views updated Jun 11 2018


CLOTHING. Clothing and fashion underwent several transformations in the early modern world, reflecting the changing social, political, religious, and economic forces of which they were a part and an expression. Though major shifts in patterns of production and consumption and the emergence of more varied fabrics and textiles had already taken place in the late Middle Ages, the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries represented a culmination of these trends as well as a distinct and dynamic period in which clothing became an innovative and rapidly changing style form in its own right. Reflecting a heightened clothes-consciousness, men and women constructed their identity by wearing garments that reshaped their bodies and created around them a fluid circulation of meanings. In this sense, clothing, as one writer put it, constituted a "worn world: a world of social relations put upon the wearer's body." At the same time, just as clothing served as a form of personal (if heavily restricted) self-inscription, larger historical developments of the timechanging warfare, the Protestant Reformation, even the emergence of national identityinfluenced the choice of a slashed sleeve or a ballooning doublet.


Though textile centers had existed throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, the birth of the fashion industry originated in the city-states of Italy, where international trade, commercial innovation, and economic growth had coalesced since the twelfth century. The Crusades had opened the way for contact with Asia and, with it, the importation of more varied and luxurious fabrics. In northern Italian states such as Venice and Florence, import-export businesses coexisted with centers of fabric production that created huge fortunes and an accompanying consumer class eager for personal, status-enhancing display. Beginning in the fifteenth century especially, the hedonistic desire to spend on the part of those with more disposable wealth combined with a business strategy of "planned obsolescence" to produce clothes of a distinct cut, piecing, and fit that could be adopted and discarded as "fashion" by wealthy elites who suddenly did not wish to be seen in garments that could be considered out-of-date and behind the style curve of their rivals.

Constraints were placed on the circulation of clothing, however. Though they extended back to the Bible, early modern sumptuary laws had been formulated in the late Middle Ages to regulate consumption of luxury items and to reinforce existing social, economic, and occupational divisions by narrowly delineating items such as clothing or jewelry that an individual could wear. Intended to counter extravagancewhich could be loosely defined, though silk, velvet, and brocades were strictly offlimits to the lower classeslaws also served the purpose of encouraging domestic production and protecting the manufacturing sector of a given country while upholding self-proclaimed standards of morality and decency. As a method of social control, sumptuary legislation also upheld hierarchies in a world where class distinctions, at least at the higher levels, could become blurred at times. Wealthy mercantilists, for example, gained economic strength during the early modern period, and proceeded to express themselves in the outer trappings of wealth. The result was a kind of egalitarianism of extravagance, as expressed by the wife of Phillipe Le Bel, who is said to have exclaimed, "I thought I was the Queen, but I see there are hundreds." In Tudor England, on the other hand, finer social distinctions were reinforced by injunctions, for example, that "None shall wear cloth of gold or silver, or silk of purpose color except Earls, all above that rank, and Knights of the King (and then only in their mantles)." Those on the marginsespecially those on the marginswere also targeted for sartorial restriction: thus were Jews compelled to don either a star-shaped yellow badge or a yellow hat known as a bareta, while in Venice common prostitutes were required to proclaim their station through patches as well as bells, hats, or striped hoods. Sumptuary laws could be subverted or evaded, however, among those of the lower orders. To bypass the law that limited commoners to one color, some individuals as well as noblemen began to slash their garmentsdoublets, sleeves, hoseto expose the contrasting colors of the interior linings. Courtesans also could sometimes overcome such restrictions and, in fact, mimic the altogether more cloistered noblewomen with their own lavish stylings, down to the extreme shoes known as chopines, whose platforms could extend the length of three feet, elevating the woman to towering proportions and requiring her to support her stride with two sturdy male handlers.


Sumptuary laws ensured that clothes reflected the age's social stratifications, with more variation occurring in the top ranks of society. Men as well as women were especially aware of the manipulative potentialities in dress and public image, and adorned themselves accordingly, but few did so with such notoriety and effect as Elizabeth I of England. Her astonishing wardrobe was a political expression in its own right, and a useful expedient: because much of her power came from projectionwhich was especially necessary when she witnessed no small number of threats to her throne, as well as limited funds in her treasuryher gowns were designed to impress with jewels and luxurious fabric, and could even be adapted to international fashion styles, depending on whose courtthe French, an Italian city-stateshe considered diplomatically useful at any one time. Elizabeth's dress in turn trickled down, at least to ladies of the more elevated class, with its status-enhancing ruffles, complicated bell-shaped sleeves, daunting underpinnings, heavily embroidered gowns, V-shaped waistlines, cinched, tight-fitting bodices, and choices of colors that ranged, in contemporary language, from Bristol Red to Puke and Popinjay Green. Men were equally influenced by Elizabeth's sartorial statements, adopting more elaborate embroidery motifs (including the Tudor rose) as well as rich fabrics and, of course, the ruff, which could extend to a foot outward. But male ornamentationfanciful boots, rich materials, plentiful decorationhad preceded Elizabeth and been expressed most fully with her father, Henry VIII, whose own puffed styles borrowed from the Continent, most notably from the courts of Burgundy and France.

Among elites, shifts in styles occurred frequently over the course of the sixteenth century, moving from the relatively soft linearity of late Gothic and early Italian Renaissance clothing, when dress tended toward greater simplicity and consisted of a relatively restrained albeit beautifully tailored gown topped by huge sleeves, trailing skirts, and a square or rounded neckline. Headdresses completed the picture, and consisted of a sort of net or caul that seems to have contained the hair. Later on, the farthingale, a bell-shaped hoop skirt, dominated women's fashion, contributing to an increasingly stiff female posture. As Aphra Behn wrote in The Lady's Looking Glass, "I have seen a Woman . . . [who] has screw'd her Body in so fine a Form, that she dares no more stir a Hand, lift up an Arm, or turn her Head aside, than if, for the Sin of such a Disorder, she were to be turn'd into a Pillar of Salt; the less stiff and fix'd Statue of the two." With the introduction in the century of the aforementioned ruff, which enshrouded the neck in starch and lace, the effect was to render women as well as men all the more remote and unapproachable in appearance.

From the mid-sixteenth century on, such aesthetic cues were increasingly appropriated from Spain, where clothes forsook the body's natural contours and instead subjected it to even more geometric silhouettes. Dark silks and velvets were especially valued among those who preferred the classical baroque style, for it allowed them to showcase more effectively the precious stones and jewelry with which they adorned themselves, and which were frequently sewn into the fabric itself. The Spanish style was especially evident among men, who could, nevertheless, vary their adornment in the quest to project masculinity, wealth, status, and sexual allure. The shirt undergarment worn by an early modern man tended to be fitted closer to the body than that worn by a peasant, in order to accommodate the nearly always white linen doublet; nether hose, or pants, were a significant shift from the more gowned medieval world, with men opting for knee-length Venetian breeches or what were known as slops, or paned breeches, which puffed at the thigh and were sometimes adorned with a codpiece. Doublets were jacketlike ensembles that were fastened down the front, tended to come with a high neckline, and were topped by a straight-collared, richly ornamented cloak, almost always worn by noblemen. Despite the encroachments of new fabrics, cuts, and silhouettes for the male body, however, gowns were not entirely obsolete, especially in the early period of the age, when they continued to distinguish their wearers as clergy, scholars, or old and respected gentlemen.

Among the lower orders, the standard apparel for women began with a linen undergarment known as a chemise, or shift, a rectangular smock with long sleeves, a low square neck, and a hem that extended to the calf. Over this women wore one or two linen or wool skirtscotton would not be mass-produced Europe until the eighteenth centuryand supported the body and the garment with a snugly fitting (but not oppressively tight) vestlike bodice. Variations existed: for the Flemish market woman, for example, a linen undergarment was overlaid with a sleeveless kirtlean open-fronted gown laced in the frontand a partlet, an item of clothing worn over the upper torso.

Surprisingly, more affordable dyestuffs ensured that colors could vary among the lower classes, ranging from pink, fawn, russet, peach, blue, green, and occasionally even bright red, though the latter was frequently associated solely with the upper classes. For a peasant man, on the other hand, the undergarment comprised a linen shirt similarly rectangular in cutto prevent the linen from unravelingwith long cuffed sleeves and an optional collar. These were usually matched by knee-length breeches often finished with a loose, unstructured, and hip-length vest known as a jerkin, covered in the winter by a wool or linen cloak.


Fashion among the elite tended to be international in scope, to the point where Thomas Dekker compared the "English-mans suit" to a traitor's body: "the collar of his doublet and the belly in France; the wing and narrow sleeue in Italy; the shorte waist hangs over a Dutch botchers stall in Utrich; his huge sloppes speakes Spanish; Polonia [Poland] gives him his bootes; the blocke for his head alters faster than the feltmaker can fit him." The emergence of firmer national boundaries and identities in the early modern period, however, also reflected itself in clothing and in shifting cultural centers, from the Italian city-states to Spain and on to France. During the reign of Louis XIV, and especially from 1660 on, France played an increasingly important role in setting fashion, with gaudiness prevailing in men's dress and exemplified by tiny, open doublets and extremely baggy, knee-length trousers known as rhinegraves. Eventually rhinegraves fell out of fashion, though clothing continued to be decorated with such flourishes as ribbon bows.

Female fashion under Louis XIV was perhaps even more in flux, especially from the 1630s through the 1660s, evolving from high-waisted to long-waisted gowns, low, wide, and horizontal or oval-shaped necklines trimmed in lace, and sleeves set low on the shoulder, opening into a full ruff that ended below the elbow. For all its flourishes, however, women's dress in Louis's France tended to be more subdued and elegant than that of the beribboned male, accentuating in its silhouette the beauty of the female form.

With the emergence of more permanent armies among states, standardized military uniforms began to resurface for the first time since the Roman era. Whereas previously soldiers had either served different armies or were expected to provide their own fighting gear, uniforms now were fashioned to adorn the fighter in times of peace as well as war. Large textile factories in France became increasingly capable of churning out mass quantities of uniformly colored fabric that was cut and decorated by buttons, braiding, and cords in an unvarying manner. Military uniforms also influenced male civilian dress, making the coat or jacket more tight-fitting, with tailored contours, and taming the sleeves into the tubular and simple proportions known today. The soldier's broad-brimmed hat, or tricorn, became fashionable after the Thirty Years' War ended in 1648, as did rows of buttons and broad collars. Because men after the 1650s began to wear their hair much longer, large lace collars were made smaller and then replaced by strips of fabric that were transformed into knotted cravats or silk ribbon bows in the 1670s and 1680s. Jackets were then finished off with a waistcoat called la veste, as well as a knee-length suit jacket called a justaucorps and breeches less voluminous than had existed before. Despite the substitution of uniformed infantry fighting for armored cavalry attacks, metal sheathings continued to flourish at court, taking on more elaborate engravings. During the mid-sixteenth century especially, armor design was increasingly based on the forms and ornament found in classical art. This renaissance of pseudo-antique armor is most invariably associated with the celebrated name of Filippo Negroli, who was to become the most innovative and celebrated of the renowned armorers of Milan. Though Leonardo da Vinci had earlier sketched his fantastic armor and Verrocchio represented armor in sculpture, Negroli and his Milanese family produced unsurpassed embossed and damascened parade armors that entered into the collections (or perhaps even sheathed the bodies) of the dukes of Urbino as well as the Medici, who proclaimed a Negroli helmet "the greatest marvel."

The Protestant Reformation also played an enormous role in shifting fashion, and while it was not uniquely Protestant to condemn the excesses of dresssumptuary laws were reinforced earlier on the grounds of moralitygroups such as Calvinists or Puritans were especially vehement on the subject. According to James Durham, "men's minds are often infected with lascivious thoughts, and lustful inclinations, even by the use and sight of gaudy clothing; and light, loose, conceited minds discover themselves in nothing sooner than in their apparel, and fashions, and conceitedness in them." Because God "commendeth modesty," sobriety must prevail over clothes that "emasculateth or unmanneth" men and the "dressing of hair, powderings, washings, rings [and] jewels reproved in the daughters of Zion."

The "hethen garments, & Romish rags" of Catholic clergy were also viewed as betraying the preceptsif not the fashion senseof Jesus and the early apostles. Renaissance popes and cardinals such as Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (14441483) had in fact been profligate, if not unsavory, in their spending habits and choice of dress, with their green or crimson damask gowns and silk slippers earning the ire of Girolamo Savonarola's outraged sensibilities. In comparison to the popes, reformers such as Martin Luther or Thomas Cranmer appeared almost homely in their dark cassocks and simple girdles, while Calvinists or English Puritans took the "plain style" to its extremes, adopting a basic and austere black more appropriate to their religion. The issue of a priest's vestments had in fact been a pressing question in the sixteenth-century clothing controversy in England, when clergy opposed wearing the cap and gown in daily life and the surplice in church; the issue was not a shallow one, as garments were thought to both influence identity and to even align the outer self with one's inner faith.

Theatrical productions, albeit in more altered forms, continued to be accepted (and created) by Protestants, though the more radical among them could inveigh against frivolous masques and entertainments. Clothing certainly contributed to the shaping of theater, and particularly English theater, which spent the greatest amount of its budget on costume. Sumptuous display ensured good box office; at the same time, the presence and circulation of clothes played a central role not only as dramatic devices within plays such as Thomas Middleton's Your Five Gallants, but also situated the identity of central and supportive characters alike. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, with its sartorial transformations of Viola into Cesario, is perhaps the best-known example that utilizes the gender- and identity-shaping potentialities of clothing. Shakespeare, however, was borrowing from a rich theatrical tradition of transvestism, in which the so-called "woman beneath" or "man beneath" (or "boy beneath") was hidden by the cover of clothes, voice, and gesture. Masques were also forums for such transgressions, and in the sequins and gilded costumes and elaborately patterned and stitched velvet masks, participants found a liberating refuge of subversion, akin to the costumed inversions that existed among the lower orders at Carnival time.

Contemporary clothing practices, of course, mutually influenced early modern attitudes toward the body, including idealssometimes blurred idealsof beauty, ugliness, femininity, and masculinity. Emphasis on women's full figures had prevailed in the earlier era, though the introduction of increasingly restrictive and breast-compressing whalebone bodices reflected or inspired a slimmer ideal, at least in the waist. Men were equally constrained by their own fashions, including the legemphasizing hose, the form-fitting doublet, or even the frequently exaggerated codpiece. In another sense, clothing also served the early modern religious consciousness as a reminder, in Martin Luther's phrase, of the "wretched Fall"; though the nakedness of Adam and Eve was replaced by fig clothing and God-provided animal skinsthe "robe[s] of righteousness," according to John Miltonclothes nevertheless served for theologians as a constant evocation, a memory, of one's sin, shame, and death.

See also Bible: Interpretation ; Calvinism ; Class, Status, and Order ; Elizabeth I (England) ; Gender ; Louis XIV (France) ; Puritanism ; Sexuality and Sexual Behavior ; Sumptuary Laws ; Textile Industry ; Women .


Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd. Leeds, U.K., 1988.

Ashelford, Jane. A Visual History of Costume: The Sixteenth Century. London and New York, 1983.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2000.

Weiditz, Christoph. Authentic Everyday Dress of the Renaissance. New York, 1994.

Sarah Covington


views updated May 18 2018


Fashion is the primary framework through which human beings read and understand the concept of gender. Whereas the term fashion can be understood to mean clothing styles that change in swift succession (Johnson 2003), it is often used synonymously with the word dress to refer to an assemblage of modifications and supplements to the body, including such things as coiffed hair, painted skin, tattoos, garments, jewelry, and accessories (Roach-Higgins 1992) arrayed in a formal arrangement that "expresses the aesthetics and customs of a cultural period" (Schreier 1989, p. 2). According to Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt (b. 1943) quoted in Christopher Breward's The Culture of Fashion, ties between the ideas of fashion and identity parallel "etymological changes in the word fashion itself: 'As a term for the action or process of making, for particular features or appearance, for a distinct style or pattern, the word had long been in use, but it is in the sixteenth century that the word fashion seems to come into wide currency as a way of redesigning the forming of a self'" (Breward 1995, p. 69).


