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Fashions Never Change

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Alina: Yep, I think they're time travelers.
Kimiko: You think so?.
Alina: If the future did a documentary of the last fifty years, this is how badly the reenactors would dress.

A standard simplification used in shows set in a particular time period, as well as Speculative Fiction involving Time Travel. Despite the radical way fashions change over short spans of time — compare the 1950s to the 1960s, say, or even the 1970s before and after the advent of disco — anything set earlier than the mid-20th century assumes a generic fashion style that has little variation. Thus there's "standard Victorian dress", or else a typical "Renaissance costume", even though the Renaissance lasted over three centuries. The further back you go, the more generic it gets, with the same "Middle Ages" clothing being worn whether it's the year 800 or 1400 (and whether it's in England or France). Then there's "Ancient Rome"...

The main reason for this trope is that people think that fashions didn't change from season to season until the rise of the middle class in the 20th century. This is not the case; there's a lot of evidence showing that fashion has changed with the seasons in Western Europe since at least the 12th century and possibly much earlier. An examination of a timeline of women's fashions in the 19th and early 20th century, for example, will show how styles changed decade by decade from the neoclassical, revealing gowns of the Regency period through the gigantic crinolines of the 1850s and 1860s through the bustles of the 1870s and 1880s to the S-curve silhouette of the 1900s right up to the revival of the neoclassical silhouette circa 1910. There have always been people with enough money to spend on new clothing every year, and there have always been fads. Samuel Pepys writes in his 1660s diaries about how both men's and women's fashions changed so quickly he could hardly keep up — and because how he and his wife dressed really mattered with respect to him being thought genteel enough to hold an important post, it wasn't something he could afford to ignore, either.

Of course, some fashions don't change so quickly; jeans and a T-shirt have survived basically unchanged since the end of World War II (though the number of situations in which it is acceptable to wear them has increased), and dinner jackets (the most formal tailed version, at any rate, the shorter Tuxedo style being later), along with the suit-and-tie, have been around for over a hundred. Ceremonial garb, such as the "scholarly" robes you see at universities, is similar to what was actually in fashion for scholars 1,000 years ago when the first universities were founded. Likewise, many religious orders wear centuries-old fashions for special occasions, and in rare cases all the time.) But when you have details that any real-life native of the time period would gawk at, you're doing something wrong.

A frequent component of Hollywood Costuming. Compare No New Fashions in the Future and Popularity Polynomial.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Just about any giant robot anime predating Super Dimension Fortress Macross includes disco haircuts and collared jumpsuits.
  • One particular offender is the Gundam franchise, where each series generally dresses its characters in fashions resembling the decade in which it was made. For example, Gundam ZZ is so totally The '80s.
  • Gundam SEED manages to avoid this most of the time. When we see characters wearing civilian clothes they're usually wearing what appear to be original, or at least uncommon fashions. The problem with this is that the fashions are often rather bizarre & impractical. For example, when we first meet Kira, he's wearing a black shirt that appears to have had the sleeves cut off at different lengths & then reattached with red leather straps & has a hole cut into the chest held closed with more tiny straps for no apparent reason.
    • Kira was firmly established as a pretty snazzy dresser throughout both series, and his shirt appears to be based on a traditional shirt of Japanese shrine maidens, with their detached sleeves held together by red ribbons.
  • Code Geass manages to avert, play straight, and play with this trope in multiple ways. The main cast usually avoids this altogether by wearing either their school uniforms or their Black Knights outfits. In some cases, they can be seen wearing either "modern" (by our standards) or completely original fashions (much like SEED). The problem with that becomes apparent when you remember that the Geass-verse exists in as an Alternate History to our own and that the equivalent to 2017/18 A.T.B. is roughly 1963 A.D. Thank you, Alien Space Bats. This is played with (and possibly straight) even further when you get a good look at the fashions of the nobles and the Britannian Imperial Court: their fashion tastes seem to have not changed since the Golden Age of European Absolutism... which is actually very fitting... There's no excuse for Charles' epic curls.
    • Though some of the more formal civilian outfits do look reminiscent of the early '60s.

