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Fashion History: A Brief Overview

Evidence shows the first sewing needle was made from bone and ivory many many years ago.

     The earliest clothing dates back from 20,000 B.C. as evidence by the discovery of sewing needles made from bone and ivory.  Clothing was made solely from natural products, like animal skin, tree bark, and leaves.
 

     People wear clothes because it satisfies physical,  psychological, and social needs. A physical need for clothing would be to keep warm in cold weather, or to protect the skin from the sun. But fashion is more than just a response to basic survival needs: fashion is when clothing is used to enhance appearance or to adorn, decorate, and form silhouettes on the body. Culture determines which types of adornment and physical features are seen as desirable--whether tattoos, piercings, corsets, or foot binding.  

     Fashion is used as a social indicator, which means that what a person is wearing expresses (with or without intent of the wearer) his or her social standing. Silhouette (or the overall shape that a garment gives the body), fabric, color, and sometimes even designer, combine to create a message about the person they adorn. 

     In some ways, fashion can be seen to separate people into groups: think about John Hughes’ classic film The Breakfast Club, from 1985. In the movie, five misfits from different social cliques befriend each other during Saturday detention. Viewers of the film are expected to immediately understand that the teenagers are not friends without the help of dialogue, because their different social standings are revealed through their clothing and hairstyles: the preppy princess in pastels and cardigans, the jock in his sport’s jacket, the brainy nerd in a large sweater, the punk-inspired rebel in denim and leather, and the recluse hiding behind her hair and oversized costume. Without fashion indicators, it would be difficult to tell the high-end executive from a melancholy Goth rocker. 

     Fashion, in addition to identifying people as a member of a social group (whether as one of the preppy kids in high school or as a working class all-American manly man) is also used to set people apart. People enjoying dressing and putting together outfits because it gives them a sense of unique artistic expression. Wearing something in an original way, or combing colors and shapes in a manner that one hopes will cause eye-turns, ensures a person that she or he has a unique sense of style and personal expression. 

     This duel concept of fashion, both as a group indicator and a way of expressing individuality was  first expressed by sociologist Georg Simmel in his 1920 essay On Fashion. Those interested in a more academic and theoretical understand of fashion may be interested in reading his material.

     So what then is the history of fashion? The history of fashion is the study of which silhouettes, colors, designers, and structures that were worn by a given people at a given time and what those things symbolized. Changes in style occurred more quickly with the advent of the industrial revolution from the late 1700s to late 1800s: with the invention of the sewing machine, and later synthetic fabrics, garments were produced at mass levels. Added to this was the invention of photography, and styles which could be viewed from all over the world, were now more quickly spread about. Different garments’ symbol natures began to rapidly changed, as well. 

 

     An example of how a garment can change throughout the years can be found in jeans. In the 1850s, jeans were worn by the working class, such as railway men, cowboys, and miners. Because of this, they became both a symbol of the west and of poverty. In the 1950s, teenage rebels began wearing jeans as a fashion statement. Jeans then became associated with the rock and roll adolescent subculture. In the early 2000s, designers began distressing jeans to the point at which the garment would unravel after a few wears and selling them for hundreds of dollars. Beat up jeans, in 150 years, went from being a symbol of the poor to the super rich. And now that the super rich has worn beat up jeans, the average American has too, and they are no longer a symbol of the poor. 

 

     Oscar Wilde is quoted as having said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” While you may or may not agree that fashion is ugly, the fact that it is altered rapidly is an axiom. 

     For many years fashion was understood as a cycle: first the nobility wore something or molded their bodies into a silhouette that, because it was wore by them, was considered in vogue. Later this style was imitated by the commoners. When the styles had finally reached the commoners, the nobility had found a new style to be in vogue, so that the nobility and the commoners would never be mistaken for each other. In certain cultures, like France up until the 17th century, there were sumptuary laws, or laws that indicated what a person of a certain social hierarchy could wear. 

     This cycle is still somewhat true to modern culture, although the styles go from nobility (or runway couture) to commoner (or H&M off-the-rack knockoffs) much more quickly. More about the modern fashion cycle can be read here (Stages of the Fashion Cycle)

     However, many would argue the opposite is true as well. Instead of average middle class people looking to the upper class for their clothing cues, designers look to the streets for more “authentic” fashions worn by adherents to various subcultures. This is true in the works of various high fashion designers. Punk, gothic, and bohemian subculture looks are repeatedly borrowed for the runway. 

 

 

 

 

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