More than 40 000 years ago the inhabitants of Western Europe adorned themselves with jewelry of ivory and bone. Clothes, worn to protect their bodies from the elements or to provide covering for modesty’s sake, came much later. The people of northern Europe probably first slung animal skins around themselves as protection from the cold in about 25000 BC. In the Mediterranean and Middle East, fibers from plants such as flax, and the hair of goats and sheep, were woven to form lightweight fabrics that not only afforded protection against the Sun’s rays but also signified social status. The earliest of these textiles, made in Anatolia in Turkey, date to about 6500 BC.
As civilizations developed, so styles of dress also evolved. In Egypt, Greece and Rome, clothes were draped, while the people of northern Europe and the East wore stitched, tubular garments. In the classical world the toga, worn not only by rulers but also by philosophers and teachers, was regarded as a symbol of civilization. Breeches and tunics, by contrast, were considered typical of barbarian, tribal societies.
But the idea of fashion, with its ever changing cycles of styles and trends, first took hold in the mid 1300 in Paris, London and the Italian city-states, when the elite rejected their flowing garments for tight-fitting clothes decorated to show the latest tastes. Men’s robes, which had previously been ankle-length, now reached above the knee, while female dress was transformed by lacing, buttons and the introduction of the décolletage. As people desired to change their silhouettes at regular intervals – a trend that coincided with a growing international textiles trade – so cutting and tailoring developed.
Early fashion belonged to the elite, who tried to preserve their social superiority with ‘sumptuary laws’ forbidding tradesmen and yeomen from wearing expensive and lavishly embroidered fabrics. But the French code of dressing, based on a fixed social hierarchy and courtly etiquette, was overturned by the Revolution of 1789. Elaborate wigs and powdered hair were abandoned, men’s clothes were no longer embellished with embroidery and lace, and women adopted the simple Empire gown. Style became a mark of individual freedom, adopted for its own sake. No longer the preserve of the aristocracy, it soon became associated with the avant-garde, Romantic writers and artists, political activists and dandies.
In Britain affordable, mass-produced printed textiles and fashion accessories were made available by the Industrial Revolution. These were popular with the middle classes, who saw them as a means of expressing their new confidence and success. For men power now lay in business, not the court. The dark suit became a male ‘uniform’, while women paraded the family’s status through their own and their children’s dress. Fashion and femininity were inextricably entwined. Women were weighed down by petticoats and their mobility restricted by delicate shoes.