In 1893, Someone Predicted We'd Wear Leggings as Pants

He got everything else wrong.
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The fashion of the 1960s, according to the 1890s (Public Domain Review)

Predicting the future is no easy task. Fifty years ago, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov imagined the technology of 2014 and saw underground suburbs, cube-like televisions, and a widening gap between human civilization and “nature.” 

In other words, he got some things right and some things wrong. But 60 years before him, a different prognosticator laid out a different version of future—or, at least, a more fashionable one.

That guy on the left up there? He’s a policeman, circa 1960. The man in the middle is a soldier. According to  “W. Cade Gall,” who wrote in 1893 with pen-in-hand and tongue-seemingly-in-cheek, that’s what the fashions of the 1960s would look like.

Gall, in fact, did this for every decade. You can see his predictions below.

He was writing for The Strand Magazine, a British fiction and “general interest” publication that ran from the early 1890s to 1950. I found his story in the excellent Public Domain Review. 

In the article, Gall tells the story of an elderly man who comes across a book, The Future Dictates of Fashion. It’s filled with strange costumes and it bears the publication date, suspiciously, of 1993. It speaks, the old man discovers, of the century of fashion that preceded its publication. (These types of futurist tracts had become wildly popular after the success of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward.)

The gentleman, writes Gall, “recognised the fact that if he was not of the twentieth century the volume obviously was; seized pen and paper, and began to make notes with the speed of lightning.” 

Those notes, which start with Gall’s vision of fashion in the aughts and proceed chronologically, skew toward the medieval. 

Public Domain Review

Gall’s woman of 1912 seems downright princess-ly, and her male companion reminds me a little bit of the female Flappers that would follow a decade later. 

Great change was to come to Gall’s fashion world, though. Pants, he predicted, would become outre. They’d be replaced by tights borrowed straight from Shakespeare:

Trousers, which had been wavering between nautical buttons and gallooned knees—or, in the vernacular of the period, a sail three sheets in the wind and a flag at half-mast were the items sacrificed. Knee-breeches enjoyed vogue for a time, but only for a time; for they vanished suddenly in 1930 and were replaced by tights or shapes.

 

After trousers came the inevitable skirts—to be worn by all genders. Gall jokes they rose and fall with all the unpredictability of “a shilling barometer.”

Public Domain Review

What happened in the next decade? In 1940, writes Gall, fashion “assumed the dignity of a science. Ten years later it was taken up by the University of Dublin.”

Public Domain Review

And, after the 1960s (above), here’s the rest of the decades in Gall’s future history:

Public Domain Review

Gall’s sartorial sensibilities seem suspiciously satirical, but that doesn’t mean they don't bear some lessons. Though it may feel to us like fashion is nothing more than arbitrary throwback after arbitrary throwback, Gall predicts a more pointed throwback than has ever actually occurred. Medieval garments have never been back in style—though knightly shoulder pads have been—and that may be as much about technological production as anything else. We can mass-produce jeans a little more easily than frilly hats.

Did Gall get anything right? Actually, yes.

Twenty years before the book’s publication, he says—that would be in 1973—smoking rates began to decline:

Cigars went out of fashion twenty years ago. Men and yeomen consumed so much tobacco that their healths were endangered. The laws of Nature were powerless to cope with the evil. Not so the laws of Fashion, which at once abated it.

And indeed, according to Gallup polling, smoking began its slow decline in the year… 1973. 

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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