Sunday, 19 April 2009

Fashion and History

The last few months I’ve been reading The Fashion Reader (Welters & Lillithun) which I picked up at the library from their 'new books' shelf. It is obviously written as a textbook and as such is hard going at times, but I’m determined to finish as it is worth the work.

Part of me thinks fashion is a frivolous subject and that my fascination with it is therefore an embarrassment. On the other hand it is a huge and complex industry, employing millions of people around the world. Anyhow, these days I am more of an interested observer than avid participant. This book is wonderful because it examines so many facets of that industry, linking clothes to history, geography, science, sociology, economics and politics; so, maybe it’s not such a light-weight subject after all, huh?

There seems to be no real agreement about when ‘fashion’ began, that is, changing styles of dress that are adopted by a group of people in a given place and time. Up until the mid 1300’s everyone wore t-shaped tunics and mantles; the wealthy just accessorised with jewels and furs and/or used richer fabrics. Beginning in the 1100s, however, hairstyles, the fitting of the tunics and shoes shapes were manipulated by young noblemen. Apparently there were changes in inheritance laws about that time and so, with only their wits to support them, they used fashion and courtly manners to gain attention and favour. I think it’s wonderful to understand just how all this falderal got started.

Up until the early 1800’s, men had the brighter fashion plumage because of the narrower role of women in society, as that of chaste wives and mothers. Once women reached a certain age they dressed conservatively and kept their dignity; men continued with their pursuit of the latest fashions regardless of age. Strange how much things have reversed…

Fashion requires that a society have a certain amount of disposable income and for this reason up until the 1800’s, fashion was the purview of the elite. Second hand (or one might say, slight-of-hand, given the way it was acquired) clothing was in great demand amongst the lower classes. Prior to the 1700’s there were sumptuary laws, making it illegal for someone to dress above their station in life; these were repealed due to being ineffective.

Imagine being a wealthy person getting dressed in 18th century France: fashion centre of the Old World, of course. Clothing came in lots of separate bits that could be re-combined, and even jewellery could be taken apart and made into something else. Women wore huge hairstyles and enormous hooped skirts. Trimmings and accessories determined whether or not one was ‘on trend’ and clothing was barely visible under the ornamentation and adornment with feathers, ribbons, tassels, fringe, lace, etc.

A man needed his hat, cravat, jewelled buttons, sword (plus sword belt and sword knots) and knee buckles. A woman carried her pockets on a waist ribbon underneath her gown, but they were quite ornate all the same; as were her headdress, shawl, cape, engageants (undersleeves), fan, embroidered garters, shoes and pattens (overshoes required because of the filth in the streets).

Both men and women wore powder and ribbons in their hair, cosmetics, lace, gloves, muffs, decorative shoe buckles and high heeled shoes. Mind, Bill and I have trouble keeping up with purses/briefcases, gym bags, key-rings, lap tops, memory sticks, mobile phones, iPods – and in my case, sewing bag, lunch bag, hankies and reading glasses –we’d have had no chance back then.

Things got a bit simpler after the American Revolution when gris Americain (American gray) – the colour of Benjamin Franklin’s hair – became the rage. English preferences were also adopted, with the use of expert tailoring and high-quality fabrics, not to mention sportswear: today we wear “jackets”, which comes from the French
jacquet, a corruption of “jockey”. This simplification of hair and clothing styles began to replace the previously exaggerated styles towards the Grecian style of high waistlines, Greece being the origin of democracy.

Most fashion changes are gradual – or at least they were back then -- but the move towards more subdued and ‘democratic’ clothing was accelerated by the French Revolution of 1789. That Revolution also destroyed the original French fashion industry, with thousands of French clothing workers moving to other countries to find work.

The Terror of France in 1793 suddenly meant that wearing simple linen and wool garments of the working classes could save one’s life. It became unwise to wear luxurious clothes, hair or jewelry after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In fact, wearing long trousers was also a perhaps a good idea (san-culotte).

The next major events to impact the fashion industry occurred in the mid-19th century with the invention of the sewing machine and of wood pulp paper (enabling journalism, ie women's magazines). Also around this time, the first designer set up shop in Paris: an Englishman Charles Frederick Worth, with his partner Otto Bobergh. Savile Row tailor James Poole also began business in this era. Another invention of the time was the development (as it were) of photography. Because of this last technological advance, we all know what fashion has looked like since that time.

Personally, I kind of like the idea of going back to a t-shaped tunic and a mantle. Trish at Second Cherry found this great article in
The Guardian titled "The day I threw away fashion".

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