Home Newcastle 30 years of the British high-street: How fashion and retail have evolved

30 years of the British high-street: How fashion and retail have evolved

The British high street has undergone substantial transformations in the past 30 years; the advent of social media, new technological advancements and changing attitudes towards shopping have changed the way that many fashion brands operate.

There are now 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?

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?
The top 5 stand-out styles:

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.

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.
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.


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.

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.