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Fashion History: A Brief
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
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
This duel concept of fashion, both as a group indicator and a way of
expressing individuality was first expressed by sociologist
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
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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