    Comic Books 
  • There is a Disney comic that parodies The Lost World, set in an Alternate Universe and featuring Scrooge, Donald and Fethry. The interesting thing is that the three are wearing their "normal" clothes (Scrooge's top hat and frock, Donald's sailor outfit and Fethry's sweater and signature cap) while everybody else is wearing Victorian era fashion. Stories set in some kind of alternate past are common in Disney comics, but basically all others have the main characters appear in the appropriate historical clothes.
    • Note, however, that both Scrooge's frock coat and Donald's sailor suit ARE "appropriate historical clothes" for Victorian times! In Scrooge's case, it's an Inverted Trope in his usual modern-day setting: wearing that ratty old thing in the mid-20th Century and later is a deliberate anachronism reflecting how cheap he is (and how old). Fethry's knit cap and turtleneck, meanwhile, are fairly timeless in themselves.

  • The Village is supposedly set in 1897, and features a Pennsylvania farm village where everyone dresses like it is 1797. Possibly deliberate because it is actually the 20th century. Perhaps the Village's founders discovered it was easier to stay 100% self-sufficient with 18th century technology, but their historians knew more about the 1800s and based the community's backstory on that.
  • Anton Corbijn's Control gets all the changing 1970s fashions right. So the Ian in 1973 goes to see Bowie with guyliner and a fluffy jacket, but by 1979 is wearing the familiar austere Joy Division outfit.
  • The World War II soap opera ''In Harm's Way" (made in 1965) is particularly bad with this. All of the women have mid-sixties hairstyles and dresses. Also, much of the military equipment used is of 1960s vintage.
  • In A Very Long Engagement, which is mostly set in the 1920s, but where many characters still wear Belle Epoque fashions. This is because the makers of the film saw from studying old photographs that older people and many of those living in the provinces continued to wear their pre-World War 1 clothes. It makes sense since in Real Life, upgrading a wardrobe costs money, and after a war it isn't the main priority of families.

  • The Time Scout novels very deliberately averted this trope by suggesting that time travel is actually very dangerous and requires meticulous research, because showing up wearing the wrong shirt collar could prove fatal when one deals with superstitious, xenophobic natives.
  • Played with in Neal Stephenson's novel series The Baroque Cycle, which shows it works both ways: even though it's set in the age of periwigs and weskits, The Confusion briefly mentions old-fashioned characters who haven't got the memo and still wear ruffs and pointy beards. Because fashions don't change uniformly.
    • And then when the style of wigs changed, characters who hadn't been in Europe for years didn't get the memo either, and it was mentioned that the new styles wouldn't be recognizable to them.
    • Also largely averted, with much made of the different fashions that people wear at any given point. Stephenson usually does the research.
  • Parodied in Pyramids, where the Tsortian envoy to Djelibeibi dresses in a mishmash of garments from half a dozen periods of that nation's 7000-year history. A footnote compares this to wearing a mix of old Celtic, medieval, and modern British garments to pass as an Englishman.
  • Played with in Diana Wynne Jones's Hexwood, where Vierran, the girl providing costumes for intergalactic travellers, has a puckish sense of humour. The Reigners end up with a business suit (Reigner One), New Look-style ladies' suit and high heels (Two), outfit that "looks like Superman" (Three, but then he didn't bother to ask for a costume), ill-fitting Norman Wisdom suit (Four) and monk's robe (Five). Vierran gives herself authentic 1990s casual clothes (jeans and long jumper) and Two tells her "You look like a peasant from New Xai".
  • Averted in Michael Crichton's Timeline. The time-travellers have a full-time tailor who takes great pains to make sure their clothing is accurate. The characters point out that their clothes do not always match their expectations.
  • Discussed in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine. In chapter 1, the Medical Man points out that observing the Battle of Hastings in person would attract attention: "Our ancestors had no great tolerance for anachronisms."
  • In the 1970s, New York magazine had an article analyzing clothing and fashion styles in movies. They said that you could tell when a movie was made by those styles, but not really when it was supposed to be set. For example, in The Great Gatsby (1974), Robert Redford and Sam Waterston should have had hair parted in the middle and slicked down, not the 1970s way it was.
  • Averted in Time Wars. The Temporal Corps has extremely efficient research and wardrobe departments whose job it is to ensure that the time travellers are not wearing or carrying anything that could mark them as being a non-local. Helped by the fact that the trips are almost always made to a specific time and event (usually a battle). One problem encountered is that many of the veterans are smokers who keep attempting to smuggle cigarettes back with them, even to places and times where tobacco was unknown. One character does note that if you do find up somewhere you're not supposed to be, a 'generic' mud stained peasant outfit will pass in many eras, provided no one looks too closely.