The primary genders framed in fashionable dress in most of European and North American culture are masculine (heterosexual implied) and feminine (heterosexual implied). Scholars such as Marit K. Munson define other sexual identities, such as homosexual-male (gay), homosexual-female (lesbian), transsexual (either male to female or female to male), transvestites, drag queens, cross-dressers, and ceremonial assumption by men or women of symbols of the other as alternative genders (e.g., Munson 2000). Several of these categories are defined by their use of fashion as an expression of gender choice, as discussed by Cressida Heyes, who includes as transgender "gays, lesbians and straights who exhibit any kind of dress and/or behavior interpreted as 'transgressing' gender roles" (Heyes 2003, p. 1107). This article addresses mainly European and North American society and primarily with masculine and feminine differentiation.


The study of gender through dress has been concentrated within the historical and art-historical approaches, where it is often associated with developing feminist analysis of historical materials (Jones 2004, Grossinger 1997). Within the anthropological and sociological disciplines, the study of gender and dress often refers to traditional or indigenous and ceremonial wear and its meanings within that culture (Taylor 2002, Eicher 2001), but it also encompasses approaches combining the elements of multiple discourses, contradictions, and active production of meaning. Literary criticism also addresses issues of gender identification, as does women's studies. Finally, within the burgeoning field of fashion studies, the study of gender is often associated with how humans define themselves as masculine or feminine through the medium of clothing (Holliday 2001).


Throughout known human history men and women have distinguished themselves from one another using clothing and related forms of adornment. In each time and place and social structure, the complete appearance that constitutes masculine or feminine has been different—a social construct in its own right. These nuances of appearance are not always apparent to subsequent observers of these trends. For example, a twenty-first-century viewer might interpret the pink silk suit worn by a perfumed and made-up French courtier (male) of 1760 as effeminate or very feminine. Within the context of the eighteenth-century French court, however, such an outfit was an expression of masculinity, skillful understanding of court negotiation, and power. Whereas the color pink became associated with femininity sometime in the nineteenth century, a few vestiges of the earlier masculine association remain. One example is the pink polo shirt still commonly sold by men's clothiers such as LaCoste and Polo.


In her essay "Appearance and Identity," Valerie Steele points out that women tend to wear more clothing than men do on an everyday basis, expressing cultural ideals of modesty, but this paradigm shifts for ceremonial occasions, such as rites of passage, religious ceremonies, and warfare (Steele 1989a). In her work with the Kalabiri tribe of Nigeria, Joanne B. Eicher studies this idea in greater depth, comparing tribal practice for both daily and ceremonial wear with European and North American bridal practice (as expressed in Brides magazine). Her findings seem to support a general idea that ceremonial dress for women tends to focus on their sexual attributes (waist, breasts, back, and arms) whereas masculine ceremonial dress tends to emphasize power and wealth (employing more clothing and jewelry, not less) on such occasions (Eicher 2001).


Fashion as people think of it, with varied options, styles, and cyclical changes of features worn by members of the upper classes (with less expensive versions that trickle down to lower classes) began somewhere between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries in Europe. During the twelfth century both men and women wore floor-length robes with very similar cut and decoration. Noblemen could be distinguished by their long hair and beards. The contemporary ecclesiastical chronicler Vitalis described this style: "They parted their hair from the crown of the head to the forehead, grew long and luxurious locks like women, and loved to deck themselves in long, over-tight shirts and tunics … scarcely any knight appears in public with his head uncovered and decently shorn …" (Tortora 1994, p. 93). Skirts might be slit front and back for riding horseback, and they often carried swords.

In contrast, women frequently would wear veils or caps. This theme of feminine head coverings continues through many eras. A further division in female status was often made between married and unmarried women. Generally, an unmarried woman might show some of her hair, whereas a married woman wore veils or caps. Untidiness or inappropriately loose hair on a married woman might be associated with immodest behavior, as demonstrated in this instruction by Menagier de Paris, an older man writing to his young wife in the late fourteenth century: "Take care first that the collar of your shift [underdress], and of your … cotte [dress], and surcoat, do not hang out one over the other as happens with certain drunken, foolish or witless women, who have no care for their honor, nor for the honesty of their estate or of their husbands, and who walk with roving eyes and heads horribly reared up like a lion, their hair straggling out of their wimples [pieces of veil worn under the chin] …" (Tortora 1994, p. 110).

A major shift in fashion silhouette and construction took place beginning in France and spread to the rest of Europe and England after 1340. Men and women left the long, loose garments of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries behind and began to wear more tightly fit and carefully shaped clothing. For younger men this included garments in new, shorter popular lengths ranging from the knee to just below the crotch. Literature of the time marked the shape of a man's leg as a style point. For women concurrent styles remained long, but suddenly exposed neck, shoulders, and bosom. This trend for fitted garments may have developed from men's quilted armor padding, and required padding and elaborate fitting to produce the desirable barrel-chested shape of the era. Women's garments likewise were worn tight, and emphasized the waist and an expanded chest area. Garments for both men and women were fitted and shaped in ways that affected and created a new posture.

In the fifteenth century both men and women added voluminous robes over the fitted garments or cotes. Here again, women's clothes continued to be long, but shorter garments remained an option for men. Women's headdresses took a leap toward the fantastical; they are depicted as quite tall, often bifurcated, and frequently elaborately decorated, whereas men's remained somewhat simpler. Advice offered to the Lover in the contemporary Roman de la Rose (a popular poem of the time quoted in Breward's The Culture of Fashion) instructs a man to "dress well and wear good footwear, as your pocketbook permits. You should have a good tailor who knows how to sew fine stitches and make your sleeves well fitting. Wear fresh, new shoes quite frequently, so closely fitting that lower-class people will wonder how you got into them and how you will take them off. When you go out, carry gloves, a silk purse, and wear an attractive belt … Wash your hands, polish your teeth, and have no sign of dirt on your fingernails. Sew on your sleeves, comb your hair, but do not make use of any face makeup, which is for women only, or for sodomites" (Breward 1995, p. 23).

Note that these descriptions emphasizes appropriate attire for the station of both male and female, but with different traits celebrated in masculine (have a good tailor) and feminine (honesty of estate or of their husbands.) The same type of chivalric romance describing dress for the lover above is quoted describing the object of his passion thus: "She had blond hair finely curled. The eyes were gay and laughing, the face shapely, the nose high and well-placed. The lips were more red than a cherry or a rose [perhaps the impetus for the cosmetic enhancement eschewed for the Lover] … and her teeth were white and fine. She had breasts, hard, which lifted up her gown just as if they were nuts, she was slender about the waist so that one could enclose it in two hands. The daisies lying under the instep of her feet … were outright black compared to her feet and legs, so very white was the little girl" (Breward 1995, p. 32).

The middle of the fifteenth century saw the introduction of one of the most notoriously anatomical fashion accessories in the history of European and North American fashion. The codpiece began as a triangular piece of cloth fastened over the opening at the top of men's hose. It continued to develop, however. By the first decade of the sixteenth century, it had expanded into an oval or tubular protrusion over the wearer's crotch, often standing out from underneath men's short doublet skirts. As the sixteenth century progressed, it developed in size and prominence. It was usually decorated to coordinate with men's elaborate trunkhose, or the top part of men's leg coverings that were frequently paned, embroidered, and stuffed. Codpieces made of rich fabrics pulled though slashes in the base fabric for a multitextured effect are depicted frequently in portraiture in the second half of the sixteenth century. To put the codpiece in context with the rest of fashion, this era saw unprecedented artifice and shaping in clothing for both sexes. Men's clothes early in the century included tightly fitted lower hose, a skirted doublet fit tightly over the chest, and a gown with exaggerated broad sleeves, and evolved into a series of attenuated and artificially produced cone shapes by the century's end.

Women's clothes demonstrated similar artifice. Sometime in the early sixteenth century the corset, perhaps the most conspicuously fetishized female garment in European and North American fashion, developed from earlier fitted and shaped bodice styles. By the end of the sixteenth century women's clothes were even more extremely shaped than men's, with long rigid bodice fronts enforced by corsetry, low décolletage and long skirts padded to an extreme drumlike width at the hip.

Certain common characteristics between men and women's clothes, such as elongated bodice/doublet points, wide neck ruffs, and the wearing of tall, masculine-styled hats created a cultural anxiety about appropriate gender display. This was expressed by Puritan pamphleteer and poet Phillip Stubbes (1550?–1593?), writing in England in the mid-1580s: "Our apparell was given us as a signe distinctive to discern betwixt sex and sex, & therfore one to weare the Aparel of another sex, is to participate with the same, and to adulturate the veritie of his own kinde" (Breward 1995, p. 93).

In the seventeenth century both men's and women's clothes had simplified, in both silhouette and embellishment. But the luxurious court of French king Louis XIV (1638–1715) at Versailles brought the return of rigidly shaped, elaborate styles for women and heavily embellished clothes for men. It also introduced more modern men's clothing in the form of jacket, vest, and loose short pants. It is from these pieces that men's iconic power garment, the three-piece suit, developed into a recognizable outfit. English King Charles II (1630–1685) brought this combination of vest and long coat with him when he returned to take the throne in England in 1666. The diarist Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) observed this change in fashion: "This day the King begins to put on his vest, and I did see several persons of the House of Lords and Commons too, great courtiers, who are in it; being a long cassock close to the body, of black cloth and pinked [cut] with white silk under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with a black riband like a pigeon's leg' and upon the whole I wish the King may keep it, for it is a very find and handsome garment" (Tortora 1994, p. 185).

As the seventeenth century progressed, greater association between women and fashion and frivolity developed. This trend began with further differentiation between the lives of men and women concurrent with the rise of urban environments (Breward 1995). Extending into the eighteenth century this trend fueled changes both for the workers in fashion industries, as well as the ideals of what men and women should wear. Breward discusses the sexual connotations of urban female fashion "ritualized and bound up in the follies of fashion, gratuitous consumption and entertainment" (Breward 1995, p. 102). By the eighteenth century the urban fashion business had evolved partly based on the evolving assumptions that women were essentially more interested than men in fashion and that fashion itself was inherently frivolous (Jones 2004). Fashion's very production began to bifurcate along gender lines, "shaped by rivalries between seamstresses, linen drapers, ladies' hairdressers and fashion merchants" (Jones 2004, p. 5). This shift represented a battle on the part of female seamstresses in Paris to make a livelihood independent from the male-run tailor's guild. The seamstresses used as a principle argument that "female seamstresses should make clothing for women and children because … it was consonant with female modesty to be dressed … by a woman" (Jones 2004, p. 82).

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, both men's and women's clothing was elaborate, colorful, and multilayered. In the middle of the century, at its most extreme, well-to-do women wore corsets with elaborate hoops that extended their skirts many feet to the sides. Men's clothing retained the form of breeches, fitted vest, and long coat, while the breeches and vest moved from loose to formfitting. Both men and women of the upper classes wore pale colors, dramatic woven silks, and elaborate trimmings, as illustrated by an observer named Mary Granville in 1739: "The Duchess of Bedford's petticoat was green padusoy [sic], embroidered very richly with gold and silver and a few colours; … there was an abundance of embroidery, and many people in gowns and petticoats of different colours. The men were as fine as the ladies … My Lord Baltimore was in light brown and silver, his coat lined quite throughout with ermine" (Tortora 1994, p. 243).


By the end of the eighteenth century this similarity in color and embellishment between the dress of men and women had largely evaporated. Whereas men's dress of the early nineteenth century still appears quite colorful by late twentieth-century standards, it had simplified dramatically from the apparel worn by Lord Baltimore as described above. Speculation about causes for this shift has occupied many fashion theorists, most famously the psychologist J. C. Flugel (1884–1955). In his 1930 work The Psychology of Clothes, Flugel referred to the transformation of men's clothing between 1760 and 1795 from the colorful silks of the French Ancien régime(the social and political systems in place before the Revolution of 1789) to the soberer attire worn by men since the French Revolution as "The Great Masculine Renunciation." He described this event thus: "Men gave up their right to all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women, and thereby making their own tailoring the most austere and ascetic of the arts." He goes on to explain several reasons for this change in fashion, including, "[Men] henceforth aimed at being only useful. So far as clothes remained of importance to him, his utmost endeavors could lie only in the direction of being 'correctly' attired, not of being elegantly or elaborately attired" (Purdy 2004, p. 103). He ascribes the background of this change to the new social order dictated by the French Revolution, which demanded "a greater uniformity of dress, a uniformity achieved particularly by the abolition of those distinctions which had formerly divided the wealthy from the poor…. [The] change in question implied at the same time a greater simplification of dress, by a general approximation to more plebeian standards that were possible to all. This tendency to greater simplification was powerfully reinforced by a second aspect of the general change of ideals which the Revolution implied by the fact that the ideal of work had now become respectable…. [With the Revolutionary ideals] a man's most important activities were passed, not in the drawing-room, but in the workshop, the counting-house, the office-places which had, by long tradition, been associated with relatively simple costume" (Purdy 2004, p. 104).

Flugel's primary argument, that men no longer cared about being fashionably dressed, has been attacked in recent work by Breward, who uses examples from nineteenth-century trade publications to describe modish clothing for gentlemen at the turn of the twentieth century: "Far from conforming to the constraining dictates of renunciation, [fashionable dress] traced the demands of the social calendar as closely as the female wardrobe" (Breward 2001, p. 165). Both Steele and Breward explain this shift in fashion as a shift in fashionable definitions of masculinity: setting aside the ideal of an aristocratic courtier, not to a bank clerk, but to the ideal of an English country gentleman (Steele 1989b, p. 16). This shift away from French formality reflects English pastoral ideals and the development of North American culture, with its underlying antielitist themes. Within this evolving context masculine ideals shift focus to physical vigor enforced by the emerging technology of tailoring. Breward illustrates this new ideal by describing how the tape measure, a new garment construction tool, allowed tailors to "construct a unique cloth carapace … [using] published rules which presented systems of proportion as universal law [and] lent tailors the ability to fit a generalized pattern to anyone who desired it" (Breward 2001, p. 166).

Tailors themselves identified this new mechanical ability with humanistic ideals of art and philosophy. Dr. Henry Wampen, a German mathematician whose books on tailoring made a large impact on nineteenth-century tailoring methods, expressed it thus: "I took a great interest in art and philosophy, and a question was then much discussed whether the Grecian ideal of beauty was simply ideal or founded on a scientific basis…. I was induced to measure certain statues, and I came to the conclusion that the Grecian sculptors worked on a scientific basis …" (Breward 2001). Lest this seem far from the discourse of fashion, consider the text of a series of Punch cartoons of 1882, titled "Lost Illusions." These showed a male subject wearing sporting and formal wear commented on by an audience of potential female suitors. In the plate showing athletic wear, the gentleman "looked like a young Greek god, fresh from Olympus." In the formal wear plate, the same man dressed in a morning suit "looked for all the world like a commonplace young clerk." Later, the same subject models for an intellectual, who perceives that he looks "like a Greek god even in his every-day clothes!" (Breward 2001, pp. 173-174).

