Surges in technology, enhanced social media engagement and new attitudes to shopping is transforming the UK high street and the clothing styles it offers for many fashion brands.

More online fashion influencers, enhanced marketing opportunities, greater freedom of individual style, and better digital merged with real-world shopping experiences — including virtual reality changing rooms, smart mirrors and 3D product testers — are helping physical fashion stores survive the ‘digital age’.

But how has the UK high street adapted and what are the stand-out clothing styles over the past three decades of its history that have made a permanent imprint on British fashion? River Island — an iconic British fashion retailer of women’s dresses that is celebrating its 30th birthday this year — investigates the evolution of high-street fashion…

The journey of the British high street

Brits have enjoyed a long love affair with the high street, with the influx of people to urban areas from the countryside during the Industrial Revolution driving the need to have everything from food stalls to clothing shops in a central location.

Reaching a peak in popularity and availability in the 1960s, an explosion of the alternative and mainstream clothing styles of the Swinging Sixties made shopping on the high street a favourite leisure experience that helped boost sales and encourage diversity in fashion.

It’s no secret that some high-street brands have lately suffered setbacks, but could the high street be experiencing a transformation? Reportedly, town centre spending will increase by £5.3 billion in the next few years, according to GlobalData, while a boost in venues that inspire socialising in and around high streets — like bars and coffee shops — may assist in attracting people to physical fashion stores.

Despite assumptions to the contrary, research gathered by Qmatic UK shows that most sales from multi-channel retailers come from purchases in store. Also supporting the demand for physical shopping experiences is the recent report that a growing number of internet retailers are using real shops to enhance sales. Potentially, even social media could be helping to drive traffic to the high street, as 94% of marketers consider influencer marketing to be an effective tactic.

According to Roland van Breukelen, marketing director at the SAP Hybris UK technology company, artificial intelligence (AI) could save retailers around £2 and £3 trillion a year due to better efficiency. It can also help gather key marketing information from both physical and virtual sources to gain unprecedented consumer insights — helping to discover exactly what the customer wants and when they want it. The high street has its obstacles to overcome, but if technology works alongside the physical shopping experience — and shoppers get on board with digital influences in their high street stores — fashion brands that operate both online and physical shops and welcome innovation and digital opportunities should prove successful.

Of course, there’s an overriding reason the high street has survived as a hub of purchasing fashion for so many years in the UK: the styles. So, which high-street fashion trends have kept us hooked on what we wear?

Stand-out high-street fashion styles of the past 30 years

Acid-wash double denim

Back in the late 1980s, denim was all the rage — and one style that stood out above the rest was the trend for acid wash. Whether it was dresses or jeans, acid wash was everywhere. If you wanted your style to be truly on-point, you’d merge the acid-wash trend with the fad for double denim and match your chemically-faded bottoms with a boxy, ripped, acid-wash jacket.

Even in 2018, denim fashion keeps evolving in design, style and colour. This has helped it keep its place as one of women’s fashion’s go-to fabrics.


Madonna was all over the media in the late 1980s — and not just for her risqué videos and number ones. She was a huge fashion inspiration for women all over the globe, and one of her most iconic pieces of clothing was the bodysuit. Worn on stage and in videos with everything from fishnet tights to thigh boots and a blazer, the bodysuit became a staple fashion piece for young women and seemed to complement nearly everything.

Even today, bodysuit sales are high, showing that the versatility, fitted design and feminine silhouette of the garment are still proving popular.

Crop tops

Taking us effortlessly from late 1980s fashion to top 1990s girl trend, the crop top was a wardrobe staple of the decade. Everyone seemed to have a favourite crop top that perfectly suited the occasion in the 1990s.

Kate Moss and Reese Witherspoon were big fans and managed to make the clothing style acceptable for casual day events and dressier evening appearances. Today, we can see crop-inspiration in the bralets of today, which are many ladies’ style-of-choice when they want to complement everything from floaty culottes to bodycon pencil skirts.


As we entered the 1990s, fashion surged towards casual trends and a grungy look — and tracksuits fitted right in. Hip-hop and rap grew in popularity among British music fans, and this affected how the younger generations chose to dress.

From popper jogger bottoms to silky, block-colour full tracksuits, this was the birth of the athleisure trend which now has dedicated followers like Rihanna, Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner.