     Live Action TV  
  • Parodied in Time Trax, when a time traveler from the 22nd century arrives in the 1990s in something more appropriate to the 1950s. When the protagonist (who has been in the 90s for over a year now) points this out, she complains that she did the research and her wardrobe should be fine.
  • In Phil of the Future, Phil (from the 22nd century) and his family find they are unable to fix their broken time machine and are stuck in 2003. Phil's parents decide to enroll him and his sister in school, and his father is charged with finding appropriate clothing so they won't stand out. Phil and Pim show up to their local high school dressed in clothes stereotypically found in the 1960s. It takes them five seconds of awkward looks and laughing to realize their clothes are a little out of style.
  • Averted in the HBO John Adams miniseries, where the costume department took great pains to show the change in fashion from the Revolutionary War through Adams' retirement. This is most evident in the episode where Adams becomes president, wearing what is recognizable as an ancestral suit and a gray top hat.
  • In this instance, it's not time travel but production values. The producers of Hogan's Heroes blew their entire costume budget on those nifty reproduction Nazi outfits, so all the non-Nazi and non-main-character actors had to bring their own outfits. Thus you will see every secondary non-Nazi on the show - which takes place during World War II - dressed in the fashions of the era of the show's production - the late 1960s.
  • Subverted on the NewsRadio episode that takes place in a futuristic spaceship. Everybody else wears "space clothes", but Jimmy comes in wearing the same suit he wears in every other show, and Space Dave mocks his ridiculous clothes. Jimmy defends the suit by saying it was the height of fashion in the late 20th century.
  • Played with in Star Trek: Voyager. Sent back to late 20th century southern California, the voyager crew dons some outfits that "ancient history" expert Tom Paris puts together. Then they beam down and take one look at the crazy stuff people are actually wearing and Tuvok snarks that they would have fit right in wearing their uniforms.
    • This is a reference to a story from the production of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which the producers sent people out dressed in Starfleet uniforms to wander around San Francisco in 1986 to get a realistic idea of how the locals would react to the time-travelling Kirk and company, only for them mostly to fit right in with the eccentric local fashions.
      • "Realistic idea" except that enough people have seen Star Trek to assume anyone in such a uniform is just a nerd. And, of course, it's San Francisco.

  • In Get Medieval, the alien assassins chasing the main cast attempt to infiltrate medieval Earth. However, their consultant dresses them in clothes from the wrong part of the medieval era, he happens to be a linguist, without any knowledge of the actual culture that went along with the languages. Hilarity Ensues.

    Western Animation 
  • Futurama:
    • For the most part, fashion in the world of the series, despite taking place in the 31st century, is shown to be about the same as it is in modern America, barring a Zeerust touch here and there (for instance, many suits have picked up Flash Gordon-esque rings around their shoulders). This goes in line with the show's general Modern Stasis.
    • Parodied in the episode "Roswell That Ends Well"; in an attempt to fit in in 1947 New Mexico, Leela dons a poodle skirt and beehive hairdo, and Professor Farnsworth wears a zoot suit and fedora while swinging a pocketwatch on a chain. Leela also tries to fit in using Fry's 1990s slang, with similar success.
    • Played straight in the episode "The Lesser of Two Evils" when they go to Past-O-Rama, which is the 30th century's take on the 20th century. Fry, attempting to steal a car he recognized, gets stopped by a worker in Renaissance Fair garb, says, "Sir, you can't... oh, you work here. I should've known from that ridiculous get up."
  • Milo Murphy's Law has a pair of time travelers, Cavendish and Dakota, who wear wildly anachronistic clothing from The '70s... except Dakota wears a tracksuit from the 1970s while Cavendish dresses like a Victorian gentleman from the 1870s. At least the outfits fit their personalities.
  • Vexus in My Life as a Teenage Robot seems to think this about teenage culture. In the episode "Queen Bee", while planning a sneak attack on Jenny in her school, she shows up in a flapper girl outfit and starts using outdated slang from The Roaring '20s. Jenny exposes Vexus as a fake, and Vexus takes advice from the Crust Cousins on how to pull off a more convincing modern disguise.
  • In Stitch! The Movie and in the subsequent TV show, the two stranded alien scientists, Jumba and Pleakley, don't quite get "earth culture" and in once scene attend a beach party in Old Timey Bathing Suits. While the use of the whole-body bathing suits might be an attempt to disguise their bizarre alien physiques, Pleakley has been fed a lot of misinformation about E-Arth...