In fact, despite an increasing availability of goods and services, the rise of the department store (a public space designed particularly as a place for women to purchase clothing and accessories) and increasing differentiation between social roles for men and women, silhouettes worn by men and women in the 1840s and 1850s had some similarities. "Health and beauty in both sexes require that the chest should be thrown well forward, the shoulders carried back, the carriage erect, free and unconstrained," admonished a self-improvement book of 1845 (Kidwell 1989a, p. 127). The method by which men's and women's clothing achieved this silhouette was different, however. Women's sloping shoulders and narrow waists were achieved by corsets, petticoats, and strategically placed linens. Gentlemen's shapes were more often built in by tailors using careful cut and padding (Kidwell 1989a.) Whereas both men and women might wear fashionably narrow waistlines, descriptions of their bodies in contemporary literature focused on different aspects. The lacing in a man's trousers, which created that narrow waist, might instead be described as enhancing his breadth of shoulder, whereas any description of the fullness of a woman's skirts, in contrast to her corseted waistline, might be seen as showing off her small waist (Kidwell 1989a).


In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, media culture has decentralized fashion categories, providing many more ways for individuals to express identity. The introduction of movies and then television have brought images of cultural icons to every small town that could put up a screen or receive a television signal. As the twentieth century progressed, these media came into use by more and more specific interest groups as marketers identified more differentiated target markets. Popular cable television shows, such as Queer as Folks, would have been unthinkable in the 1950s when media outlets tended to emphasize white heterosexual and family-oriented norms. This show maintained a healthy, if specific interest, market share in 2000.

Medical advancements allowing men and women to alter their gender status have continued to add categories to the gender continuum, and the World Wide Web has augmented this by providing infinite scope for discussion of the process. Scholarly observation and discussion has made the topic of gender expression somewhat self-conscious in practice: "Gender expression is thus not only an aesthetic choice about cosmetics or hairstyle, skirts or suits. It is also implicated in politically fraught behaviors, economic marginalization and exploitation and political consciousness" (Heyes 2003, p. 1111). Despite this complexity, fashion and dress practices are tightly bound into gender definitions and expressions and provide endless scope for further study.


Barnes, Ruth, and Joanne B. Eicher, eds. 1992. Dress and Gender, Making and Meaning in Cultural Contexts. Providence, RI: Berg.

Breward, Christopher. 1995. The Culture of Fashion. Manchester: University of Manchester Press.

Breward, Christopher. 1999. The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life, 1860–1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Breward, Christopher. 2001. "Manliness, Modernity and the Shaping of Male Clothing." In Body Dressing, ed. Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson. Oxford: Berg.

Breward, Christopher. 2004. Fashioning London, Clothing and the Modern Metropolis. Oxford: Berg.

Cordwell, Justine M., and Ronald A. Schwarz, eds. 1979. The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. Paris: Mouton.

Crane, Diana. 2000. Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Davis, Fred. 1992. Fashion, Culture and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eicher, Joanne B. 2001. "Dress, Gender and the Public Display of Skin." In Body Dressing, ed. Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson. Oxford: Berg.

Entwistle, Joanne, and Elizabeth Wilson, eds. 2001a. Body Dressing. Oxford: Berg.

Entwistle, Joanne. 2001b. "The Dressed Body." In Body Dressing, ed. Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson. Oxford: Berg.

Frick, Carole Collier. 2002. Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes and Fine Clothing. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Grossinger, Christa. 1997. Picturing Women in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Heyes, Cressida. 2003. "Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 28(4): 1093-1120.

Holliday, Ruth. 2001. "Fashioning the Queer Self." In Body Dressing, ed. Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wilson. Oxford: Berg.

Johnson, Kim K. P.; Susan Torntore; and Joanne B. Eicher, eds. 2003. Fashion Foundations, Early Writings on Fashion and Dress. Oxford: Berg.

Jones, Jennifer M. 2004. Sexing La Mode: Gender, Fashion and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France. Oxford: Berg.

Kidwell, Claudia Brush. 1989a. "Gender Symbols or Fashionable Details?" In Men and Women, Dressing the Part, ed. Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Kidwell, Claudia Brush, and Valerie Steele, eds. 1989b. Men and Women, Dressing the Part. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Landini, Roberta Orsi, and Mary Westerman Bulgarella. 2001. "Costume in Fifteenth-Century Portraits of Women." In Virtue and Beauty, ed. David Alan Brown. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. 1989. Jocks and Nerds: Men's Style in the Twentieth Century. New York: Rizzoli.

Munson, Marit K. 2000. "Sex, Gender and Status: Human Images from the Classic Mimbres." American Antiquity 65(1): 127-143.

Purdy, Daniel Leonard, ed. 2004. The Rise of Fashion, a Reader. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Ribeiro, Aileen. 2005. Fashion and Fiction, Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Roach, Mary Ellen, and Joanne B. Eicher. 1965. Dress, Adornment, and the Social Order. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Roach, Mary Ellen, and Joanne B. Eicher. 1973. The Visible Self: Perspectives on Dress. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Roach-Higgins, Mary Ellen; Joanne B. Eicher; and Kim K. P. Johnson, eds. 1995. Dress and Identity. New York: Fairchild Publications.

Rothstein, Natalie, ed. 1992. Four Hundred Years of Fashion. London: Victoria & Albert Museum.

Schreier, Barbara A. 1989. "Introduction." In Men and Women, Dressing the Part, ed. Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Steele, Valerie. 1985. Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty from the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Steele, Valerie. 1989a. "Appearance and Identity." In Men and Women, Dressing the Part, ed. Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Steele, Valerie. 1989b. "Clothing and Sexuality." In Men and Women, Dressing the Part, ed. Claudia Brush Kidwell and Valerie Steele. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Taylor, Lou. 2002. The Study of Dress History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Taylor, Lou. 2004. Establishing Dress History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Tortora, Phyllis, and Keith Eubank. 1994. Survey of Historic Costume. 2nd edition. New York: Fairchild Publications.

Tseelon, Efrat. 1995. The Masque of Femininity: The Presentation of Woman in Everyday Life. London: Sage.

Tseelon, Efrat, ed. 2001. Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality. London: Routledge.

Weiner, Annette. B., and Jane Schneider. 1989. Cloth and the Human Experience. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.

                                Elizabeth McMahon


views updated Jun 27 2018




Sumptuary Laws. The boundaries of social and political hierarchy were delineated by the clothes one wore, and throughout the early-modern period sumptuary laws tried to prevent economically successful peasants from dressing in styles that the nobles considered exclusive to their estate. The laws that established these guidelines were established as early as the thirteenth century, when nobles became alarmed that a growing number of the more-prosperous peasants were beginning to emulate their betters by wearing colorful clothes. Because clothing, more so than in present-day society, was an important status symbol, peasants were only allowed to wear certain colors, usually gray, black, or brown. Peasants also were limited in the type of fabric they could use. For instance, in parts of Germany peasant women were not allowed to wear coats or blouses trimmed with silk. And such laws did not only apply to peasants; in the late sixteenth century, French king Henry IV forbade the wealthier Parisian bourgeoisie from wearing silk clothes in order to safeguard the social standing of his often poorer nobles. The average peasant, however, probably would not have been able to break such a law even if he or she wanted to. Historians should thus be careful when analyzing either statutes that intended to curtail peasant luxury or commentators who assailed peasant extravagance. The cost of clothes was relatively high, and thus most peas-ants chose, of necessity, to produce their own clothing out of materials at hand—flax or hemp or wool. Indeed, studies of late medieval and early-modern family budgets in German-speaking cities reveal that poor families concentrated the greatest portion of their monetary resources on food, drink, fuel, and rent, and treated clothes and shoes as items that could be patched up and passed down.

Peasants. In general, peasant clothing was quite coarse, plain, and threadbare, and was often infested with fleas or lice. Remarking on the quality of peasant clothing, the French philosopher Michel Eyquen de Montaigne could write, in the early 1570s, that a greater difference existed between his way of dressing and that of a local peasant, than between the same peasant and a naked New World cannibal. In Western Europe many early-modern male peasants continued to wear the older style of tunic that had been in vogue among nobles between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. This garment was so long that it came down almost to the knee. Although the nobility favored increasingly shortened tunics in the years following 1300, peasants, who had to toil in the fields, woods, and mines, found the longer tunic provided more protection, albeit a bit less flexibility. Yet, fashion is an aspect of culture that often defies common sense, and, in time, peasant men in

Western Europe began to imitate their social betters by gradually shortening their tunics as well, revealing more of the breeches. Ultimately the tunic itself was discarded as peasants opted for the jerkin, which, with its buttons and laces, could fit more tightly around the upper body, combining adequate padding with flexibility. Records of church visitations to rural Saxon villages in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries testify to the consternation that reforming clerics felt, as they observed peasant men dancing at night in such “licentious” clothing. But such changes did not occur throughout Europe at an even rate. Shepherds in the Austrian Alps, for example, were still wearing the long tunic, stretched down to their knees, at the close of the sixteenth century, leaving their legs bare or covered with leather straps. While even most peasants probably had a “feast-day” set of clothes to wear on Christmas, Easter, or to celebrate a wedding, it was often of the same material, and was not much better than their work clothes. The fact that such attire was handed down between family members over the years suggests that most peasants could not respond to current fashions. Inventories are frequently filled with expressions such as “torn” or “old,” revealing that even holiday clothes were worn and tattered.

Footwear. An aspect of clothing that clearly served to distinguish the peasant from his social betters was footwear. Peasant shoes were sometimes wooden, but were, more often, simple pieces of leather wrapped around the feet, made tight by lacing long thongs through loops attached to the leather strips. In fact, this Bundschuh, as it was known in German-speaking lands, became so associated with the peasantry that peasant rebels of the early 1520s adopted it as the icon by which they identified themselves during the series of uprisings now labeled the “Peasants’ War.”

Urban Poor. Like the peasants, the members of Western Europe’s urban poor wore clothes of coarse wool or linen, and even, in the most miserable of cases, canvas. Masters sometimes gave their servants adequate clothing as part of their salary. Other urban workers had access to spinning wheels and made their own clothes. However, those who were not so fortunate had to rely either on “hand-me downs” or on theft. Trial records reveal that during the great plague of 1631, Florence’s urban poor regularly violated both municipal statutes and health codes in order to prevent the clothes of relatives who had perished of plague from being burned. Inventories taken at death reveal that the urban poor, like peasants, did not own many pairs of clothes. One woman in Toledo left, upon her death in 1593, two small headdresses, an old shirt, pieces of an old blanket, and an old mantilla. Even these few items would have been worth about one-sixth of her annual salary. Because the urban poor were so scantily dressed, some cities, such as Basel, allowed charitable institutions to hand out charity gowns (LuxrocK) to the native poor.

The Wealthy. By 1300 a change in men’s fashion was under way: men’s tunics, once indistinguishable from those worn by women, gradually became shorter and were often turned up, granting more flexibility. This change, which took more than one hundred years to catch on, illustrates well the speed at which fashion changed in the pre-modern


The first item is a contract that records the possessions (mainly clothes) that Giovanna ScandeEa, the daughter of a northern Itatan village miler and carpenter, brought to her husband as a dowry in 1600. An orphan at the time of her wedding, her family had scraped by, even in difficult times, with the two mills which her father, at one time the village’s mayor, had rented. The list therefore provides a good example of the clothes a better-off peasant might own. The second and third texts are excerpts taken from the 1578 correspondence between the son of a politically important and extremely wealthy Nuremberg family, Friederkh Behaim VIII, and his mother, while he was a freshman at the nearby Altdorf Academy (an institution that could only confer the B.A. and M.A, degrees). The letters reveal that Friederkh was more concerned with his clothes than his studies. His family’s wealth permits him and his mother to take a much more nonchalant attitude toward replacing clothes than peasants could take. However, it is interesting to note that even his clothes are falling apart, The detail of the accounting in the dowry is explained by the fact that marriages were economic negotiations between families-not affairs of the heartland the clothing listed represented a considerable portion of Giovanna’s total worth.

Dowry (1600): One bed with a new mattress with a pair of linen sheets of half-length, and new pillow cases, pillows, and cushions; with a bed cover, which the aforesaid Stefano [her fiance] promises to buy her a new undershirt An embroidered shawl, with folds, A gray dress. A new linsey-woolsey with the bodice of reddish cloth. Another linsey-woolsey similar to the above. A gray dress of half-length. A white linsey-woolsey, bordered with white cotton and linen, with fringes at the feet. A blouse of half wool. A pair of cloth sleeves, light orange in color, with silk ribbons. A pair of sleeves of silver colored cloth. A pair of lined sleeves of heavy cloth. Three new sheets of flax. A light sheet (of flax) of half-length. Three new pillow cases. Six shawls. Four shawls. Three new scarves. Four scarves of half length. One embroidered apron.

Three shawls. One drape of heavy cloth. One old apron, one shawl, one of heavy cloth. One new embroidered kerchief. Five handkerchiefs, One mantle for the head of half-length. Two new bonnets. Five new undershirts. Three shirts of half-length. Nine silken ribbons of every color [sic]. Four belts of various colors. One new apron of thick cloth. A chest without a lock.

Letter dated 13 October 1578, from Friederkh

My trousers are full of holes and hardly worth patching; I can barely cover my rear, although the stockings are still good. Winter is almost here, so I still need a [new] lined coat. All I have is the woven Arias, which is also full of holes. So would you have my buckram smock lined as you think best? I have not worn it more than twice,

Letter dated 14 October 1578, from his mother

As for your clothes, I do not have Martin [an occasional household servant who could tailor] here with me now... but he has begun work on your clothes. He has made stockings for your holiday trousers, which I am sending you with this letter. Since your everyday trousers are so bad, wear these leather holiday trousers for now until a new pair of woolen ones can be made and sent to you, which I will do as soon as I can. Send me your old trousers in the sack I sent the pitcher in. As for the smock you think should be lined, I worry that the shirt may be too short and that it will not keep you warm. You can certainly wear it for another summer, if it is not too small for you then and the weather not too warm. Just keep it clean and brushed. I will have a new coat made for you at the earliest. . . . I am sending you some cleaning flakes for your leather pants. After you have worn them three times, put some on the knees. Since Martin is not around, I will have your old coat patched up and sent to you . . . [so that you can wear it] until a new one is made.

Sources: Carlo Gmzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi (New York: Penguin, 1980), pp, 135-136,

Steven Ozment, Three Behaim Boys (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 105-108.

times. Certainly there were shifts to which the social elite had to respond; in the final quarter of the sixteenth century, for instance, Spanish-style high collars edged with basic fluting were replaced throughout Western Europe by the white ruff. Yet, generally speaking, fashionable whims affected only the smallest number of people prior to the eighteenth century. During most of the early-modern era, noblemen wore close-fitting breeches, preferably of linen, which covered their hips and thighs. These breeches also served as a type of suspender which held up the long stockings that were also in style. Obviously regional and temporal differences existed. In 1575, for example, Paul Behaim, privileged son of a Nuremberg family, wrote his mother from Padua, where he was shortly to begin his legal studies, that “one should not live by German habits and customs in Italy. So having thought it over and consulted experienced people here, I have dressed myself... in the Italian manner.” In Renaissance Italy, fashion favored low-cut bodices, high sleeves, gold and silver embroidery, and figured brocades. Crimson was the color of choice, and velvet and satin the preferred materials. The famed Venetian writer Pietro Aretino mentions such attire in his 1531 letter to Count Stampa, quite pleased with his velvet caps decorated with spangles of enameled gold. This Italian style was, in general, popular throughout Western Europe until the mid sixteenth century. François Rabelais dresses the young hero of his novel Gargantua (1534) according to an exaggerated Italian fashion: a linen shirt with square gussets put in at the armpit; a white satin doublet; light wool hosiery, slashed in the form of ribbed pillars, indented and notched behind (to provide air for the kidneys) and interspersed with blue damask; purple velvet shoes with pom-poms and leather soles; a blue velvet cape, embroidered with silver thread; a half-white and half-blue silk belt; and a white velvet hat enhanced by a blue feather plume and a gold-plated medallion. Gargantua also wears a codpiece, a fancy article resembling an athletic supporter and worn provocatively over the hosiery. Even in the early-modern era, fashion served vanity, and codpieces became so large that Rabelais jokingly has one character, Captain John, carry a large prayer book inside his. Gargantua also dons the attributes of the social elite—unconcealed weaponry (he wears a sword and dagger), and a purse (exotically made from the skin of an elephant’s genitals). Weapons, like the codpiece and the money bag, suggested the potency and copiousness of the wearer, and, because these objects of fashion partly defined masculinity, municipal governments could shame reprobates by denying them the right to wear these items.

