All Of History’s Most Scandalous Fashion Trends That Are Now Considered Quite Modest

By: Kish
July 03, 2019

Remember what fashion and beauty were like at the height of the 18th century? From corsets to big ballooning dresses, some of history’s favorite scandalous fashion trends appeared to be a bit stifling when in reality many were considered quite risqué. While high-cut bikinis, low-cut tops, and booty shorts are all the rage right now, there was a time when even the flash of an ankle caused widespread outrage. But breaking out a new trend always comes with its own set of controversies and we salute these ground breakers for their contributions to what are now considered to be iconic wardrobe staples. Scandalous fashion trends have been known to cause quite the stir through history–these are just a few of the most notable.

So, if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if you climbed into a time machine in the outfit you’re wearing right now only to find yourself in a totally different time period, check out our timeline below and find out.

Pretty Much All Of Marie Antoinette’s Clothes (1783)

This queen may have “let them eat cake,” but she still wasn’t allowed to wear what she wanted.

Marie Antoinette was the queen of scandalous fashion trends. She commissioned a portrait from her favorite painter in 1783, she made sure to wear her finest frock. This dress, also called a “Gaulle” was unlike a traditional court dress because it looked a lot like underwear, causing a bit of a stir in the process! A rebellious move from a controversial queen had everyone abuzz. According to Google Arts & Culture, the reaction was so bad that the painting was removed from display and the painter was forced to repaint the queen’s dress into something a little more demure.

Corsets (1820s – 1900)

The word “corset” comes from an old French word meaning “bodice.”

During the 1500s, the corset became a popular form of everyday underwear for women. As different silhouettes have trended at different times throughout history, from natural to incredibly cinched, the relevancy of the corset has also oscillated. But it wasn’t until the reintroduction of the corset in the 1820s that it sparked controversial debate. According to Google Arts & Culture, from the 1820s until 1900 narrow waists became en vogue again, and “The Corset Controversy” brought to light the various health concerns about this particular piece of shapewear. From literally displacing inner organs to causing complications with fertility, the corset caused quite the uproar, but many still refused to give it up.

Ankles (1890s)

The 1800s were an incredibly conservative time, and the advent of ankle-grazing dresses was almost too scandalous to handle.

As Fashionista reports, in the 1890s people were against seeing or showing a little bit of leg— even if that just meant an ankle. To avoid this, women wore long skirts and dresses with opaque hosiery to prevent flashing any skin at all. Even the legs of wooden tables were covered up because they looked too much like women’s ankles!

Shoulders And Décolletage (Early 1900s)

Today, shoulders and cleavage are considered to be two of the most sensual cut-outs in women’s clothing, but that wasn’t the case in the 19th century.

According to Fashionista, it was actually quite fashionable to flash some cleavage up until the late 1800s, when Puritanical values and religion took over. By the Victorian era, a visible décolletage was considered quite improper. Google Arts & Culture states that much like Marie Antionette, when Madame X was painted it caused shock and horror, and needed to be redone. Why? Because the original painting pictured this “society woman” wearing a dress with a strap that had gently fallen past her shoulder. While today off-the-shoulder tops could even be considered conventional in the workplace, back then it horrified people.

One-Piece Bathing Suits (1907)

Forget high-cut thong bikinis. An Australian swimmer once got arrested for wearing a modest one piece!

When Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer with multiple records, visited Revere Beach in 1907 wearing a one-piece bathing suit her legs caused quite a commotion. According to The Boston Globe, the swimsuit, which ended above her knees led to the police being called and Kellerman was arrested for indecency.

Flapper Dresses (1920s)

Following “The Corset Controversy,” some women dropped the corset for a much different style.

According to Bustle, flappers were considered to be the daughters of the Victorian era, so this skin-baring style caused its fair share of scandal. Fashionista states that “flapper” was considered to be a derogatory term in the 1890s, but over time evolved to mean “a spirited [and] flirty teenager.” Characterized by drop-waist dresses and an absence of cinching, this style has become synonymous with the Roaring ’20s.

