The surprising and lesser-known origins of your favourite fashion items from the tuxedo to the ballet flat

Posted by
Harriet Hall
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Whether it be your favourite nail colour or your fail-safe shoes, you might like to think your clothes are the result of an independent sartorial decision. But, like it or not, there’s a fascinating and unexpected history behind most of your much-loved fashion essentials that you might not be aware of.

From moments in pop culture that sparked trends to the fruits of problem-solving designers, fashion journalist, Harriet Hall, reveals the stories behind nine fashion and beauty staples. 

Dark red nails

Uma Thurman’s style as Miss Mia Wallace in Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster 1994 Pulp Fiction is notable for many reasons, but it was her nails that really sparked a trend. They were clipped short and painted with a lick of dark red vampy varnish – Chanel’s Rouge Noir. A dark red nail is standard polish procedure for us now, but at the time it caused quite the beauty revolution. The varnish was created in 1994 by Dominique Moncourtois - Chanel’s Director of make-up creation - after Karl Lagerfeld asked for a dark colour for a shoot and Monocourtois apparently improvised with some red polish and a black marker (hence the name, ‘red black’).

The official nail varnish followed suit (the colour, designed to replicate the hue of dried blood) and a lipstick of the same name was created not long after. Prompted by its appearance in the film, sales of the varnish surpassed $1 million in the first year alone, which was unheard of for a beauty product at the time. After the film was released, Rouge Noir became Chanel’s best-selling cosmetic and there was a three month waiting list for the colour. It even appeared on the news on CNN. Madonna later wore the colour in her video for Take a Bow

The woman's tuxedo

Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1966 ‘Le Smoking’ was the first official tuxedo for women and brought trousers into the realm of eveningwear, which was a fashion revolution. However, although the female tuxedo is attributed to Saint Laurent, it was in fact first worn decades prior by German Hollywood icon, Marlene Dietrich  in 1930 film, Morocco. The actor wore the tuxedo with a top hat and a white bow tie for her role as a cabaret singer. The idea of a woman in such traditionally masculine attire blurred the lines of conventional gender preconceptions and presented an ambiguous sexuality that was seen as a threat to the patriarchy.


Jeans began the move out of the work wear category and into the fashion consciousness during the 1930s and 1940s due to the popularity of American Dude Ranch holidays and cowboy films. Early versions by Lee were even advertised as ‘Cowboy Pants’. During the Second World War jeans really caught on as a fashion item, when American soldiers wore them off-duty, popularising the style internationally as a symbol of American freedom and leisure. Jeans soon became the ultimate casual wear and were worn by young men and women alike, with companies such as Lee, Wrangler and Levis introducing new styles of the traditional work wear trousers in the 1940s.

But it was through film characters such as James Dean in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953) that jeans became associated with disestablishmentarianism and rebellion. They symbolised an increased informality compared with the traditionalism of previous decades. Rock ‘n’ roll singers including Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochrane soon adopted them, attracting youths in droves. The timing went hand-in-hand with the birth of the concept of the teenager at that time, who were seeking their own sartorial identity. In the 1950s many American high schools even banned jeans, which only served to increase their cachet of cool and strengthen their symbol as a counterculture garment.


The colour silver as an expression of 'the future' can be traced back to the birth of sci-fi and the writings of Jules Verne, which saw futuristic fashions arrive at the 1930 World Fair. But it was during the 1960s that metallics became a huge sweeping trend for the first time. Cold War rivals, the USA and the USSR, were in tight competition regarding space travel. The 1960s ‘space race’ was seen as a way in which one superpower could assert dominance over the other. As a result of this, American creatives became obsessed with futurism, producing bodies of work that speculated at how life in space might pan out.

Films were born such as Dr Strangelove (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Two designers in particular pioneered the space age style. The French couturier, Andre Courreges, created a 1964 collection entitled ‘Moon Girl’ – imagining the outfits the fashionable woman might wear in space – which consisted of boxy mini dresses in white and silver, with silvery moon boots and big bug-eye sunglasses. French couturier, Pierre Cardin, also designed a ‘Moon Range’. The collections popularised metallics and new vinyl fabrics - both of which continue to be hugely popular today -and we can thank mutually assured destruction for sparking it all off.