Transition. Slowly during the sixteenth century, the austere Spanish style that featured black costumes with close-fitting doublets, padded hose, high collars, and short capes began to predominate. In the seventeenth century the doughty French styles commonly depicted in movie versions of Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers (1844) emerged triumphantly. This outfit featured short, brightly colored breeches and large, down-turned collars made from linen or lace. Turks, noted the sixteenth-century Flemish diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, wore an ankle-length robe, covered their heads with a cowl, and wore a heavy silver gilt cone studded with stones and gems. In colder climates, such as in northern Germany, a gilded shirt might be worn under a fur wrap. Hooded coats with velvet borders were also stylish among the wealthy, as were camel-hair coats lined with fox fur. Finally, in Russia, nobles saved their finest clothes only for attending church, visiting or entertaining important people, and major public appearances. However, clothes were such an expensive commodity that even nobles had to take precautions, especially given the Russian climate: as soon as the appointment concluded, the noble would carefully remove his finest outfit and put on older clothes. Russian noblewomen were taught to store clothes carefully, to prevent them from smelling musty, and to dry them and brush them in certain ways. In fact, sixteenth-century guidebooks advise the mistress of the household always to keep the finer clothes locked in a chest to prevent theft. The dress of Russian noblemen was highly colorful and consisted of fine shirts and trousers, and, interestingly, of several layers of taffeta or brocade caftans that were elaborately decorated with ribbons, feathers, furs, and various types of cloth. Often they wore four or five articles of clothing of increasing size over their shirt and trousers—zipun, feriaz, okhaben (a garment with long sleeves and a cape), odnoriadka (only worn outside), and, in winter, a fur coat on top of all. Men wore hats made preferably from the fur of the black fox. Both men and women wore chetygi, which were a series of linen cloths wrapped around the feet and which, like socks, were meant to keep the feet warm in winter.

Female Attire. Women’s clothing consisted of a skirt, petticoat, mantle, apron, bodice, and corset. Over time, the style of the bodice became more close-fitting, and it was cut with a large decollete. Generally, women’s collars were open, but were turned down. Ruffs and headdresses varied regionally. Wealthier women wore silk clothes embroidered with gold ornaments, lace, and precious stones. In Russia, noblewomen wore knee-length coats made from the softest furs over jackets that were cut close to the figure and that had very long and wide sleeves. The overcoats often had fur hoods for protection against the winter cold. Because only maidens wore their hair loose, Russian noblewomen wore kerchiefs on their heads in summer and, in winter, a kaptura, a large beaver fur hat that covered the head and shoulders.

Disease and Identity. Early-modern Europeans, even peasants, changed their clothes occasionally, but at rates which would disgust most people today. Peasants and the urban poor, because they simply did not have many pairs of clothes, often wore the same articles for particularly long periods. For example, in the 1630s, a traveler to the Jura region of eastern France noted in his diary that a widow he encountered received from her husband’s estate one new chemise every two years and a coarse cloth dress once every three. Moreover, water, one of the four fundamental elements of early-modern physics, was feared because of its ability to penetrate surfaces. For this reason, clothes in western Europe were cleaned by beating, dry scrubbing, and perfuming. Interestingly, Russian women were taught to wash clothes and boots frequently. Given such suppositions in the West, the wearing and regular changing of underwear was crucial to hygiene, but the possession of these garments was a luxury not all could afford. In consequence, many of Europe’s lower orders suffered with skin diseases such as ringworm and scabies. Church-led investigations in sixteenth-century Saxony that aimed, in part, to determine whether or not villagers were still turning to “good witches” as healers—despite the prohibitions of the Lutheran reformers—discovered that the villagers contracted ringworm with such frequency that they refused to disavow their local healers. Urban beggars and other itinerants were forced to wear all their clothes at once, given their inability to store their possessions. Because of this practice, they were often resented and feared, sometimes with good reason, as carriers of plague and other dangerous diseases. Clothes were regarded as sites of contamination

and odoriferous agents that spread potentially lethal miasma (vapors). Hence, guards posted at gates in city walls tried to prevent those wearing particularly decrepit clothes or many layers of clothes from entering, not simply to minimize the number of the indigent within the city, though that certainly was a concern of early-modern municipal governments, but also to preserve the health of the populace. During the plague that ravaged Florence in 1631, agents representing the municipal board of health arrested and detained those citizens who wore certain types of clothes as carriers of infection—an early-modern version of selective targeting of suspects.

Concealment and Protection. Clothes were not only regarded as articles that transmitted disease; they served to hide disease as well. The early-modern age lacked antibiotics and most people were themselves scarred, but extreme deformity, caused by pockmarks, burns, scars, boils, scurf, or festering sores, functioned as a sign that alerted the viewer to distrust or fear the disfigured individual. Rich and poor alike were obsessed with disfigurement. Judges identified witches by their blemishes or moles, and even kings were victims of this discourse: the hunchback attributed to England’s Richard III exposed his nefarious inner nature. Deformed individuals thus had trouble entering cities as would-be immigrants, finding employment, or developing networks of social support. Clothing was therefore highly important as a tool of concealment, and this is a major reason that early-modern fashion covered almost all of the body’s surfaces. In an age when wounds took a long time to heal, clothing had to be designed in such a way that the body’s flaws would be hidden. Also, clothing not only hid imperfections, it prevented them as well, which was important in an age when even the slightest of cuts could produce life-threatening infections. Montaigne, in his essay “Of the Custom of Wearing Clothes” (1572-1574), attributes Europeans’ vulnerability to injury (as opposed to the sturdier condition he attributes to New World peoples and Moors) as an acquired characteristic made consequent by a culture that for centuries had demanded that the body be covered. As a result, clothes, in his mind, had become indispensable for the existence of many Europeans. Both of these functions (concealment and protection) became more important as cities became increasingly congested and “personal space” was reduced. It is not coincidental, then, that decorative gloves became popular among the wealthy who resided in those early-modern cities with rapid population increases, such as Paris and London. Early-modern fashion dictated that women of all classes covered their hair, just as wealthy men chose to wear wigs, in part to hide the effects caused by chronic malnutrition, by diseases such as smallpox, and by the scars and infections born of scratching lice infestations. In a related dynamic, the ruff became a popular style of the age because it highlighted the face, enabling those with relatively few facial blemishes to flaunt their beauty, and hence, their moral purity.

Criminal Intent. The absence of photographs and fingerprinting allowed criminals, vagabonds, and con artists to move from village to village and refashion themselves with relative ease. Clothing permitted criminals to hide certain identifying features, such as a peculiar scar, and, because certain styles of clothes were closely associated with certain professions, a change in outfit allowed those who wished to re-create themselves the ability to take on new personas. Recently discovered evidence regarding a skillful con artist and successful itinerant beggar who traveled with relative ease between northern German cities in the eighteenth century certainly would apply to the Renaissance and Reformation period as well. This contriver carried multiple sets of clothing with him, which, in times of real personal hardship, he could always sell. He wore a fine, respectable set of clothes as he approached a city wall to insure permission to enter. Once inside, he usually obtained a room in a quality hotel by appearing well dressed, and, once established as an honorable guest, he then slipped surreptitiously into his ragged begging attire to loiter around places, perhaps churches and upscale restaurants, where people were wont to give him their change. In a more famous incident, Martin Luther, after being condemned by the Diet of Worms, grew hair over his cowl and a beard, and replaced his monk’s attire with more secular clothes. Under this guise Luther carried himself as the Junker Jorg, resident of the castle on the Wartburg. While historians debate how successful Luther really was in hiding his identity, the fact that a figure as famous as he resorted to such dissimulation is telling. It should not come as unexpected, then, to discover that early-modern plays and stories focus to a considerable extent on characters who disguise themselves to gain advantage. William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600-1601) revolves around the attempts of the impoverished knight Falstaff to swindle the burgher families by disguising himself in the clothes of a woman, while in Henry V (1598-1599), the title character disguises himself as a common soldier to ascertain the mood of his troops on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. In addition, Margaret of Navarre’s collection of tales depicting life at the French court of Francis I, the Heptameron (1558), is filled with stories that center on how lecherous men and women disguise themselves as the spouses of others in order to seduce the would-be honorable objects of their affections.

Social Deviants. Clothing not only concealed; it also revealed. Social deviants were forced to wear distinctive articles of clothing that served as “signs” that publicized their presence to the accepted members of society, warning them of possible contamination. For example, an Italian miller, called Menocchio, was found guilty of heresy in 1584, and, though his life was spared, he was ordered to wear, for the remainder of his life, the habitello, a penitential garment decorated with a large cross that functioned solely to alert those with whom he came in contact that he had, like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1850), violated the laws and trust of the church. By the mid 1590s the miller had become obsessed with his symbol of exclusion, and neighbors testified at his later trial that he had wanted to visit the Holy Office to obtain permission not to have to wear the habitello any longer, as he was avoided because of it. During the time between his two trials he had actually discovered an interesting solution, and though he kept wearing the habitello, as he had sworn to do, he wore clothing over it, to conceal it for the sake of his business interests.

Utopia. Though Jews were not technically considered heretics, they were every bit as much “outsiders,” and they too were forced to wear distinctive clothing. In sixteenth-century Worms, Jews, both men and women, wore large yellow rings affixed to the outer garment of their clothing, prominently placed over the left breast; this was known colloquially as the “Jewish badge.” Diocesan synods in cities like Bamberg and Wiirzburg forced Jews to wear distinctive clothing as well. And finally, in his satire Utopia (1516), a book that condemned much of early Tudor England’s public policy, Sir Thomas More argued that the Utopians’ society was much more civil than the Europeans’ because on Utopia the mere thought of having to wear humiliating articles as punishment for criminal behavior deterred all but a scant few from breaking any law.


Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, “The Structures of Everyday Life,” translated by Sian Reynolds, volume 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

Giulia Calvi, Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and Imaginary in Baroque Florence, translated by Dario Biocca and Bryant T. Ragan Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

The Complete Works of Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1957).

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

Robert Jütte, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Steven Ozment, Flesh and Spirit: Private Life in Early Modern Germany (New York: Viking, 1999).

Ozment, ed., Three Behaim Boys: Growing Up in Early Modern Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

Margaret Pelling, “Appearance and Reality: Barber Surgeons, the Body and Disease,” in London 1500-1700, edited by A. L. Beier and Roger Finlay (London: Longman, 1986), pp. 82-112.

Carolyn Johnston Pouncy, ed. and trans., The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994).

Jacques Revel, “The Uses of Civility,” in A History of Private Life: Passions of the Renaissance, edited by Roger Chartier, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 189.

Werner Rösener, Peasants in the Middle Ages, translated by Alexander Stützer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

Otto Ulbricht, “The World of a Beggar Around 1775: Johann Gottfried Kästner,” Central European History, 27 (1994): 153-184.


views updated Jun 11 2018



Two kinds of evidence survive for modern scholars to study ancient Egypt clothing. The Egyptians included complete wardrobes for the deceased in their tombs to wear in the next world. Thus it is possible to study garments that were folded for storage in the tomb. Many Egyptian garments, however, were not constructed like modern Western clothing, but rather were simply squares, rectangles, and triangles of cloth or leather that were arranged on the body in different styles and foldings. Thus some garments such as elaborately folded dresses or kilts can only be understood through the second kind of evidence available: a careful study of artistic representations. Yet this evidence is often problematic in itself. Artists who worked in two dimensions presented combined perspectives on a garment, including, for example, both a side view and a front view in the same representation, as was the convention for representing the human face in two dimensions, and these often left the viewer without a clear view of the shape of a garment. Three-dimensional works of art are thus more helpful in understanding the shape of a garment, though not all the details of the folds would be obvious even from the best statues. Furthermore, certain artistic conventions forced artists to represent clothing as tight-fitting when it is clear from the archaeological evidence that dresses, for example, were usually worn looser—otherwise walking would have been impossible. Furthermore, in art, especially from tombs and temples, people wear only their best clothing even in situations that seem incongruous for such finery. Senedjem and his wife, two Nineteenth-dynasty (1307–1196 b.c.e.) tomb owners, are represented in their tomb plowing in their most elaborate clothing. Everyday wear thus can only be observed from the wardrobes left in tombs for the deceased to wear in the afterlife. For these reasons scholars have tried to combine the archaeological evidence of tomb wardrobes with artistic evidence to achieve a fuller understanding of ancient Egyptian clothing.


The loincloth was most likely a universal item of clothing in ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun's tomb contained fifty loincloths, and workmen also wore them, as is seen in tomb paintings. Loincloths were made from both cloth and leather, though leather loincloths had a specialized use. The cloth loincloths, worn by both women and men, consisted of two triangular pieces of linen sewn together to form a larger triangle with three equal sides. The top and sides were hemmed and strings were attached at either corner of the top. The strings allowed the wearer to tie the loincloth around the waist with the cloth covering the wearer's buttocks. Some representations of workmen suggest that some men did not bother to make additional ties in the garment, leaving the front open. Others tucked the tip of the garment in the front of the waist after pulling it between the legs. Some people added a sash that tied at the waist. The major differences between the loincloths of royals and the loincloths of workmen were in the quality of the cloth and the stitching. Tutankhamun's loincloths were soft and silky linen while workmen's loincloths were more sturdy and coarser. The stitching in Tutankhamun's loincloths was more delicate with smaller stitches than those found in ordinary people's loincloths. Men began wearing leather loincloths starting in the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.). Soldiers, sailors, craftsmen, and servants wore them to protect their linen loincloths while they worked. Yet they were also found in tombs belonging to kings, officials, and Nubian mercenaries. The burials that Egyptologists call pan graves, long associated with Nubians, often include mummies wearing leather loincloths. Leather loincloths consisted of one piece of hide, usually thought to be gazelle skin. The hide resembled a mesh because the leather worker cut either slits or diamond-shaped holes in it. Some examples are either patched or uncut over the area that would cover the buttocks. The garment also had ties that were part of the hide rather than added as in linen loincloths. Many of the archaeological examples of leather loincloths have connections to Nubia. There are examples of leather loincloths from Nubia in the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. For this reason most scholars believe that this fashion originated in modern-day Sudan.


Aprons are cloth strips hanging from a belt or sash that wrapped around the wearer's waist. Upper-class Egyptians wore aprons over or under other garments such as kilts while aprons could be a workman's only garment while he performed certain labors. In the Fifth Dynasty (2500–2350 b.c.e.) there are tomb representations of men capturing a bull and slaughtering a bull wearing only such aprons. Men wore an apron with a short kilt. This apron was shaped like a four-sided piece of cloth with a half-circle of cloth added to the bottom. Tomb reliefs include representations of these aprons in the Sixth Dynasty (2350–2170 b.c.e.) and again during the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 b.c.e.). By the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.), men had a wider choice of clothing types to wear with a pointed apron. Some men represented in Old and Middle Kingdom reliefs and paintings wear a triangular apron over their kilts. Artists represent the apron as a triangle that rose above the kilt in the front. One point was tucked into the waistband while one side of the triangle hung parallel to the hem of the kilt. The artistic emphasis on this item of clothing and the fact that the pleats of the triangle normally run in a different direction from the pleats of the kilt have led many scholars to believe that it is a separate item of clothing. Others have suggested that the triangle of cloth is actually the end of the kilt tied in some elaborate manner. Since no archaeological examples of the triangular apron have been recognized, it is not possible to determine whether it is a separate item of clothing or not.