The LBD (1927)

In 1927, Chanel designed what would come to be known affectionately as the first Little Black Dress.

Forget exaggerated hips, big bosoms, and cinched waists, this Chanel number instead required slim hips and an almost completely flat shape. Google Arts & Culture describes it as being a play on the flapper dress, noting that it was controversial just because it was simple and minimal. It’s one of the most enduring trends, pronounced as a staple for any stylish wardrobe to this very day.

Cone Bras (1940s – 1950s)

Otherwise known as bullet bras, this style was in your face, so much so they could poke your eye out.

Popularized by women who became known as the sweater girls, a description which encompassed Hollywood actresses who embraced the trend of wearing tight sweaters over cone bras, this style threw everyone for a loop. According to Bustle, this look spread after the war when women were looking for something more exaggerated and feminine. Superintendent of Police Harvey J. Scott spoke to the Brooklyn Eagle in 1949 about the sweater girls, calling them a “problem” and asking: “What kind of mothers and wives are they going to be?”

The Woman’s Suit (1960s)

When fashion shifted from silhouettes to empowerment, it caused its own share of controversy.

Today, suits are a necessary part of any woman’s wardrobe, but in the ’60s it wasn’t just considered risqué but represented a political stance. According to Dazed, second-wave feminism, which hinges on the concept of challenging the male gaze with how women dressed, women’s suits entered the collective consciousness— despite the push back. Business Insider even reports a time when socialite Nan Kempner was turned away from a restaurant because she was dressed in a suit. When designer Yves Saint Laurent designed the women’s tuxedo in 1966, it caused increased turmoil while also giving women the freedom to wear menswear comfortably for the first time.

Bikinis (1960s)

As time progressed, women became comfortable showing more skin.

Despite being banned from public beaches across Europe and the US from the 1930s to the 1960s, the bikini was undoubtedly one of the biggest fashion shifts, becoming a very common style of beach attire. As explained by Google Arts & Culture, the bikini was a drastic contrast to the heavy, full body garments made from wool or flannel that had previously been popular throughout the 19 century.

Miniskirts (1960s)

These butt-grazing skirts became synonymous with youth and rebellion.

Mary Quant was a driving force in the London fashion scene and one of the progenitors of the mini skirt, an iconic fashion staple in the 1960s. According to Google Arts & Culture, at the time even Coco Chanel and Christian Dior thought this scandalous fashion trend was “awful” and too provocative. This look was largely motivated by youth culture and the emerging mod trend that ended up defining the era.

Casual Slip Dresses (1990s)

A cursory search for Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell on the runway will render a slew of photos of these ’90s supermodels in slip dresses.

Underwear as outerwear quickly caught on as a trend in the ’90s— but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. This era was all about simple fashion that could be worn with ease, and according to Fashionista it became integral to the Grunge phenomenon. Whether you were buying groceries, walking the runway, or heading to see a band, women were pairing slip dresses with Doc Martens, leather jackets, and a rebellious attitude that was a veritable middle finger to conservative fashion.

Visible Thongs (2000s)

Lest we forget, Manny Santos on Degrassi walking down the Degrassi school halls flaunting her brand new thong!

Today, thongs can be seen being attached to pants with the sole purpose of standing out, but in the 2000s, they caused an uproar. Sisqo’s “Thong Song” brought the trend to the masses, and suddenly everyone from Phoebe on Friends to Christina Aguilera was sporting this raunchy strip of fabric on full display. It was also reported that “in 2002, […] a female vice principal in California physically checked about 100 female students coming into a high school dance to see if they were wearing thongs.”

So, do a big shout out to history’s greatest fashionistas for these scandalous fashion trends, and go enjoy the freedom to flash your shoulders, show some ankle, and wear a visible thong!