What are you wearing today? Jeans and a T-shirt? The latest trainers? School uniform? Whatever you are wearing, your clothes tell other people a lot about you.
People started wearing clothes many thousands of years ago, mainly to protect themselves against the climate. Over the centuries clothes have come to mean much more than that. They can hide or show off parts of the body, according to what is considered attractive, or even decent, at the time. They can reveal which part of the world someone comes from. They can tell you who has lots of money and who has less money. They can indicate that someone belongs to a particular religion, or does a particular job or even that they like a particular type of music.
CLOTHES AND CLIMATE
The main factor that influences what people wear in different countries is the climate. Depending on where they lived, early people used clothes primarily to keep them warm and dry or to protect themselves from the sun. In cold countries, people such as Inuit traditionally wore layers of fitted clothes, made from animal skins or thick woollen fabrics to trap their body heat. In hot countries, clothes were usually a loincloth or skirt, or a long loose robe made of a lightweight fabric such as cotton.
In many parts of the world people still, wear the traditional styles of clothes that their ancestors wore hundreds of years ago. In India, for example, many women wear a sari, a dress made by winding a long length of fabric around the body. In the Middle East, long flowing robes are worn by both men and women.
Even in countries where it is usual to wear Western-style clothes, people may wear traditional clothes for weddings, festivals or other special occasions. This is called the national costume. Some examples are the Japanese kimono, Hawaiian grass skirt and floral garlands, Spanish flamenco costume and the Scottish kilt.
FASHION THROUGH THE AGES
In Western countries, the clothes people wear have changed dramatically over the centuries. This is because people want to wear clothes that are fashionable. However, until very recently, only wealthy people could afford to follow fashion. They could buy expensive new clothes, and they could wear clothes that were not very comfortable or easy to move in because they did not have to work. Farmers, factory workers and other ordinary people who had to do physical and dirty jobs probably had only one outfit, which would be simple and practical, such as a tunic or a jacket and trousers.
Below is a selection of just a few of the different fashions people have worn through the ages.
In ancient Egypt the climate was very hot, so people wore light clothes made of linen. The basic dress was a long garment called a kalasiris. For men, this was a skirt worn at the waist. For women, it was a full-length dress held up with a strap. Workers wore a short kalasiris, but wealthy people had long, elaborately pleated and draped versions, and often wore a short linen cape around their shoulders.
Ancient Greek women wore a long, loose dress pinned or sewn on the shoulders and belted at the waist. This was called a chiton. Greek men wore a knee-length version of the same thing.
In ancient Rome, almost everyone wore a tunic—a simple, straight dress made of wool or linen. Women wore full-length tunics, while men and servants wore knee-length tunics. Men who were Roman citizens (rather than slaves or foreigners) showed their status by wearing a toga over their tunics. This was a long oval of woollen cloth, folded and draped round the body, with the ends thrown over the left shoulder. The women’s equivalent was a shawl called a stola, which was draped as a head covering and a cloak.
The Vikings came from Scandinavia, where the climate is cold. They dressed in layers of warm, close-fitting clothes. The men wore an undertunic, shirt, trousers, overtunic and a cloak. The women wore similar clothes but had a long tunic instead of trousers. Viking warriors wore a leather or metal helmet and carried a shield and sword.
In Tudor times, men wore a jacket called a doublet. This was usually worn with a ruff (frilly collar) at the neck, knee-length trousers called breeches underneath and a short cape hanging from the shoulders. Sometimes the doublet was padded at the front to form an artificial paunch shape, called a “peascod”. Another fashion was slashing—making cuts in the fabric of the doublet to show another material underneath.
Tudor ladies wore a long, rigid corset reaching below the waist to make a V-shape in the front. Over this was a dress with a wide skirt, often with a ruff at the neck. From the 1540s, skirts became even wider as women started wearing a farthingale underneath. This was a hooped cage made from wire, wood or whalebone, which supported the skirt.
By the 19th century, Victorian gentlemen were wearing a forerunner of the modern-day suit and tie. The standard outfit consisted of a black or dark grey coat, with dark-coloured, checked or striped trousers, and a waistcoat made of brightly coloured fabric. Underneath was a shirt with a cravat (scarf) knotted at the neck.
For Victorian ladies, modesty was of prime importance, and they displayed very little of their bodies. They wore long skirts, long sleeves, and high necklines. But it was considered fashionable to have a tiny waist, and this was achieved with the help of corsets. These were often pulled so tight that it was difficult to breathe. Wide skirts were fashionable. At first, these were held out with five or six layers of petticoats. Then in 1856, the crinoline was invented—a light wire cage worn under skirts to make them stick out. Crinolines became wider and wider until it became difficult for women to go through doorways and impossible for two women in crinolines to sit on a sofa together.
THE 20TH CENTURY
During the 20th century, clothes changed more and more frequently than in any other period of history. This was mainly due to the invention of sewing machines and other ways of mass-producing clothes in factories. Clothes were easier and cheaper to make, so the latest fashions were available to more and more people—not just the very rich.
Women started the 20th century wearing tight, restricting corsets and full-length dresses. By the end of the century, they were wearing comfortable combat trousers and T-shirts. In between, they wore almost everything possible, from low-waisted flapper dresses in the 1920s to miniskirts in the 1960s, and from the hippy look of the 1970s to the power suits of the 1980s.
Men’s fashions changed less, but as with women’s clothes, the general move was towards more comfortable and informal clothes. At the beginning of the 20th century, suits were the normal everyday dress. By the end of the century, many men could wear jeans to work, and suits were worn at weddings and on other special occasions. Men’s clothes also went through fashions, and these were often linked to styles of popular music. In the 1950s, for example, the rock-and-roll era teddy boys wore long jackets, drainpipe (very narrow) trousers, thick crepe-soled shoes and greased-back hair, while the punk look of the 1970s featured ripped T-shirts, tartan trousers, and spiked hair.
THE FASHION INDUSTRY
Twice a year, the press flock to the traditional centres of the fashion industry, such as Paris and Milan, to see the world’s most famous fashion designers present their spring and autumn collections of clothes. Models walk down a catwalk to show off the designers’ latest creations to the audience.
The clothes displayed at a collection are often very extreme examples of fashion, and they cost a lot of money, so you are unlikely to see anyone walking down your street dressed similarly. However, the catwalk shows influence the shapes, colours, and materials that are considered fashionable in any particular year. The clothes that you buy in your local shops are simpler versions of the fashion designers’ ideas.
Did you know?
• Unlike what you might believe, platform shoes were not invented in the 1970s. They were worn in the 16th century to keep people’s feet dry in wet weather. The high sole and heels lifted their feet above the mud and puddles.
• Victorian ladies were so modest that they considered it scandalous to allow gentlemen even to glimpse their ankles.
• In the 1960s, fashion designers experimented with many exciting new materials, such as nylon and other man-made fibres, plastics, metal and even paper. Dresses and knickers made of paper were designed to be worn once and then thrown away.
• During World War II new clothes were in short supply. Seamed stockings were fashionable, but these were hard to come by, so women sometimes improvised by drawing a line up the back of their legs to look like the seam.