Kilts were wraparound garments that men wore to cover all or part of the lower half of the body and legs, and were worn throughout ancient Egyptian history. Only a very small number of archaeological examples of kilts are available for study. There are, however, nearly countless examples of men wearing kilts in Egyptian art. The length of the kilts varies greatly. It is likely that the length varied with economic and social status. Cloth was expensive and so poorer people tended to wear clothing with less material. The standard wraparound kilt probably consisted of a rectangular piece of linen wrapped around the waist. The ends were often inserted into a sash worn around the waist. The ends of the sash sometimes visibly hung from the waist and over the front of the kilt. Men often wore two kilts over one another. In this case one kilt was pleated while the other was flat. Some kilts also included decorations such as fringes, tassels, and pleats. During the New Kingdom, two additional kilt styles came into fashion. The sash kilts were one piece of cloth that were gathered and then tied in the front without a separate sash. The ends of the cloth hung in the front and were arranged in elaborate decorative patterns of folds. Typically they appear to cover part of the small of the back in addition to the buttocks. Sash kilts could be worn alone or in combination with bag tunics. The sash kilt could also bear fringe decoration on the edge. The scalloped-edge kilts were worn in combination with bag tunics and triangular aprons. Scalloped-edge kilts, as their name implies, were characterized by a cloth with vertically gathered large folds that resemble a scallop when worn. Women did not wear kilts, but could be depicted in art wearing skirts. The length of skirts seems to depend on social status and access to cloth. Poorer women wore shorter skirts out of economic necessity. In general, however, women wore dresses more commonly than skirts in ancient Egypt.

Archaic Wraparound.

Both men and women could wear the archaic wraparound. The wearer could tie together two corners of a rectangular piece of cloth, placing the knot on the chest just below one shoulder and the opposite arm passed through the circle now formed by the top edge of the cloth. Kings, laborers, and fishermen could wear this garment with a sash. King Narmer (thirty-first century b.c.e.) wears it on the Narmer Palette with additional aprons and a bull's tail. But workmen depicted in Old Kingdom tombs also wore a simpler but similar garment. Men continued to wear the archaic wraparound through the Old Kingdom until about the twenty-first century b.c.e. In the Middle Kingdom (2003–1630 b.c.e.) and New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.) only gods wore the archaic wraparound. Gods' fashions were inherently more conservative than the clothing of the living. Women wore a long version of the archaic wraparound. Surprisingly, only female servants wore it, and it continued into the Middle Kingdom.

Wardrobes: Continuity and Change

The following chart demonstrates continuity and change in men's wardrobes in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. Many innovations occurred in the Middle Kingdom and continued into the New Kingdom. New Kingdom dress was the most various and elaborate.

source: Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1993).

GarmentOld KingdomMiddle KingdomNew Kingdom
Cloth loinclothXXX
Leather loinclothXX
Short wraparound kiltXXX
Long wraparound kiltXX
Sash kiltX
Bag tunicX
Long, narrow apronXXX
Triangular apronXX
Sashes and strapsXXX
Long cloakXXX
Short cloakX
source: Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993).


Dresses were women's clothing consisting of a section fit close to the upper body and a skirt that was either flowing or tight. Women of all social classes wore dresses as their most common garment. The clothing scholar Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood recognized three basic ancient Egyptian dresses: the wraparound dress, the v-necked dress, and the bead-net dress. A wraparound dress consisted of one large piece of fabric that was wrapped around a woman's body in various ways. The fabric was not cut to shape. The wraparound dress could include or omit shoulder straps. In the archaeological record, it is easy to confuse a wraparound dress with bed linen. They are both rectangular in shape. But careful examination of both folds and wear marks on certain cloth rectangles reveals that they were indeed dresses rather than bed sheets. In the archaeological examples of these dresses, the rectangle of cloth measures about two meters by one meter (six feet by three feet). The cloth is finished on four sides with hems. The cloth was wrapped two to three times around the body depending on both the length of the cloth and the wearer's body. The top line of this dress could be worn either over or under the breasts, depending on the amount of material available and the task the wearer performed. Often women wore either single or double straps with the wraparound dress. The straps covered part of the torso. There was a wide variation in the way the straps were worn. Women wore either one or two straps, arranged either across the body or hanging straight from the shoulder. The straps also varied in width from broad to narrow. These straps were probably decorative but might have served some practical purpose. Vogelsang-Eastwood suggested they were neither pinned nor sewn to the wraparound dress. The majority of wraparound dresses both in art and from archaeology are white.

Sheathes and Complex Dresses.

Many art historians have claimed that the most common dress that ancient Egyptian women wore was a sheath with either one or two straps. Vogelsang-Eastwood argued convincingly that this sheath is actually a wraparound with straps. She doubted the reality of the sheath dress because there are no archaeological examples of it among the twenty known dresses from ancient Egypt and because no woman's grave has contained the pins that would have attached the straps to a sheath. Moreover, many scholars have commented that the sheath dress would have been difficult to wear while performing the tasks portrayed in tomb and temple paintings and reliefs. Kneeling, bending, and walking would have been impossible if women wore a sheath that was as tight as artists portray. Thus the art historian Gay Robins suggested that the tight sheath was only an artistic convention and not a real dress. A more accepted dress form by art historians was the complex wraparound dress. Artists first depicted women wearing the complex wraparound dress during the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.). Women created these dresses from large cloth rectangles wrapped in various decorative manners. Sometimes a second, smaller length of cloth secured the garment in place as a sash. The wearer could drape the cloth over one or both shoulders, wrap it around the lower part of the body, and tuck it into itself at the waist. Other versions of the dress included knotting the cloth under the breast. The dresses could be pleated or plain. Women at all social levels wore the complex wraparound dress.

V-necked and Beaded Dresses.

V-necked dresses were tailored and cut to shape. Some examples have sleeves, while others are sleeveless. The sleeveless v-necked dress first appears in the Third Dynasty (2675–2625 b.c.e.) and continues into the New Kingdom. Both royal women and upper-class women wore this dress. There are some examples with pleats, though pleating is less common than plain examples. V-necked dresses with sleeves survive in the archaeological record in greater numbers than sleeveless v-necked dresses. The seamstress made the bodice and sleeves from two pieces of cloth that she attached to a large rectangle of cloth that formed the skirt. Archaeologists have discovered examples of these dresses dating from the First to Eleventh Dynasties (3100–1938 b.c.e.), proving their popularity for at least 1,200 years. Yet artists never seem to represent such dresses in the artistic record. This evidence provides a caution concerning the reliability of tomb and temple representations to provide a complete picture for modern scholars. Bead-net dresses were often worn over V-neck dresses as well as wraparound dresses and were constructed in geometric patterns. Two archaeological examples date to the Old Kingdom. The beads are cylinders of blue or green faience threaded into a diamond pattern. In the artistic evidence the bead-net dresses are worn over a wraparound dress. In art the bead-net dresses are fairly common in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but decline in number during the New Kingdom.

Bag Tunics.

Both men and women wore bag tunics. They could wear them either full-length or half-length. Though the full-length bag tunic superficially resembled the modern Egyptian galabiyah due to its shirt-like nature, the bag tunic differs from the modern costume because male and female galabiyahs are constructed in entirely different ways. Bag tunics for men and women, however, were both made from a single piece of cloth, folded, and then sewn together on two sides, leaving holes for the arms. The bottom was left open. A key-hole shaped opening was cut in the shorter side to allow the wearer to pull it over the head. The ends and the openings were hemmed. Some bag tunics were made from heavy material while others were from fine material, and people of all stations owned both kinds. Vogelsang-Eastwood and others suggested that the differences in weight represent summer and winter wear. Some bag tunics were also decorated. They could have fringe, bead work, gold or faience sequins, applied patterns, or embroidery. The full-length bag tunic first appeared in the Middle Kingdom and became widespread in the New Kingdom. While both men and women wore the full-length bag tunic, only men wore the short bag tunic. This garment was identical to the long bag tunic, differing only in its length. The existing archaeological examples of short bag tunics date to the Eleventh Dynasty (2081–1938 b.c.e.) and to the New Kingdom (1539–1075 b.c.e.). They vary in length from seventy to ninety-three centimeters (27.5 to 36.6 inches). Mainly workmen wore these garments that seem to replace the archaic wraparound worn during the Predynastic Period and the Old Kingdom. These changes suggest that the Egyptians increasingly wore sewn garments during the transition to the New Kingdom.

Shawls and Cloaks.

Shawls and cloaks are similar because people wore them over other garments. In Egypt, shawls and cloaks were both fashioned from oblong, square, or rectangular pieces of cloth. Scholars have paid little attention to archaeological examples of shawls. Of nineteen shawls that Howard Carter, the archaeologist, mentioned in his notes on the tomb of Tutankhamun, scholars have had access to only one fine linen example. Carter, however, discovered it wrapped around the neck of a statue of the jackal god Anubis. Thus it is not clear that this is an example of human clothing. In tomb and temple reliefs, some officials in the Middle Kingdom wore pleated shawls. But the majority of representations of shawls are worn by foreign musicians during the reign of Akhenaten (1352–1336 b.c.e.). Cloaks were similar to blankets, a large oblong, square, or rectangular piece of cloth worn for warmth. People could either wrap them around the body or knot them at the shoulder. No archaeological examples have been recognized, but artists often depicted people wearing cloaks. Normally wraparound cloaks were worn over both shoulders and held together with the hands, especially in Old Kingdom examples. In some Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom examples in art, the cloak passes over only one shoulder and is wrapped tightly around the body. More active people, such as hunters and chariot drivers, wore knotted cloaks. The difference in whether an Egyptian wore a wraparound or knotted cloak seems to depend on whether his/her hands needed to be free. Thus the wraparound cloak was worn when a person could hold the cloak closed, while active people whose hands were otherwise occupied knotted their cloaks.

Wardrobes: Continuity and Change

Women's wardrobes were very conservative in ancient Egypt. Old and Middle Kingdom wardrobes were nearly identical. New, more elaborate fashions became popular in the New Kingdom.

source: Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1993).

GarmentOld KingdomMiddle KingdomNew Kingdom
Cloth loinclothXXX
Skirts, various lengthsXXX
Simple wraparound dressXXX
Complex wraparound dressX
V-necked dressX
Bag tunicX
Bead-net dressX
Sashes and strapsXXX
Long cloakXXX
source: Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993).


There were three types of accessories that could be added to most types of clothing: sashes, straps, and codpieces. Sashes differed from belts because they were made from cloth rather than leather. Sashes were an important element in ancient Egyptian clothing and were commonly illustrated in depictions of men and women. Surviving examples of sashes from archaeological contexts are made from rope or tasseled cloth. In general the cloth sashes had hemmed edges and tassels at the ends. Sashes could be very wide, varying between five and sixteen centimeters (two to six inches). Sashes also varied by economic status. The cheapest sashes must have been ropes that workmen wore. Some soldiers in relief scenes wear broad cloth sashes that hang down from the waist in the front. They could be placed so that they covered the top of the kilt or beneath the top edge of the kilt. Scholars have not studied sash placement but it is possible that certain fashions predominated in different times. The most variety, as is often the case, is visible in representations from the New Kingdom. Women rarely wore sashes in artistic representations. Like sashes, it was men who commonly wore either single or double straps that extended from the shoulder to the opposite hip. The straps could be either one or two pieces of cloth. Both high officials and workmen could wear such straps, though they appear most commonly worn by officials. Women wore separate straps while dancing or doing strenuous work in the fields, but straps were not common for women except in these special circumstances. The codpiece was an accessory only worn by men and usually was used for protection. Several battle scenes dating to the Middle Kingdom show men wearing a separate garment over the genital area. The American Egyptologist H. G. Fischer suggested that it is a codpiece or penis sheath that originated in Nubia. The Egyptian officials Ukhhotep and Senbi wore similar garments on a hunting expedition in a relief of Dynasty Twelve (1938–1759 b.c.e.).


Gay Robins, "Problems in Interpreting Egyptian Art," in Discussions in Egyptology 17 (1990): 45–58.

Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Pharaonic Egyptian Clothing (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993).

see also Dance: Costumes and Fashion in Dance ; Music: Banquet Music during the New Kingdom ; Visual Arts: Interpreting Egyptian Art


views updated May 14 2018


overview of traditional and modern clothes in the middle east.

Most contemporary Muslim societies reflect both old and the new realities. Resurgence of religion and nationalist attitudes of the postcolonial (twentieth-century) era are reflected in the modes of clothing. The traditional modes remain strongly defended and sometimes enforced by the governments of some Islamic nations. The great shift in political, social, and religious participation of women in many Muslim nations has affected clothing styles as well. In the twentieth century, there were two opposing models for Muslim women: the Westernized

lifestyle prominent among minor upperclass and elites, and the more restrictive, traditional "Islamic" way of life for the majority of women. A third, alternative lifestyle that has attracted a large number of Muslim women is both Islamic and modern, the result of more education and an understanding of the difference between the patriarchal interpretation of Islam and the text of the Qurʾan by the religious ulama.

Historical Background

Very little has been written regarding the dress of Arabs in classical historical literature. In terms of the Near Eastern people, more visual evidence survived

in forms of stone carvings. The earliest evidence of Arab clothing from the first and second millennia b.c.e. shows that scant clothing was worn with a variety of headdresses. Men and women wore almost identical clothing in the early Islamic era of the seventh century and the time of jahiliyya (pre-Islamic era), as is still the case today among non-urban inhabitants of the Middle Eastern regions.

Arab material culture was influenced by contact with other great empires. Arab Muslim rulers influenced the clothing styles of the countries they ruled, while the fashion styles of the countries ruled influenced the rulers. Many customs regarding clothes have roots in ancient Near Eastern (Iranian plateau, Iraq) superstition found also in the Talmud, and still are practiced as they were during the jahiliyya. From the time of the Prophet (seventh century forward), early Islamic clothes fashions were an extension of the preceding period, with some modifications for new Islamic moral codes after the prophet Muhammad. The clothes of the villagers and bedouins of the Middle East are simpler, more functional, and more suitable to the climate and geography of the regions than those of urban dwellers, who are far more conscious of conservative modes of behavior.

In the urban Middle Eastern regions, Western styles of dress for the most part have replaced traditional clothing. Westernization of the Middle Eastern clothes styles is in itself unique and innovative at times and, importantly, accepted by the indigenous population. Traditional items of clothing mix with Western styles. For example, it is common to see Arab men of the Gulf region wearing the traditional long, ankle-length jillaba, or dishdasha, kaffiya, and agal along with a Western-style man's suit jacket and dress shoes.


Among the most important items of clothing for men is the headgear, and the most common form of head dress for men is the imama, or turban. Historically, turbans were used for purposes other than merely covering the headfor example, for hiding objects, tying down a person, or using as a prayer rug. Turbans were wrapped in a variety of styles, as well. It was customary to leave a corner of the imama free to serve as a veil to protect the wearer against heat, dust, and the evil eye, and to conceal the wearer's identity. The locus of a man's honor and reputation was his head; therefore, to cover the head was proper and dignified and to leave it uncovered was considered shameful. In the book Palestinian Costumes Shelagh Weir notes: "Men swore oaths on their turbans, and the removal of a man's turban in anger was a slur and provocation and could necessitate material compensation."

The turban has long been worn by both Muslims and non-Muslims. The English word turban derives from the Persian dulband via the Turkish turban or tulbent. In Persian, the most common word for turban is amama, from the Arabic form of the word imama. Other less commonly known Persian terms for imama are mandil and dastar-e-sar.