Ballet flats

Amy Winehouse helped re-popularise the ballet flat with her original personal style, giving the butter-wouldn’t-melt look a rebellious edge. The singer wore actual dancing shoes in pink leather or satin, but brands like French Sole, Repetto and Pretty Ballerina turned the ballet flat into a wardrobe staple – to be worn as a comfy flat with jeans, or stuffed into your handbag for a night out, when the heels begin to pinch. But it was American sportswear designer, Claire McCardell who first brought ballet flats out of the dance studio and onto the streets.

During the Second World War, America’s War Production Board introduced the L-85 fabric rations, which dictated the type and amount of fabric that designers could use. As a result, leather was very hard to come by. McCardell was savvy, though. Ballet flats were cheap and fell under the ‘workwear’ category for dancers, so the designer adopted them to go with her designs and popularised them as a regular shoe. The supple leather moulded to the foot, making them comfortable and ideal for most activities. In 1956, actor and trained ballerina Brigitte Bardot requested that Paris-based ballet shoe designers, Repetto, make her a red pair for her role in the film And God Created Woman (1956).

The androgynous look

It wasn’t until the Second World War that women were regularly seen wearing trousers as work wear and even later, in the 1970s and 1980s, that trousers were considered acceptable items of smart female dress. But Katherine Hepburn was an early adaptor. Inspired by the costumes she wore in the 1941 film Philadelphia Story, Hepburn began injecting trousers into her everyday wardrobe from loose, pleat-fronted styles to dungarees.

In 1977, Ralph Lauren designed the costumes for Woody Allen’s 1977 hit film Annie Hall. The eponymous protagonist, played by Diane Keaton wore Lauren’s masculine street sportswear consisting of oversized, baggy tailored woollen trousers worn with loose shirts, tweed waistcoats and ties and fedora hats that referenced the 1940s gangster style. Keaton also famously wore items from her own wardrobe in the film. The character of Annie Hall became an overnight style icon and the outfits became hugely popular, with trouser suits and men’s clothing becoming a major trend after the film’s release. Margaret Howell’s androgynous designs also became popular after this and masculine-inspired styles continue to be a key womenswear trend, season after season.

Brothel Creepers

During the Second World War, soldiers based in the desert regiments wore suede shoes with thick crepe rubber soles that were ideal for the climate. Returning home after the war the same soldiers found ways of entertaining themselves in London nightspots, gaining them the name ‘brothel creepers’ - as the rubber soles make no noise while you walk.

Brothel creepers have been embraced by subcultures ever since. In the late 1950s, Teddy Boys wore them with drainpipes; in the 1970s Malcolm McLaren began selling them in his King’s Road shop; and today Japanese Visual Kei bands often wear the style. Creepers experienced a major revival in 2013 with brands such as Underground leading the way. 

Winged eyeliner

Winged eyeliner is one of history’s most popular and enduring beauty trends. Queen Cleopatra wore it to ward off the “evil eye” and Hollywood icons of the 1950s including Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe adopted the look. But it was Elizabeth Taylor’s role as the Egyptian queen in the 1963 film Cleopatra, that shot the style into the mainstream. The story goes that Taylor herself designed the make-up look for the film, after make-up artist Alberto De Rossi had hurt his back.

Inspired by De Rossi's sketches, Taylor did her own make-up for the film. The look consisted of a dazzling blue shadow applied up to the browline and painted over with a thick black liquid liner that extended to the temples. The look inspired a widespread 1960s trend for bold eye make-up as seen on Twiggy and Edie Sedgwick. Revlon even launched an Egyptian-inspired range with an advertising campaign closely inspired by Taylor’s Cleopatra. Today, winged eyeliner is the go-to beauty look of many women.

The classic bag clasp

In the 1950s, fashion designer Bonnie Cashin became known for her casual womenswear that combined the Japanese style of layering with a desire to champion practical clothes for women on the go. In 1962, Cashin became the designer of Coach handbags and transferred this pragmatic approach to the brand. The designer’s range of bags, entitled ‘Cashin-Carries’ were notable for their simple style, leather piping and long cross-body straps that were the antithesis of popular (and impractical) contemporaneous pocket books. 

It was the brass toggle-style clasp that really set the 'Cashin-Carries' apart, though. The design was inspired by the fastening that locked the roof of Cashin’s convertible car. Today, you will notice the practical toggle on a huge number of handbags- from designer to high street - keeping your valuables safe. Thank you, Bonnie.

Images: Rex Features

Share this article


Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.