study measured disgust triggered by women with armpit hair. It yielded responses like: “I think women who don’t shave are a little gross.”[10]

But natural, hairy pits might be making a comeback. One recent report found that one in four millennial women do not shave or wax their pits.

Oscar is a Master of Public Policy student at the University of Oxford. He is originally from Los Angeles, California.

fact checked by Jamie Frater