Teen clothing is an entire industry – from the cameras sold to eager moms snapping their kids’ first day of school outfits to the leagues of fashion houses and magazines touting the latest style. This wasn’t always the case. Long before the ’90s brought us the denim abomination that is JNCO jeans and Seventeen ran its first issue in 1944, “teen” was barely a word in your average Joe’s sartorial vernacular. In the early 1900s, high school clothing trends were basically smaller versions of whatever was worn by adults. So, how did teen style manage to define 20th-century fashion? Blame accessibility – those shopping malls of the ’80s didn’t create themselves.
Clothing in the 20th century constantly changed with ideal beauty standards, which inadvertently always manage to cycle back around. The ’20s and ’60s celebrated boyish figures with flappers and Twiggy-inspired shift dresses. The ’50s and ’10s championed cinched waists and hourglass figures. As soon as the Great Depression ended and technological advancements made fashion more accesible to the masses, people stopped making their clothing out of chicken feed sacks and started experimenting.
1990s: JNCO Jeans Were Invented – You're Welcome
If you were a teen in the ’90s, you had JNCO jeans, particularly if you were of the male persuasion. This oversized abomination of denim was popularized by the hip-hop, skater, and raver subcultures. Were you even alive in the ’90s if you didn’t have a pair? Boys also donned baggy tees and oversized plaid flannel that was popularized by Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement. A classic move was layering a baggy t-shirt over a long sleeve. Why was everything so baggy in the ’90s?
Teen girl fashion reveled in the dELiA‘s catalog, where you could mail order chunky shoes, Courtney Love-inspired baby doll dresses, and spaghetti-strapped tank tops. For girly-girls there were maxi skirts and Spice Girl-approved mini-slip dresses. For the tomboy, there were baggy pants to be paired with a baggy long sleeve tee or a striped tank top barely grazing the low-rise hemline. Does anyone else remember when camouflage had a major moment?
1980s: Big Hair Couldn't Hide Your Neon Zubaz
The ’80s was that glorious era wherein teen pop stars hung out in malls – so shopping was obviously a major focus of the time. It also brought teenagers everywhere the gift of acid-wash denim. What a wonderful gift that was. Acid wash was everywhere – bonus points if you wore it in a tapered leg. This decade was all about bold colors and bold silhouettes – from brightly patterned Zubaz pants to Madonna-inspired lingerie as outerwear topped with a cropped leather jacket.
Slogan tees were all the rage for boys and girls – whether it was cut into a muscle tea or baring the slogan “Frankie Says Relax.” Shoulder pads also had a mega-moment and preppy high-school aged girls wore oversized blazer with exaggerated shoulders (as seen in the film Heathers).
1970s: Bell Bottom Jeans Kept Your Hemlines Far Out
1970s teen fashion was heavily inspired by the hippie movement (including tons of tie dye). Some articles of clothing transcended gender. Both girls and boys donned flared (or bell bottom) pants, and denim was wildly popular. For a casual look, this could be paired with a graphic t-shirt, tight sweater or a pattered button up (boys also wore patterned, satin button ups and graphic tees).
Hemlines were all over the place in the ’70s. There were corduroy and denim mini-skirts, mid-drift-bearing tops and long, billowy kaftans popularized by musicians like Joni Mitchell. Airy maxi-skirts were also a popular choice. And as far as color palettes go, ’70s fashion was enamored with earth-tones like mustard, chocolate, beige, and forest green.
1960s: 'Mod' Style And Mini Skirts Defined What It Meant To Be A Teen
The ’60s was the decade of the Mod – especially for teens. Though First Lady Jackie O. Kennedy was a wildly influential figure in fashion who brought shift dresses and pillbox hats to the American home, that style wasn’t as popular with your average high school student.
While mothers and young professional reached for Kennedy’s signature style, teens were influenced by music, not politicians. On the back of the British invasion with bands like the Beatles surging in popularity, London’s influence flooded the United States. Mary Quaint, a fashion designer often viewed as the woman behind the massive trend, is credited with creating the miniskirt which was the defining ’60s fashion choice for teen girls. Supermodel Twiggy, who wore oversized mini-dresses in order to offset her gaunt frame, championed this style and the psychedelic, brightly-colored patterns that marked the decade.
Mod style was also popular among teenage boys – and still is today. According to GQ, “…They remain stylish, because they always were.” Key items included polos, tailored suit jackets, narrow trousers, and Chelsea boots.
1950s: This Just In — Circle Skirts, Pastel Sweaters, And The Greaser Look
The 1950s were a time where the American dream thrived, so traditional values were placed on teens. This is part of the reason why styles from the decade are notably wholesome, and the idea of the ’50s often conjures images of poodle skirts and soda shops.
For girls, poodle skirts were definitely a hot ticket. According to some sources, it was invented by actress-turned-designer Juli Lynne Charlot who sewed a felt Christmas tree onto a skirt because she didn’t have anything festive to wear to a Christmas party. Even if some teens weren’t buying into the poodle skirt trend, poofy circle skirts paired with pastel-colored sweaters and collared blouses were pretty much a uniform.
Boys either gravitated towards a preppy casual look with long-sleeved button ups and slacks or a rebellious greaser look with white t-shirts, black leather jackets, and jeans. This style was later replicated in the ’70s musical Grease.
