Costume and Fashion: A Concise History, 6th Edition
By James Laver
How it all Began
Greeks and Romans
The Renaissance and the Sixteenth Century
The Seventeenth Century
The Eighteenth Century
From 1800 to 1850
From 1850 to 1900
From 1900 to 1939
Rationed Fashion to Pluralistic Style
At the Turn of the Millennium
Fashion Since 2010
How it all Began
Costume, throughout the greater part of its history, has followed two separate lines of development, resulting in two contrasting types of garment. The most obvious line of division in modern eyes is between male and female dress: trousers and skirts. But it is by no means true that men have always worn bifurcated clothes and women not. The Greeks and Romans wore tunics, that is to say, skirts. Mountain people like the Scots and the modern Greeks wear what are, in effect, skirts. Far Eastern and Near Eastern women have worn trousers, and many continue to do so. The sex division turns out not to be a true division at all.
It is possible to contrast ‘fitted’ and ‘draped’ clothes, most modern clothes falling into the first category and ancient Greek clothes, for example, into the other. History has shown many variations in this respect, and it is possible to find intermediate types. Perhaps the most useful distinction is that drawn by the anthropologists between ‘tropical’ and ‘arctic’ dress.
The great ancient civilizations arose in the fertile valleys of the Euphrates, the Nile and the Indus: all tropical areas, where protection from the cold cannot have been the dominant motive for wearing clothes. Many such motives have been adduced, ranging from the naive idea, based on the story in Genesis, that clothes were worn for reasons of modesty, to the sophisticated notion that they were worn for reasons of display and protective magic. The psychology of clothes, however, has been adequately dealt with elsewhere. In the present study it is proposed largely to ignore these complications and to concentrate on the two questions of form and material.
The early civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia are far from being the whole story. Within recent years a much more primitive documentation has become available, largely owing to the discovery and study of cave paintings. Geologists have made us aware of a succession of Ice Ages when the climate of a large part of Europe was extremely cold. Even in the last of the Palaeolithic cultures (that is, cultures in which tools and weapons were made by chipping hard stones like flints) life was lived, as it were, on the edge of the great glaciers which covered much of the continent. In such circumstances, although details of clothing may have been determined by social and psychological considerations, the main motive in covering the body was to keep out the cold, since nature had proved so niggardly in providing homo sapiens with a natural coat of fur.
The animals were more fortunate, and primitive man soon realized that they could be hunted and killed not only for their flesh but for their pelts. In other words he began to wear furs. This presented him with two problems. Not only was the skin of a beast merely wrapped round the shoulders very hampering to his movements, but it left part of the body exposed. He therefore desired to shape it in some way, even if at first he had no means of doing so.
The second problem is that the skins of animals, as they dry, become very hard and intractable. Some method had to be found of making them soft and pliable; the simplest method of doing this is by a laborious mastication. The traditional Inuit method involves women spending a considerable part of their time chewing the hides which their husbands bring home from the chase. Another method consists of alternately wetting the hide and beating it with a mallet, having first scraped off any fragments of flesh which may still be adhering to it. Neither process is very satisfactory, however, for, if the hides become wet, the whole labour has to be repeated.
An advance was made when it was discovered that oil or blubber rubbed into the skin helped to keep it pliable for a longer time, that is, until the oil dried out. The next step was the discovery of tanning, and it is strange to think that the essential techniques of this process, so primitive in their inception, are still in use today. The bark of certain trees, notably the oak and the willow, contains tannic acid which can be extracted by soaking the bark in water. The hides are then immersed for considerable periods in the solution and emerge from this process permanently pliable and waterproof.
Such prepared pelts could also be cut and shaped, and we now come to one of the greatest technological advances in human history, comparable in importance to the invention of the wheel and the discovery of fire: the invention of the eyed needle. Large numbers of such needles, made of mammoth ivory, the bones of the reindeer and the tusks of the walrus, have been found in Palaeolithic caves, where they were deposited forty thousand years ago. Some of them are quite small and of exquisite workmanship. This invention made it possible to sew pieces of hide together to make them fit the body. The result was the kind of clothing still worn by Inuit peoples.
Meanwhile, people living in somewhat more temperate climates were discovering the use of animal and vegetable fibres. It is probable that felting was the first step. In this process, developed in Central Asia by the ancestors of the Mongols, wool or hair is combed out, wetted and placed in layers on a mat. The mat is then rolled up tightly and beaten with a stick. The strands of hair or wool are thus matted together and the felt produced is warm, pliable and durable and can be cut and sewn to make garments, rugs and tents.