The imama is usually wrapped around a small cap, which is placed at the crown of the head. This small cap is called aragh chin (Persian sweat collector), tubior araqiyya in Arabic. The early turban did not have the symbolic significance that it gained later, when it became associated with Islam and came to be referred to as "the badge of Islam" (sima al-Islam), "divider between unbelievers and believers" (hadiza bayn al-kufr wa al-iman), and "crowns of the Arabs" (tidjan al-arab).

According to an old Arab tradition, removal of a man's imama signified losing his manhood and abandoning his morals. Exceptions to this rule included removing the turban for prayer, to show before God, and for punishment, to show the public that the punished man is not respected. There are contradictory hadiths (Islamic traditions) regarding wearing or not wearing imama. In early Islamic times, the turban was forbidden to a person in a state of ihram (during the Hajj rituals).Turbans had to be removed before entering Mecca as a sign of humility and respect before God. The prophet Muhammad's turban was named al-sihab, "the cloud," and the prophet Muhammad was known as sahib al-imama, meaning "Master of the state turban," which is significant in terms of religious and community leadership. Numerous terms found in Arabic literature refer to different manners of wearing the turban: al-saʿb, al-masaba, al-mikbar, al-mashwad, and al-khamar.

In some Middle Eastern cultures, turbans were associated with sexual and social maturity. For example, in Palestinian culture, different types of headgear marked stages of maturity, and usually young boys were not allowed to wear a turban. The turban remained important even after the death of its wearer, and a traditional Muslim stone grave may have a mark with a turban. Non-Muslims who were ruled by Muslim Arab rulers were required to follow certain sumptuary laws regarding their garments. Among such obligations were the caliphs' orders to wear "the interchange," which referred to headgear, outerwear, shoes, and belts that would differentiate believers from nonbelievers in public. Non-Muslims were required to use special marks on their turbans to segregate them visually from Muslims.

In addition to marked turbans, the size and color of the turban was a badge of identification for certain classes and ages of people. The color associations have changed over time and place with various Muslim Arab rulers. For example, black turbans were associated with officials during the Abbasid period (ca. 750950), and red was a sign of high rank. The Safavid court of Iran during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries adopted a particular form of turban that contained a tall, red stick at its center. This red stick became a religious and political divider between the official Shiʿite court of

Iran and its rival, the Ottoman Turks. Safavid soldiers wearing red-stick turbans were known as qizel baş ("red heads"), by the Turks. Religious and learned scholars wore smoothly wrapped flat, white turbans. Yellow was reserved for Jews, blue for Christians. Apparently, at various times the colors red and purple were also reserved mostly for Jews and Christians.

Men in the prime of life wore turbans in bright, warm colors; men of fifty exchanged their colored turbans for plain white ones. Until the early part of the twentieth century green turbans were worn by hajjis (men who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca) and by sada (men who claim descent from the house of the prophet Muhammad) to indicate a religious status with high social value. The extensive use of green turbans by illegitimate users led to the replacement

of the green turban with the black turban, to distinguish the legitimate sada. In Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1978, where separation of mosque and state is nonexistent, identification as a cleric denotes access to power, so it is significant that white turbans are associated with theologians and scholars, and black turbans indicate an association of the wearer to the house of the prophet Muhammad. There is no way to guarantee the legitimacy of the turban color vis à vis its intended meaning by its wearer. In general, the public trusts the wearer on this issue.

Because the turban originally was considered a part of a man's attire, traditionally, Arab men objected to women wearing this symbol of manhood. However, some literary references indicate that women at times in various parts of the Arab world wore turbans for certain occasions, perhaps in the privacy of the home. Young women sometimes wore turbans to appear more attractive, and when a woman gave birth to her first baby, she wore a turban comprised of six yards of material. After the second baby, she wore a turban with six additional yards. Northern Iraqi women wore turbans made of printed material and decorated with Ottoman Turkish gold coins. The practice of women wearing turbans is not unusual. and it is present even in the modern history of fashion, where there is an affinity for "exotic" headgear.

Another popular form of Arab headgear is the agal, which is a ringed cord or rope that goes over the headscarf worn by men in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine. The head rope was originally a camel hobble (the word agal means "to hobble") that was carried on the head when not in use. Later, this rope came to distinguish the bedouins of north and central Arabia (and the ruling families descended from them) from other bedouins. The earliest reliable report on the agal dates back to the early eighteenth century, from a picture depicting the imam Abdullah Ibn Saʿud wearing an elaborate and highly decorative type of agal that is sometimes called mugassab.

Along with the agal, men wear the Arabic kaffiya (or pocu, pronounced poshu in Turkish and the dialect of the Turkish Kurds). The kaffiya (also sham-agh or hatta ) is a head cloth folded diagonally and secured on the head by the agal. Men from the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine wear the kaffiya. It comes in a variety of designs and colors that denote tribal affiliation. In modern history it has acquired another layer of meaning as a symbol of solidarity among Palestinians and their supporters in their quest for political and geographical autonomy. It is sometimes worn in defiance, as if a substitute for the long outlawed Palestinian flag. Like the black-and-white kaffiya of Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which is worn by both Palestinian men and women as a sign of unity, the pocu has the same symbolic meaning for independence of the Kurds under the autonomy of the Turkish government. The pocu is also black and white, which are the colors associated with urban Kurdish intellectual men and women. It signifies political leftism, cultural freedom, and rights to an independent state. Both the pocu and kaffiya are draped over the shoulders by men and women, worn like a scarf on the head by women, or worn in the traditional manner with the agal by men only.

Another popular headdress for men is the fez, a word derived from Fez, a city in Morocco where it traditionally is manufactured. It is a brimless, cone-shaped, flat-crowned hat that usually has a tassel made of silk. The fez is made of red felt and is worn in Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Palestine. Another name for the fez is tarbush or tarboosh. It was banned during the Tanzimat period in Turkey (beginning in 1839), when dress regulation took place. However, the tarbush also played a significant political role after the Young Turk Revolution of July 1908.

Also common among men in the Middle East region is the sidara, an Iraqi cap commonly made of black velvet, black lamb's wool, or black felt. The sidara is brimless, has a crown at the center, and folds like a pocket around the crown of the cap. It resembles the hat worn by the cadets in the U.S. military. This cap at one time was very popular with middle-class, upper-middle-class, and elite members of Iraqi society. The sidara lost its popularity after the 1958 deposition of the last king and the establishment of the Republic of Iraq. Muslim men of the subcontinent of India wear a similar hat in black as a sign of Muslim identity.

The kippah, commonly worn by Jewish men in the Middle East, is a skullcap that is also known in Yiddish as the yarmulke. Ashkenazic Jews wear the yarmulke at all times, and Sephardic Jewish men generally do not. In Israel, wearing a yarmulke also has social significance: Not wearing a yarmulke is like stating, "I'm not religious." The style of yarmulke in Israel can also indicate political and religious affiliation.

The most common headdress for Muslim women is some form of a veil. The generic term for veil, known by Muslims regardless of their cultural and linguistic heritage, is hijab. The hijab refers to a physical veil, a tangible item covering the hair and face of a woman. The word is of Arabic origin, from the verb hajaba, "to hide from the view, to conceal." Hijab also refers to the Muslim woman's dress code in accordance with interpretation of Islamic law. Muslim women around the world wear various forms of veils, each community according to its own cultural and religious interpretations, so there is no universal form of veiling among Muslim women. Other common interchangeable words for veil are yashmek, purda, chador, paranja, burqa, bushia, niqab, pece (pronounced peeche in Turkish), and khimar. Each represents some specific form of head or face veil commonly used by Muslims of various nationalities. The chador, which in Persian literally means "tent," is a form of hijab (head veil), consisting of a full-length semicircular piece of material. It is placed on top of the head and covers the entire body. It is held in place with one hand at all times. Sometimes a corner of it is pulled over the face to cover part of the mouth.

Other Clothing

Other important clothing for men and women are forms of long dress, wrap, outerwear gown, or caftan. The most common outerwear garment is the aba or abaʿa, also known as rida, which is an ankle-length loose mantle or coat worn by Arab men over the shoulders. The aba opens at the front with no fastening device and has two openings for the arms to be pulled through. Piping sewn on the aba goes around the entire edge of the garment and around the sleeves. Customarily the aba is draped over the shoulders rather than worn as a coat. The fabric used for making the aba or rida identifies its region of origin, and a clear distinction is not made between fabric and garment. Traditional wraps or mantles are worn in most traditional Islamic societies, yet there is a considerable variety of draping styles from one region to another. Wearing an aba has religious associations in some regions of the Islamic world such as Iran or Egypt. In Iran, a man wearing an aba and turban is identified as a non-secular person associated with the mosque and theological schools.

Another form of wrap or cloak is the burnoose, which is a large, one-piece, hooded cloak worn by men throughout the Maghrib (Northern Africa). The burnoose is also used in religious ceremony as the chasuble of the Coptic priests in Egypt. Yet another common form of cloak or wrap is the haik, which is a large, voluminous outer wrap, usually white, worn by both sexes throughout the Maghrib. The dishdasha is a long, A-line, ankle-length, long-sleeved, light-colored shirt worn by Arab men in the Gulf region. A similar style of man's garment commonly worn by men in Egypt is the jillaba.


Esposito, John L., ed. The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press. 1999.

Lindisfarne-Tapper, Nancy, and Ingham, Bruce, ed. Languages of Dress in the Middle East. Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1997.

Shirazi, Faegheh. The Veil Unveiled: Hijab in Modern Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Shirazi-Mahajan, Faegheh. "The Semiotics of the Turban: The Safavid era in Iran." Journal of the International Association of Costume 9 (1992): 6787.

Weir, Shelagh. Palestinian Costumes. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1989.

Faegheh Shirazi

Clothing, 1980–2003

views updated May 17 2018

Clothing, 19802003

The years between 1980 and 2003 present all the complexities of modern costume. These decades saw a rise and fall in the status of high-profile clothing designers and their extravagant clothes; the sudden popularity of certain clothing items, often associated with youth-driven music trends; the impact of new technologies; the influence of celebrities on fashion; all set against a general trend to favor comfortable, casual clothes. These trends were a continuation of the trends that had characterized the second half of the twentieth century. But what made the period from the 1980s onward different was the speed with which styles changed and the amount of money directed toward clothing.

Working days, glamorous nights

After the 1970s, a decade in which the world of high fashion had fallen into disarray and people picked and chose amongst several acceptable styles, designer fashions came roaring back in the 1980s. High-profile European designers like Giorgio Armani (c. 1934), Christian Lacroix (1951), Karl Lagerfeld (1938), Jean-Paul Gaultier (1952), Azzedine Alaïa (c. 1940), and others introduced daring, expensive lines of clothes to the praise of the fashion press. Wealthy people across Europe and in the United States flocked to Paris fashion shows and New York boutiques to purchase expensive originals, and lower-level designers and mass-market retail stores modeled their clothing lines on the more conservative efforts of the top names. This was the traditional way that fashions had been set, with designers leading the way in the creation of clothing styles.

New fashion designers were able to be bought, promoted, recreated because of one thing: money. During the early and mid-1980s business exploded in the West and in the increasingly westernized Japan. Stock market traders, corporate executives, and even second-tier executives grew extremely wealthy in a climate where success in business was celebrated as the ultimate mark of achievement. These new cultural celebrities used clothes as one of the ways to demonstrate their wealth and power. American president Ronald Reagan (1911) and his wife, Nancy (1923), wore designer suits and gowns, and corporate leaders proudly extolled the merits of their favorite designers. For men the "power suit," a tailored suit, preferably by Giorgio Armani, was the symbol of success. Women dressed for power by day, with designer suits and business dresses, and for glamour by night, with extravagant gowns in the richest fabrics. These wealthy people were held up as cultural models and their clothing styles imitated on popular television shows like Dynasty(198189) and Dallas (197891). The choices of the rich and their favored designers thus had a great impact on clothing.

The fashion boom of the 1980s was more international than ever before. Though Paris, New York, and London remained the true centers of world fashion, designers from Italy, especially the city of Milan, and from Japan also exerted a real influence on fashion. The Italians became associated with rich fabrics and classic cuts, while the Japanese are credited with boosting the popularity of the color black.

Not everyone could afford the clothing made by the big name European or Japanese designers, but in the 1980s there were real alternatives for those who still wanted to follow fashions. Top designers, such as Calvin Klein (1942) and Ralph Lauren (1939), offered high-end custom clothes, but they also offered a ready-to-wear line that had the high status of a designer name but at a more reasonable price. Many designers built international design empires, selling their brand-name clothes, perfumes, and accessories throughout the world.

Sex sells

One of the most important trends of the 1980s and 1990s was the emergence of open sexuality as an important element in clothing design. A variety of causes lead to the growing openness with which sexuality was displayed in this period. Perhaps the most important was the ongoing fitness boom that encouraged people of all ages, but especially young people, to pay a great deal of attention to getting their bodies in good shape. People wanted to show off their newly sculpted bodies and there were a variety of clothing options for those who wanted to flaunt it. Calvin Klein celebrated the human form with his underwear designs, which were made famous with an advertising campaign centered on towering billboards on the side of skyscrapers in New York City. Spandex, a high-tech, stretchy fabric, was used to create formfitting biking shorts and tights, and the Wonderbra, introduced in the mid-1990s, pushed women's breasts up and in to show off their cleavage. Designers created extremely clingy dresses, and supermodels, or high-profile models, and music celebrities such as Madonna (1958), in the 1980s, and Ricky Martin (1974), Britney Spears (1981), and Christina Aguilera (1980), in the 1990s, made a great public display of their sexuality. A youth trend in the 1990s for hip-hugging, low-riding pants and bare midriffs brought sexual display as far as the pre-teen market. By 2003 little was forbidden in the display of flesh.

The 1990s flight from fashion

The designer-worshipping fashion excesses of the 1980s crashed along with stock markets in 1987. Although designers still produced annual collections and fashion magazines highly praised them, the world retreated from its celebration of wealth and haute couture, or high fashion, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With designers out of favor, the other dominant mode of determining clothing trends reemerged. As in the 1970s people took their clothing cues from popular music, from youth subcultures, from the more successful mass-market retailers, and from their own desire for comfort and personal expression. Once again designers began to take their cue from the streets.

Young people and their music were especially influential in the early 1990s. The grunge, or alternative rock, music scene that emerged out of Seattle, Washington, created a fashion trend favoring flannel shirts and ripped jeans, and it wasn't long before designers offered their own grunge collections. Hip-hop or rap music, which had once been the music of African Americans living in the inner city, went mainstream and brought with it a craze for extremely baggy jeans.

For the great majority of people, however, choices about clothing were dictated by the wearer's desire for casual comfort and by the minor variations in styles offered by major retailers. The trend toward casual business dress began in the 1980s with casual Fridays, when business dress codes were relaxed for the day, and became widespread among workers in the booming high-tech industries of the late 1990s. At work, men could wear chinos (a type of khaki pants) and a shirt without a tie, and women could wear more casual dresses and pants. For leisure time both men and women chose cotton pants and knit shirts, tennis shoes, sweatshirts, and other athletic clothes. The most popular outer wear was made of a fuzzy, high-tech fabric called polar fleece, which came in bright colors.

People had a huge range of choices about where to buy their clothes, from designer stores and department-store boutiques such as Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Calvin Klein; to mid-range specialty retailers such as Gap and Old Navy; to mail order catalogs such as J. Crew, Lands' End, and L. L. Bean; to discount retailers like K-Mart, Wal-Mart, and Target. These stores offered clothes of reasonable quality with trendy styling. Colors and details changed from season to season, but the basic garments remained the same.


Carnegy, Vicky. Fashions of a Decade: The 1980s. New York: Facts on File, 1990.

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.