1940s: They Loved Pleated Skirts, Menswear For Women, And Not-Your-Father's Suits
The 1940s were a time of war, and Rosie the Riveter made her debut in 1943, inspiring a generation of working women across the nation with her androgynous style. Rosie wore pants, and the trend spread from young professionals to casual teen girls who actually wore men’s clothing. It wasn’t uncommon for a 1940s teen to raid her brother’s closet for a button-down shirt to neatly tuck into some wide-legged jeans.
During this era, A-line pleated skirts in solid colors or plaid were also popular – but only if they hit below the knee. These could be worn with a tailored jacket or a sweater and button-up blouse with Peter Pan collar. The tight sweaters (usually in brushed wool or angora) gained massive popularity by Hollywood stars dubbed “sweater girls.” To complete the look, girls donned bobby socks and a pair of saddle shoes or loafers.
In 1940, teen boys who graduated high school were often drafted into war. Their adult reality reflected in their fashion – they wore suits. In their teens, boys graduated from knickers to slacks (usually high-waisted and pleated). Their suit jackets were usually double-breasted with wide colors in a blue pinstripe or tan plaid color. Teens shied away from gray suits because it was what businessmen wore. If boys didn’t opt for a suit, they wore cardigans and v-neck sweaters over dress shirts with their high-waisted slacks.
1930s: Fiercely Thrifty Fashion Used Repurposed Clothing And Mega-Deals
The 1930s was possibly the first time retailers were catching onto the fact that teens spent money on fashion. In the spring of 1934, Sears promoted their first-ever “High School Shop.” But, families didn’t have much disposable income. It was the heart of the Great Depression. This lead to the invention of “feed sack” dresses – actual dresses made out of the sacks that held chicken feed. In the mid-’20s companies purposely started packaging chicken feed in dress-quality fabric, and by the ’30s, many feed sacks came with desirable floral prints.
Despite the fact that many Americans made their dresses out of reused fabric, it was also the golden era of theater and teens were inspired by Hollywood starlets like Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich. Popular trends included dresses that hit above the ankle and knit day suits – a matching sweater, maxi-skirt combo reserved for the wealthy. Wool knit sweaters were also popular, along with cloche hats.
For men, the 1930s were hyper-masculine, a contrast from the ultra-feminine women’s style. Because money was tight, retailers had outfit packages that included a suit, a hat, socks, two dress shirts, a tie and a pair of shoes for just $25. Trench coats were the jacket of choice, and boys wore the same high-waisted, wide-legged pleated slacks with button up shirts that would remain popular into the ’40s – sweater vest, optional.
1920s: Flappers Loved A Man In A Single-Breasted Suit
Off the back of World War I, fashion became more accessible to Americans – this included teens everywhere. It was an era of sartorial risk-taking defined by jazz music and prohibition. This most daring style was coined the flapper look and marked by silk, drop-waist dresses, fringe, headbands, and felt hats. Hemlines were all over the place – some girls had shorter skirts while others remained modest. Those who were less alternative wore skirts that hit below the knee with cardigans or matching jackets. For well-off teens, a cloche felt hat was always nicely paired with a knee-length fur trim coat.
Boys’ fashion was notably dressy. Teens wore smaller versions of their father’s suits. Lapels were rounded and trousers were pleated and loose-fitting. Suits were almost always made of wool and single-breasted was more popular for casual days. Boys also wore matching suit vests under their suit jackets – something that fell out of popularity a decade later. Some teens still wore knickers, a relic of youth, and completed the look with newsboy caps.
1910s: Let's All Wear Edwardian Style And Cinched-In Waists
For context – the Titanic made its fateful voyage in 1912. It was a time of opulence and wild hats. A 1910 survey found that wealthy high school students at a private girls’ school in New York City spent $556 a year on clothes. When you factor in inflation, that’s about $14,000 in today’s terms.
During this time, Edwardian fashion ruled. While adults wore floor-grazing tea dresses, cotton day dresses or walking suits with blouses, teens got away with hemlines a couple inches shorter. Walking suits included floor-grazing full skirts and matching, fitted suit tops. The look was complete with an elaborate, matching tea party hat. The era’s silhouettes were very cinched in at the waist and dresses were often belted or tied to give this effect. Some girls also opted for billowy, feminine blouses and hour-glass enhancing tunic skirts.
Boys wore trousers and single-breasted jackets known as the Norfolk jacket. These jackets were among the first to be worn without matching trousers. Seersucker suits and straw boater hats were also popular during the summer.
1900s: Teen Clothing Didn't Exist – But Fanciful Hats Certainly Did
In the 1900s, there wasn’t really any teen fashion because the term wasn’t widely used. Teens dressed in clothes that were miniature versions of what adults would wear. Instead of using the word “teen,” fashion catalogs focused on clothing made for “girls” or “little women.” During this time period, the round mutton sleeves of the late 1800s were still very much in style. These were worn on blouses or Edwardian-style dresses that were slightly more fanciful than toned-down, practical versions that emerged a decade later. Tea gowns (and their equally fanciful tea hats) were popular throughout the late 1800s and 1910s. These dresses usually hit the floor and were considered formal house dresses worn while entertaining at home.
Boys wore single-breasted suits with matching suit vests once they graduated from shorts or knickers. Bowler caps were popular during this time and zippers didn’t exist yet, so everything was button-fly or hook closures.