Pedal pushers

A top trend for girls pre-2000, the bottom of pedal pushers sat around the middle of your shin — like culottes today — and were originally designed for cyclists who didn’t want the risk of full-length trousers but wanted more coverage than shorts could offer.

Pedal pushers were all over the pop magazines of the 1990s, from Christina Aguilera to Natalie Imbruglia, and every girl band wanted in on the style, too — especially B*Witched.

Although many of us thought this trend was long gone, style gurus like Kim Kardashian and Bella Hadid are pushing the pedal pusher to the top of the fashion want-list again, and they were even a surprise hit at this year’s spring and summer fashion shows.


How did we accessorise decades ago? Nobody can forget the iconic choker necklace. It was so popular in the mid to late 1990s, that Kate Winslet made it her accessory-of-choice at the premier of Titanic in 1997.

From thick, velvet bands of black that girls wore with their crop tops and jeans, to dainty, diamante-embellished designs that were ideal for a night out, the choker was a versatile necklace that is now synonymous with women’s fashion of the 1990s.


The women of All Saints were probably the combat trouser trend’s greatest real-life mannequins. Complementing the desire for a laid-back look with a flick of military-inspired fashion, combats were usually worn with plain, strappy vests and trainers with minimal accessories.

Slinky slip dresses

Even when it came to dresses, the lady of the 1990s preferred the subtle, casual approach. Satin slip dresses were all the rage. From Kate Moss at the 1993 Elite Model Agency Party to Selma Blair at the premier of Cruel Intentions in 1999, the slip dress helped carry women’s fashion across the decade.

Today, it’s still a top pick for its simple elegance and convenient versatility.

Low-rise jeans

As we entered a new century, we also catwalked into a new way of dressing — and it started with low-rise jeans. Britney Spears is potentially the most famous model of this denim trend — most people at least remember her wearing them when she danced with a python at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.

During the post-Millennium period, low-riding jeans were the height of women’s fashion and looked amazing with crop tops for the ultimate midriff show.


Belts really took off as an accessory during the early-to-mid-2000s. Almost every woman owned a tan or black disc belt that hung loosely just above the hips, while loop belts and scarf that sat a bit lower were ideal for dressing up the trouser band.

If you wanted to bring a boho flair to your look, you chose a fringe belt, or if you were more into the rock songs of Avril Lavigne, you gave a black and silver studded belt a go. When it was party time, girls during this era glammed up their dresses with a chunky, patent-leather waist belt, while jeans and a halter-neck crop screamed out for a chunky chain belt that hung unapologetically from the loops of your denims.

Skinny trousers

Denim styles are always transforming and one of the most recent — and popular — is the skinny jean. It’s hard to think how we coped without this fashion staple now. Skinny jeans became a dominant part of the fashion world around 2005 and have stuck around ever since.

No matter where we’re going or what we’re doing, the skinny jean always looks right. From shopping to dates and nights out to days in, the skinny jean merges perfectly with vests, camis, jumpers, tees, bardots and everything in between to create a good-to-go outfit.

Maxi dress

As we headed towards 2010, the flawlessly chic maxi dress took over women’s wardrobes. From casual, gypsy-style designs to chiffon variants, the maxi dress trend brought about a selection of styles that made it ideal for women of all tastes.

The maxi dress offered the wearer more coverage and less hassle when it came to dressing to impress. Today, we still see a burst of maxi dresses in different colours and fabrics taking over the runways of the biggest fashion shows.

Graphic tees

Around the height of the maxi dress’ popularity, women were also tempted by the collection of graphic tees that were popping up in shops all over the high street. There was a massive selection you could choose from, with images of popstars, locations and snappy slogans all riding high in fashion sales.

Great for making a point and emphasising a stance, the graphic tee of the post-2010 period complemented the need for millennials and Generation Z to vocalise concerns and show support for a band, artist or cause.


Arising in 2015 after a brief appearance in the 1990s, one of the newest trends to take over the women’s high-street fashion scene is the skort. A cool blend of the skirt and shorts, the skort is an innovative twist on two staple pieces that works excellently as part of a glamorous ensemble.

Quirky but chic, it’s the ideal evening accessory that shows how nostalgia-inspired fashion can often work again in any era.

High-street fashion has brought many interesting and trends to us over the past three decades. And with exciting times ahead for the British high street itself, we can only expect more innovation and creativity.