Feldman, Elane. Fashions of a Decade: The 1990s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Gaines, Steven S., and Sharon Churcher. Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Gross, Michael. Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren. New York: Harper, 2003.

Lomas, Clare. The 80s and 90s: Power Dressing to Sportswear. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 2000.

Steele, Valerie. Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Lauren, Ralph and Klein, Calvin
Rise of the Japanese Designer
Armani Suits
Baggy Jeans
Casual Fridays
Designer Jeans
Goth Style
Polar Fleece


views updated May 18 2018

clothes Every human society completes the individual body with a form of dress, which may include painting, tattooing, permanent ornaments, and scarification along with the draping, wrapping, and tailoring of fabric into garments. Humans have always believed that the bare adult body is intolerably unfinished; it needs visible modification for acceptance into human society, and thus for self-acceptance. When normal modification consists of clothes that are habitually put on and taken off, absolute nakedness must remain a regular transient state, a nice or dread reminder of bare facts. Clothes themselves may then at times seem to absorb all human wickedness and to be themselves bad, by contrast with the notional purity of the raw organism. On the other hand, clothes may stand for all human effort to transcend brute nature and thus seem inherently good, by contrast with the notional beastliness of the raw organism.

But the true conceptual unity of the body-plus-dress combination is apparent in art that represents human beings, where the dressed form is usually shown as natural and the naked form as a special case, a dressed body with the clothes absent. Artists tend to fashion a nude costume for the naked body, to offer a comforting normative version (complete with orderly variations) of fearfully multiform naked humanity. They will give this nude image the shape and proportions required of normally-clothed bodies, which dress has rendered intelligible.

Animal skins were doubtless the first human clothes in the Northern hemisphere, worn just as they came off the beast, or variously joined together. The skins of trees, in the form of a flexible cloth made by treating strips of the inner bark, were among the earliest sources for human clothes in tropical countries. The earliest woven stuffs were made for use or ornament, before refinements in spinning and weaving permitted textiles malleable enough to clothe the body. Since then, in much of the world, clothing has taken the form of one or more garments made of fabrics that are woven, knitted, or felted in a range of spun fibres (both natural and synthetic), or of treated leather, metal, or synthetic materials. Such garments fall roughly into two categories; cut-and-sewn, or wrapped-and-draped. Schemes of clothing combine these two or use only one of them, employing different methods of stabilizing garments around the body according to whether they are meant to fit closely, to fit more loosely, or to hang free.

Tailored garments made into close-fitting, three-dimensional forms, such as the Renaissance doublet or the modern suit-coat and trousers, must be fitted onto the body with applied attachments such as lacings, hooks or buttons with holes or loops, two-part clasps, or zippers and velcro. Untailored, loose garments sewn into flat forms out of rectilinear pieces, such as the Japanese kimono and the earliest forms of sleeved tunic and trouser, can be held around the trunk and limbs with attached ties or with separate wrapped sashes and belts, or they can hang open and float like the North African djellabah. They, too, may have buttons, hooks or clasps at neck, shoulders or wrists. Untailored garments may also be controlled by drawstrings threaded through flat channels sewn into the cloth, which can gather them close and secure them to the body at wrist or ankle, neck or waist, elbow or knee. Ancient knit garments fitted fairly close without tailoring but usually had fastenings. Synthetic elastic fibres and modern machine knitting have latterly permitted stretchable skin-tight garments that mould to the body without tailoring, fastening, or belting.

Garments made of single woven-to-size and uncut rectangles of cloth were the first fabric clothes, and are still in use. They may be wrapped tightly, and tucked in or tied together around the chest, waist, or hips (e.g. the Tahitian pareo or Javanese sarong); loosely draped around the whole body but anchored with a hidden waistband (e.g. the Hindu sari); or pinned on the shoulders and visibly belted (e.g. the classical Greek peplos). Rectangular, single-piece outer garments may hang down front and back straight from the shoulders, with the arms free and the head through a slit (e.g. the South American poncho); stoles and shawls may be wrapped around the shoulders and held on by the arms. A veil, scarf, or kerchief may be suspended from the head and attached there with a headband or hairpins, or it may variably wrap the head, neck, and shoulders.

Casually fixed on at each wearing, such single-piece garments dress the body in mobile cloth without defining it, so that the body's action creates random play in the cloth, which underscores the body's moving shape and produces the individual aesthetic vitality of the clothes. Taken off, the garment becomes a flat object of which the colour, the woven pattern, and the applied ornament can have separate interest. In wear, if the draped garment randomly exposes the body, as in classical Greece, the acceptable nude costume dresses the unclad and partially clad person, as Greek art amply demonstrates, so that clothes and body remain in aesthetic balance and not opposed.

Ancient Egyptians used modes of regular pleating to control a rectangular garment's behaviour on the body, instead of permitting the random drapery and slippage created by motion. Such pleats, made in stiffly starched white linen that bent and swept around the body, or lay close to it, proposed an aesthetic value for wrapped garments only while they were formally dressing the figure and giving it the required static and abstract look. An idealized nakedness was again necessary to complete the desired effect, as expounded in Egyptian art, since much of the body was deliberately exposed, some of it through transparent fabric. A very different effect was created in China and Japan, with large, untailored silk garments that were so stiffly woven, lined, interlined and disposed around the body as to hide and replace it completely. In such a scheme neither the distinctive shapes nor the articulated movements of the body had any visual authority in the desired clad results, again as expounded in art. Human nakedness was given no added nobility, but unworn noble garments did command separate admiration.

Cutting cloth on a curve was discovered to permit high, round armhole seams and high crotch seams, and to allow for close-fitting, round necklines and for the curved hems that make hanging garments fall evenly around the body with no dropping corners. It was sparingly used to begin with, since precious woven stuff is wasted by this technique, and curved cut edges demand added binding or facing to stop the raw thread-ends from fraying. Leather, on the other hand, has always lent itself well to tailoring — as for shoes, for example — being non-woven and irregularly shaped in its natural state. Garments of felt may also be edged on a curve without hemming, as for hats and capes.

Modernity, getting under way in late medieval Europe, saw the development of fully-tailored garments that closely covered and modified the body's articulated shape with articulated shapes of their own. These were modelled with subtly curved cutting and seaming helped by stiffening, padding, constriction, and extensions for the clothes of both sexes, including hats, hoods, and shoes. Randomly draped, regularly pleated, or wrapped fabric became only partial elements in the aesthetic scheme for Western clothes, not its main character. European clothes became three-dimensional forms that seemed to compete with the body they covered, even while creating its ideal look; off the body, the three-dimensional garment would look like a ghost inseparable from an individual human soul. Nudity became part of the scheme, too, in despite of climate, with selective exposure requiring the selective idealization of bodily parts such as the female bosom and the male leg. European nude art shows the amount of variation in the common vision of ideal nakedness that was created by the way clothes shaped the body.

With the complex clothes of the late Middle Ages in Europe came the rise of fashion. Sophisticated form in dress required a constant shifting of its visual emphasis and stylistic flavour, including erotic, societal, and self-referential flavours. The two sexes were conventionally distinguished by dividing male legs with some form of hose and breeches, and veiling women's legs in flowing or stiff ground-length or shoe-length skirts. Variation was more flexible for the upper body, however, including suggestive similarities as well as vivid differences between the male and female effects that were modish at different periods. For example, fashion might flatten women's breasts and widen men's hips at one time, or enlarge both women's breasts and men's shoulders at another time. Shifts in fashion were first led by powerful and leisured groups at courts and in towns, and realized by their tailors, but fashionable change was eventually promoted among middle and lower class people and their tailors by the increasing dispersal of imagery made possible by the printing-press. Fashion in Western dress more and more became an imaginative sexual, social, and political medium, with the steady help of other media.

Visual art has always been the agent of elegance in dress. For millennia before fashion, sculptors and painters offered stylized versions of clothed persons to public view, so that people could admire, imitate, and feel rightly portrayed by superior visions of accepted clothed appearance. The reproducible graphic arts, however, later helped to hasten the adoption of changes in fashions by emphasizing their immediate extremes and priming the public eye for alternatives. By the late eighteenth century, reproduced pictures were affecting general and personal taste through popular journals and magazines, some devoted entirely to fashion in dress. Photojournalism, movies, and television continue to offer stylizations of clothed bodies that guide taste and propel its fluctuations, often in the form of promotion for things other than clothes. Exposure of the body's surface has lately increased among fashions for both sexes, creating a revived need for the stylization of body parts to go with changing modes in semi-nude costume.

Until the nineteenth century, for all classes of society, clothes were made either at home or by artisans who constructed hand-made garments to individual order. For a very long time, fine spinning and weaving, complex dyeing, and embroidery were the finest arts of clothing, and construction was simple where it existed. This situation still obtains in Japan with respect to the traditional feminine kimono, even though Western clothing has been otherwise universally adopted there. In Europe, during the Renaissance and thereafter, fashionable dress gradually came to demand a similar degree of skill from urban and court tailors and from artisans specializing in headgear, footwear, and gloves, or in lace, braid, and buttons as well as embroidery. Regional clothes were made by local artisans or at home — though not without constant fashionable influence on regional traditions. The very poor in towns and cities could buy second-hand clothes and alter them. Crude work clothes were hand-produced in bulk for labourers, common sailors, slaves, and convicts.

Early in the nineteenth century, the English invention of the tape measure and a new understanding of men's average bodily proportions made it possible for American merchant-tailors to produce many well-tailored coats and trousers at one time, in a range of sizes guaranteed to fit a large number of men. With the development of the sewing machine and later the cutting machine, the ready-to-wear men's clothing enterprise in America expanded to furnish not only the military, but also rural workers, miners, and railroad men with well-made fitted garments — the blue jeans, workshirts and overalls that are still being made and worn. In the twentieth century, although traditional made-to-measure tailoring persisted everywhere at higher social levels, the ready-made suit became the standard public costume of the modern ordinary man. His body was generalized by the suit's smooth, flexible envelope into a useful image of modern male equality. Women's visual equality, among each other and with men, came somewhat later.

Dressmaking had become a women's craft separate from men's tailoring late in the seventeenth century, and thereafter women's clothes more and more outdid men's in visual complexity. Stay-making also became a separate craft, and separate corsets became a common part of female fashion, variably modelling the torso under the clothing. At the very end of the nineteenth century, however, fashion began to reduce the expressive shapes and surface embellishments of women's clothes, and they gradually came to match men's in the clarity of line and easy style of bodily fit that had become common for male dress during the previous century. After 1900, everyday skirts were increasingly shortened to allow the shape and action of women's legs to form part of their complete clothed image. By the second decade of the twentieth century, as fashion continued to simplify women's modes of dress, the rules of proportionate sizing could be applied to them as well. A large ready-to-wear industry for ordinary women's fashionable garments became possible, spurred by the new needs of working women, whose fashions eventually came to include trousers as well as skirts. Factory-made clothes for both sexes became the staple of mainstream fashion in the industrialized world, and for ordinary clothes everywhere as local artisanal traditions declined.

Just after the middle of the nineteenth century, however, offsetting this incipient trend, the Haute Couture came into existence for women's fashion. This French enterprise specialized in the superior artisanal creation of fashionable feminine clothing, conceived by artist-like designers whose high prices flaunted their distance from both home sewing and mass production, and whose personal fame came to increase the worldwide prestige of their works. Ordinary dressmakers in Europe and America, and eventually clothing factories, therefore copied and modified Haute Couture designs for the general female public.

In the last third of the twentieth century, original creative designers were engaged directly by both the male and female fashionable clothing industries, while the Haute Couture, later including Italian, English, and American designers, came to have a more limited influence on ordinary female dress. The multiple-production aesthetics of industrial design, however, came generally to affect all fashion design for both sexes, as well as for children. With the global clothing markets of the late twentieth century, a certain neutralization has thus occurred in the contemporary look of the clothed human body, which in a great part of the world is commonly clad in the shirts, sweaters, pants, and jackets originally designed as Western masculine gear for work and sport.

Ordinary work and leisure clothes for men, women, and children now look very much alike, and the more traditional fashionable dress that sharply distinguishes sex, age, and social stratum is thought to be special costume for public life, office work, or festal moments. In undeveloped countries, pre-modern woven rectangular shapes still persist, often in combination with tailored factory-made garments; at the same time versions of simple, ancient gear are steadily recurring in tailored, mass-produced Western fashion. It is worth noting that the world's clothing, despite some irreversible changes, has somewhat come full circle, as if returning to the days of wrapped and draped rectangles or T-shaped tunics for every human body.

Anne Hollander

See also fashion.


views updated Jun 11 2018


The heterogeneous mixing of cultures in America produced a rich tapestry of clothing styles. An individual's garments expressed cultural and religious affiliation, status, and personal style. But fashion aroused heated debate, for it could be manipulated to challenge social hierarchies and contest the boundaries of identity, provoking political protest and social unrest.

native americans

Before European contact, the clothing of Indian groups in North America varied widely, but all had in common the use of animal skins, furs, body paint, and jewelry made of metal, beads, or bone. Hides rendered soft and wearable by laborious rubbing and smoking were the preferred material for clothing. The basic wardrobe of Indian men included buckskin breechcloths, fringed shirts, and leggings; women wore wraparound skirts and embroidered shirts. Northeast Indians, like the Abenakis, dressed in deerskin or moose hide, often elaborately dyed and quill embroidered, whereas Plains Indians, like the Sioux, relied heavily on buffalo for their clothing needs. Both sexes wore moccasins, hair jewelry, and headdresses, as well as furs and brightly colored woolen blankets as outerwear.

From the beginning of European settlement, Indians traded furs for European- and, later, American-manufactured cloth. The introduction of these new products into Indian society resulted in intertribal economic competition that often led to war. Improved transportation networks like the Santa Fe Trail (1821) and the Erie Canal (1825) made factory-produced cotton and woolen cloth readily available to Indians, further affecting their style of dress. Indians adapted European garments to their own use, decorating shirts, shifts, hats, and coats with bead-work, embroidery, and other elements of Indian design. Native dress in turn influenced Hispanics and Anglos, who took to wearing moccasins, snowshoes, deerskin hunting shirts, and leggings on the frontier.

Dress became an important political issue for Indians struggling for autonomy against encroaching white settlers. Reform movements advocating resistance to Anglo-American influence emerged among groups like the Creeks and Cherokees in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Responding to the loss of their land, the rise of excessive alcohol consumption among the tribes, and missionaries bent on "civilizing" native society, some Indians rejected the white man's clothing and other articles. Most Indian groups, however, continued to blend Indian aesthetics and needs with Anglo-American materials.

african americans

Forced migration and enslaved labor left African Americans few opportunities to develop a sartorial identity. The clothing of slaves differed regionally and individually according to situation and occupation, but for the most part it was meager, coarse, and dull in color. Rough linen from Osnabruck, Germany, and coarsely woven woolens from Britain, known as "Negro cloth," were the distinctive fabrics worn by slaves. Garments were allocated seasonally and included loose, untailored goods such as wool jackets for winter, linen jackets for summer, and breeches for men, and short gowns, petticoats, shirts, and shifts for women. Palmetto straw hats and calico head-wraps were distributed along with crude brogan shoes produced in New England. Cheap cotton cloth became increasingly important by the turn of the century, and many slaves preferred this cool, breathable material over uncomfortable, rough wool. Sunday provided an exception to drab, daily wear, and slaves went to great lengths to acquire special "go-to-meeting" clothes such as calico dresses, ribbons, and soft leather shoes.