    Real Life 
  • Pants/jeans and a T-shirt have been fairly common around the 20th century. Of course, what's on the Tee and the color and style of the pants definitely changed (although some styles have been more or less consistently regarded as neutral). Though there are various differences (crotch rivet, red tab, cardboard/leather patch, pocket stitching, etc.) accumulated over the years, the general design of a pair of Levi's Shrink-to-Fit 501s has been roughly the same since at least the 1920s and perhaps as far back as the 1870s (the company history is murky and often embellished with poorly authenticated statements). If you go for overalls you can probably go even further back. The key distinction is that the social acceptability of such garments is far more recent. Modern jeans didn't become popular outside of the American West until the 1930s and didn't see widespread popularity as casual, rather than work, clothes or "Western wear" until the 1950s when they were still seen as unacceptable in many situations and often banned in some places due to their association with rebellious youth.
  • In some areas ancient roman gladiator-style sandals are quite popular, this may be a case of "Every few thousand years, fashions come around" rather than "fashions never change".
  • A suit and tie have been proper formal wear for over 100 years, albeit with variations in color, fabric and things like lapel style. Neckties have been around for almost four hundred years.
  • Pirate boots, corsets, and multiple 80s-style pants are sometimes worn to school as if nothing's amiss.
  • The mullet. As a comedian once said, they've been 'riding it out since the '70s' - in fact, much longer than that.
  • Hasidic Jews wear what was the height of fashion in 18th century Eastern Europe ("Ashkenazi" Jews), even if they from the Sephardic Stream/descended (who never wore those clothes in "their" countries). Many will even dress that way in places or seasons in which the climate is far too warm for such clothing, which can result in them becoming terribly sweaty.
  • In various parts of the world, traditional clothing has been around for quite some time (although it varies whether it's everyday wear or for formal occasions only).
  • Many Anabaptist groups (such as the Amish, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites) play this trope straight to this day.
  • Modern Roman Catholic clerical vestments are directly descended from the secular formalwear of Ancient Rome. They have evolved, but at a tiny fraction of the pace of the surrounding culture. Eastern Orthodox vestments also remain unchanged since the days of the Eastern Roman Empire with only a few changes during Ottoman occupation.
  • A photograph achieved notoriety online in late 2010 that appears to be a reversal of this trope: A black-and-white photo from 1940 was commonly assumed to be doctored or evidence of time travel because of the presence of a man in a modern-looking sweater and sunglasses.
  • A white Oxford shirt has remained a staple of menswear for the entire 20th century and extends back even further as a sport shirt. Just remember that the button-down collar wasn't developed until 1896.
  • And while of course fashions do change, the iconic style associated with a particular era is often what the very fashionable were wearing, or the most extreme example of the current style. The ordinary person in the street may have been wearing an outfit with only a nod to the current fashion, or clothes that they had owned for years which didn't particularly reflect what was available to buy new.
  • Kurt Andersen writes in Vanity Fair magazine that modern fashions have barely changed since the early 1990s, thanks to the digital age which has allowed older fashions to be preserved and enjoyed.
  • Tom Usher of Vice has also observed the following:
    We don't have the generational identifiers previous decades had: we're not hippies, mods, punks or breakdancers like people were in the olden times. Instead, we're all of those things, mixed up and amalgamated: a pair of flares here, some Stan Smiths there, a jaunty trilby way over there in a Milton Keynes singles night.
  • This photo of a Miss Beatnik contest, taken in California in 1959, goes to show that free-spirited youth hairstyles aren't a new phenomenon.
  • Military uniforms paradoxically both tend to play this straight and also avert it.
  • The combination of a rugby shirt and deck shoes have been moderately fashionable casual wear for men in the northern US and parts of Canada since at least the 1970s.
  • Mostly played straight in Feudal Japan. Evidence (including extant garments and paintings/prints) shows that both men's and women's fashions changed very little between the end of the Sengoku period (1600) and the end of the Edo period (1868). Prior to 1600, fashions did change but slowly and mostly with small, subtle changes. For example, late Heian period (1100-1185) court garb looks very different than Momoyama period (1568-1600) garb, but the differences are relatively small compared to comparable western garb.
  • The young Joseph Stalin from the early 20th Century looks like he would not need much to fit in with hipsters a hundred years later.