Slaves enlivened their appearance by using dyes made from bark and herbs, altering and patching their clothes, and supplementing their attire using money earned from labor, agriculture, or trade. This was far easier for skilled slaves and free blacks than for field hands and led to dramatic differentiation between these groups. Skilled or free blacks, especially in urban areas, were able to acquire fine cloth, felt hats, metal shoe buckles, shawls, lace caps, and other high-style items from purchase or owners. The clothing of field slaves became increasingly restricted over time; in places like South Carolina, slaves went nearly naked in summer. Masters manipulated African Americans' desire for individuation by using clothing as a reward for hard work or good behavior. Others, like George Washington, dressed their personal slaves in elaborate livery.

Cloth provision for slaves varied by circumstance and location. Many large plantations simply imported or purchased cloth for slaves, whereas on others the white women supervised slave weavers and seamstresses. Some owners preferred to let slaves sew their own garments, providing them with cloth, needles, and thread. Slave women bore the brunt of responsibility for maintaining the family wardrobe.

Like other oppressed ethnic groups, African Americans imbued their garments with individual and cultural meaning that challenged white control. They invented unique ways to wear standard-issue garments and produced contrasting colors and offbeat patterns that reflected an African American aesthetic. Through the artful tying of a head kerchief or a cloth wrapper, blacks used European textiles to fashion African American styles.

white women

Whether living on a farm or in a city, Anglo-American women's daily wear reflected their domestic and social roles as well as their economic status. Their standard garments included a linen shift, boned stays, petticoats, an apron, and a jacket-type garment called a shortgown. Some of these items might be homespun, especially during the boycotts of the American Revolution, or they might be imported from Europe. In public or among guests, women wore a gown of wool, cotton, or silk; hoops; a kerchief; and some sort of head covering, such as a cap. As the eighteenth century wore on, East Indian calicoes, chintz, and muslin became the preferred fabric for women's garments.

Women's dress in America changed dramatically after the French Revolution. Inspired by the fashions of ancient Greek and Roman republics, high-waisted, short-sleeved gowns made of white muslin, a lightweight cotton, became the vogue. Wide hoops and bold prints went out of style. Hairstyles, powdered and voluminous in the colonial period, became short and frizzed. Women's fashion came under conservative fire, for the popular fabrics immodestly exposed both women's bodies and America's dependence on foreign countries for cloth.

By the second decade of the nineteenth century women's dress returned to formality and structure. Corsets became tighter, skirts widened, and sleeves inflated to balloonlike proportions. Although fashion now idealized a restricted, ornamental female body, many women challenged such constructions, becoming increasingly involved in reform movements, religious revivals, education, and wage labor during the 1820s and 1830s.

white men

In a world where the cut and cloth of a suit differentiated gentlemen from laborers, men paid careful attention to how they dressed. Powdered hair, breeches buckled at the knee, vests, tailored coats, and bleached white linen at the throat and wrists marked middling and elite men. Suits were cut to enforce an erect torso and made in a variety of bright colors. After the French Revolution romanticized the sans-culottes (radical republicans so named because they were "without breeches"), men began wearing tight-fitting trousers, previously the domain of sailors and the working class. Coats fit more closely to the body and emphasized fine tailoring over fabric, hair was worn without powder, and middle-class business standards led men to renounce color in favor of sober black.

Advertisements seeking runaway indentured servants in early national newspapers depicted the distinctive garb of male laborers—loose trousers, short jackets, and felt hats. Their clothing tended to be old and made of durable material like leather. Absence signified, too, for workingmen left off the tight coats, cravats, and soft shoes of the upper classes. Sunday church clothes broke the monotony of working wardrobes; suits and hats made of finer materials were prized and bequeathed to subsequent generations.

The nineteenth century placed increasing emphasis on uniformity in dress as a response to urbanization and social disorder. Just as middle-class men began to adopt the dark three-piece suit en masse, prisons, almshouses, and houses of refuge broke with the colonial precedent of allowing inmates to wear their own clothes. Beginning in the 1790s, residents were issued uniforms and had their hair cropped short. The imposition of monochromatic or striped suits allowed authorities to regulate behavior and identify escapees from public institutions.

immigrants and religious sects

Immigrants to North America enlivened the fashion landscape with unique styles and color patterns. Rural German and Dutch women wore black aprons, short petticoats, round-eared caps, and conical hats. Scottish immigrants sported Highland tartans with checked patterns and Scots bonnets. Religious sects like the Quakers were known by their wide-brimmed hats and toned-down versions of dominant styles. On Shaker settlements, members gave up their worldly clothes and adopted a uniform dress as a way to express spiritual unity and social equality. Although most immigrants eventually adopted the dress of the region in which they lived, they preserved their ethnic traditions in quilts and embroidery.

See alsoAfrican Americans: African American Life and Culture; American Indians: Overview; Cotton; Domestic Life; European Influences: The French Revolution; Gender: Ideas of Womanhood; Immigration and Immigrants: Overview; Manners; Quakers; Slavery: Slave Life; Wealth; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers .


Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Yale University Press, 2002.

Copeland, Peter F. Working Dress in Colonial and Revolutionary America. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

De Marly, Diana. Dress in North America. Vol. 1: The New World, 1492–1800. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1990.

Lapsansky, Emma Jones, and Anne Verplanck, eds. Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Smith, Billy. "The Material Lives of Laboring Philadelphians, 1750–1800." In Material Life in America, 1600–1860. Edited by Robert Blair St. George. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

White, Shane, and Graham White. Stylin': African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Wolf, Stephanie G. As Various as Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth-Century Americans. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Linzy A. Brekke

Clothing, 1946–60

views updated May 23 2018

Clothing, 194660

During World War II (193945) fashion had taken a backseat to the war effort, and dress designers had been severely limited in what they could make as governments placed severe restrictions on the kinds and amounts of cloth designers could use. In the fifteen years that followed the end of the war, fashions in the West went through a series of sweeping changes. Women's fashions reached levels of richness and luxury that had not been seen since the turn of the previous century. In addition, fashions across Europe and the United States highlighted women's femininity and Paris, France, reclaimed its spot as the fashion capital of the world.

In 1947 French designer Christian Dior (19051957) introduced a collection of women's clothes that shattered all the wartime rules. Called the New Look, this collection was most notable for its long, billowing skirts with many pleats. One of his dresses used fifteen yards of fabric. Many people were offended by the excess of Dior's collection. They felt his dresses were an insult to a world economy that was still deeply troubled after the war. But Dior's New Look soon became extremely popular. Wealthy women clamored to wear his dresses, and manufacturers soon copied his styles, introducing a range of clothing modeled on the New Look. For the next seven years, Dior's look, which included soft, rounded shoulders, a narrow waist, and accessories like gloves and umbrellas, was the single biggest influence on fashion.

Dior's New Look was part of a larger return to femininity across the Western world. The war years had forced women into unusual roles. Many worked outside the home for the first time, and the clothes they wore did not accentuate their female forms. As men returned from the war to claim jobs and start families, women also returned to more traditional roles. During the Great Depression (192941) and World War II women's magazines had emphasized career advice for women, but following the war they focused much more on beauty and fashion. Advertising increased greatly and showed women how they could use makeup, accessories, and clothing to make themselves more appealing. All of these influences helped encourage women to choose more feminine clothing.

The rise of ready-to-wear

Ever since the nineteenth century Paris had dominated the world of fashion. The best designers lived in Paris. They introduced their styles, and those styles were loved and copied around the world. But when German conquerors took control of France during World War II, the dominance of Paris was interrupted. Some French designers left their country, and designers in the United States and England looked to develop fashion houses of their own. (A fashion house is the term for a small company that designs, makes, and sells high-quality clothing and accessories. It is usually associated with a single designer.) After the war the daring designs of Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga (18951972), Hubert de Givenchy (1927), and others helped refocus attention on Paris, and Paris did remain an important center for fashion. However, the emergence in the 1950s of Italian designers such as Roberto Capucci (1930) and Simonetta Visconti, and of American designers such as Claire McCardell (19051958), seriously challenged French dominance of women's clothing design.

Another major challenge to the dominance of the Paris fashion houses was the rise of the ready-to-wear clothing industry controlled by large international corporations. Before the war if a person wanted well-made clothing they had to have it custom made by a tailor, and they paid a premium price. During the war manufacturers developed skills in making clothing, especially military uniforms, that allowed them to make quality clothing to fit different sizes of people. As a result regular people could now afford well-made, quality clothing called ready-to-wear, because it was purchased ready to wear without need for alterations from a tailor. Ready-to-wear clothing companies sent representatives to the major fashion shows, purchased top-quality clothing, and then made and marketed clothing lines based on high-fashion designs. This allowed common people to wear fashionable-looking clothes, but it certainly changed the fashion industry. The Paris fashion houses clothed the very wealthy, and the ready-to-wear industry provided inexpensive imitations for the masses. Before too long the designers figured out that there was more money to be made selling to the masses, and they began to develop ready-to-wear lines of their own. This was a major change in the fashion industry from the first half of the century, and it continues to this day.

Conformity and the youth explosion

One of the drawbacks of the rise of the ready-to-wear industry was that it allowed everybody to look the same. Major retail chains such as Sears and J.C. Penney sold clothes nationwide in the United States, and they didn't make major changes in their clothing lines from year to year. Also, the trend in the United States after the war was to fit in with the crowd and not cause a disturbance. These trends led to real conformity in the way that Americans dressed. People didn't want to stick out and look different, so they chose safe, conservative clothes. For businessmen this meant the gray flannel suit, the uniform of the white-collar, or business professional, worker. For women this meant a simple tight-waisted dirndl skirt and a sweater, or a range of mix-and-match sportswear. This mix-and-match look for mature women was known as the American Look. And for college students the favored look was called the Preppy Look.

While American adults valued conformity in their clothing styles, in the mid-1950s young people began to develop distinctive styles of their own. In France in the late 1940s young people calling themselves "Existentialists" dressed in shabby clothing to show their disdain for fashion. As their name implied, they existed just to exist, so clothes didn't matter so much. A similar group of Americans called themselves beats, or beatniks. Both groups favored jeans for men and women, leather jackets, and the color black. In England stylish youths pursued the teddy-boy look, wearing long jackets with velvet collars and other extravagant outfits. By the mid-1950s, however, youth styles had gone more mainstream. The rise of rock 'n' roll music encouraged youths around the world to rebel against their parents' values, and one of the main ways they did so was through clothes. The uniform of the rebellious rocker consisted of blue jeans, a T-shirt, a leather jacket, and black boots.

The 1940s and 1950s were a fascinating time for fashion. On the one hand there were daring innovations in style, offered by big-name designers; on the other hand many people tried to look like everyone else by buying ready-to-wear clothes from major chains. It was a time when even the rebels tried to look just like other rebels, and little girls around the world took their fashion cues from a teenage fashion doll named Barbie.


Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.

Blass, Bill, and Cathy Horyn. Bare Blass. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Miller, Brandon Marie. Dressed for the Occasion: What Americans Wore 16201970. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1999.

Mulvagh, Jane. Vogue History of 20th Century Fashion. New York: Viking, 1988.

Rowold, Kathleen, Helen O'Hagan, and Michael Vollbracht, eds. Bill Blass: An American Designer. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.

Steele, Valerie. Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look to Now. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Blass, Bill
American Look
Bold Look
Gray Flannel Suit
Mix-and-Match Clothing
New Look
Preppy Look
Rock 'n' Roll Style

Clothing, 1930–45

views updated May 29 2018

Clothing, 193045

When it comes to fashion, the 1930s were a complex age. On the one hand fashions were deeply influenced by the economic depression that gripped the Western world throughout the 1930s; on the other hand fashions in the 1930s were very elegant, with clothing trends largely determined by the tastes of the very wealthy, especially movie stars and other celebrities. Strangely, these two influences came together to create clothing styles that were simple yet elegant. The coming of World War II in 1939 brought a completely new set of pressures to the way people dressed, with rationing, or limiting, of clothing, government dress codes, and the German occupation of Paris, France, the world's fashion capital, altering clothing styles dramatically.

Clothing and the Great Depression

The 1930s began with a dramatic shift in the overall silhouette, or shape, of clothing for both men and women. Reacting against the trends of the 1920s, both men's and women's clothing became sleeker and more streamlined. Women's hemlines extended down the leg and both men's and women's clothing accented simple, flowing lines. Leading the way in these changes were designers from Paris, France, actors and actresses from Hollywood, California, and wealthy socialites from around the world. The leading designers of the day, all based in Paris, included Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (18831971), Elsa Schiaparelli (18901973), and Madeleine Vionnet (18761975). Schiaparelli was especially famous for her adventurous experiments with new fabrics, patterns, and wild colors. Her introduction of a bold pink was so shocking that it helped coin the term "shocking pink." Hollywood stars and starlets like Gary Cooper (19011961) and Marlene Dietrich (c. 19011992) made fashion news with their bold fashion choices; Cooper became associated with the English drape suit for men and Dietrich with the pants suit for women. Finally, wealthy jet-setters turned sports clothing into daily wear, introducing such items as the knit polo shirt into common usage.

The bold experiments and new styles introduced by the wealthy were out of reach for most people, as the period of great economic turmoil known as the Great Depression (192941) put many out of work and reduced the incomes of most people. Yet several trends combined to allow common people to enjoy the new fashions despite the hard times. The newer fashions didn't use a great deal of fabric, so people could make their own clothes with less fabric and thus less cost. Especially in the United States, the ready-to-wear clothing industry had advanced in its ability to produce and sell inexpensively a wide range of sizes and styles. Clothing manufacturers copied the latest fashions coming out of Paris and produced cheap imitations. They took advantage of inexpensive fabrics like cotton and rayon, which were well-suited to the flowing lines that were so popular. Finally, most people saved money simply by making their clothes last longer. People ignored rapid shifts in fashion and wore the same dresses and suits for several years.

World War II disrupts fashion

The coming of war, first to Europe and soon to virtually the rest of the world, brought immense changes to the nature of fashion. The world of high fashion was changed most dramatically by the German invasion and occupation of Paris. Most of the great fashion houses that had determined the styles worn in the West were closed; designers fled the country and the wealthy had to look elsewhere for their clothes. Designers in other countries, especially the United States, soon filled the void. Among the many American designers who gained valuable experience and clients during the war years were Mainbocher (18911976) and Claire McCardell (19051958), who created what became known as the American Look.

The clothing worn by common people was also impacted by the war. Military demands for fabric, especially for use in uniforms, tents, and parachutes, meant that many countries used some form of rationing or limiting fabric and clothing. Clothes makers altered the styles of clothes they made in order to use less fabric: hemlines became shorter, trousers and skirts were closer fitting, and fabric-wasting flourishes such as patch pockets disappeared. The impact of fabric shortages was greatest in Great Britain, where severe limits were set on the amount of clothes or fabric that could be purchased. The government of Great Britain created a kind of national dress code called utility clothing. Overall, staying in fashion just didn't seem so important during war time and people didn't mind dressing in simpler, less unique clothes. The war did have one positive impact on fashion: Clothes makers who shifted their work to produce military uniforms became very skilled at producing huge numbers of clothes at a low price. After the war clothing prices fell and quality clothes became available to more people than ever before.

The Depression and World War II were the biggest influences on clothing in the years between 1930 and 1945, but they weren't the only influences. Jazz music, the popularity of sports and sports clothes, and trends in art and industrial design all made an impact.


Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Costantino, Maria. Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Dorner, Jane. Fashion in the Forties and Fifties. London, England: Ian Allan Ltd., 1973.

Dorner, Jane. Fashion in the Twenties and Thirties. London, England: Ian Allan Ltd., 1973.

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.

Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Mulvagh, Jane. Vogue History of 20th Century Fashion. New York: Viking, 1988.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

Nazi Style
Dolman Sleeves
Little Black Dress
Men's Suits
Military Uniforms and Civilian Dress
Polo Shirt
Rationing Fashion in the United States
British Utility Clothing
Swim Trunks for Men
Trousers for Women
Women's Dresses
Women's Suits
Zoot Suit

About this article


All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic