Clothing: Social History

Most of the times, history teaches us about the kings, especially about the victorious ones. Sometimes, history may teach you about contemporary economy. But you will seldom get to read about the history of clothing. Man started to wear clothes in order to save his body from vagaries of weather. In due course of time, clothes became integral to cover our vanity. The style of dress changes according to times, occasion, social status, cultural ethos, etc. In this lesson, you will read about social history of clothing. In the first part, you will read about various changes in clothing in Europe. In the second part, you will read about effect of colonial rule on clothing in India.

Before the eighteenth-century Europe, most people dressed according to their regional codes. Their choice of clothes was limited by the types of clothes and the cost of materials that were available in their region. Clothing styles were also regulated by class, gender or status in the society.

Sumptuary Laws

During the medieval period in Europe, dress codes were sometimes imposed through actual laws. The dress codes were spelt out in detail through these laws. People of France were expected to strictly follow the sumptuary laws from about 1924 to the time of French Revolution in 1789.

The sumptuary laws attempted the behavior of people who were considered as social inferiors. They were prevented from wearing certain clothes, consuming certain foods and beverages and hunting game in certain areas. Items of clothing were regulated not only by income but also by social rank. Expensive materials like ermine, fur, silk, velvet and brocade could be worn by only the royalty. However, such distinctions ceased to exist after the French Revolution.

Chapter List

Effect of French Revolution

During the French Revolution, members of the Jacobin clubs wore dresses without knee breeches. The Jacobins were also called the sans culottes. People began to wear loose and comfortable clothes. Blue, white and red were the dominant colours of dresses as these colours symbolized the nationalism in France. Other political symbols also became a part of the dress code, like the red cap of liberty, long trousers and the revolutionary cockade pinned on to a hat.

Sumptuary laws were not always made to emphasise social hierarchy, rather some of them were made to protect home production from imports. For example, velvet caps made with French imported materials were quite popular in sixteenth-century England. A law was passed to compel all persons over six years of age to wear woolen caps made in England, on Sundays and holidays. This law did not apply to those at high positions. This law remained in force for twenty six years and was very helpful in building up the English woolen industry.

Even after the end of the sumptuary laws, differences between social strata remained. But difference in income now determined the way a person dressed. People from different economic background developed their own clothing style based on sense of fashion, decency and practicality.

Clothing style was also determined by gender differences. Men were expected to be serious, strong, independent and aggressive. Women were expected to be delicate, passive and docile.

From childhood, girls were laced up and dressed in stays. Stay is a kind of support in a woman's dress to keep the upper body straight. Older girls had to wear tight fitting corsets. Wearing a corset meant inflicting huge pain on the body. Nevertheless, corsets were worn to maintain a slim waste which was considered ideal for women.

Women' Reaction

Many women believed that it was their duty to remain docile and graceful as per the prevalent social norms. They thought it as their duty to bear whatever pain and suffering they had to, while maintaining a slim waist.

Reforms for Clothing: However, things were changing over the nineteenth century. By the 1830s, the English women began their agitation for democratic rights. When the movement for voting rights gained momentum, many also began a campaign for dress reform. Women's magazines described the problems associated with tight dresses and corsets.

A similar movement developed amongst the white settlers in America. Traditional feminine clothes were criticized on various grounds. It was argued that long skirts swept the grounds and collected filth and dirt, which was not good for hygiene. The skirts were voluminous and restricted movement. They prevented the women at workplace. Women felt that comfortable and convenient clothes would allow them to work and to earn.

The reformers had to face lot of ridicule and hostility in the beginning. It was argued that the women were losing their beauty, feminity and grace by giving up traditional dresses. Many women reformers changed back into traditional clothes as they faced persistent attacks.

However, changes were more apparent by the end of the nineteenth century. With the First World War, many women began to work in factories. They needed comfortable clothes which did not hamper their work in the factories. New materials for clothing came into use. This development also changed the dresses.

New Materials

Clothes, made of flax, linen or wool were difficult to clean and hence most of the ordinary women did not posses such clothes before the seventeenth century. After 1600, trade with India brought Indian chintz into Europe. The Indian chintz was cheap, beautiful and easy to maintain.

During the Industrial Revolution, in the nineteenth century, mass production of cotton textiles began in England. This helped in making cotton clothes more affordable to a wider section of people in Europe.

Artificial fibres came into use by the early twentieth century. Clothes made by artificial fibres were cheaper and easier to maintain.

The War

The two World Wars had profound impact on women's clothing. Many European women stopped wearing jewelry and luxurious clothes. Most of the women began to dress in similar ways and the difference between the upper class and the lower class blurred.

During the First World War, clothes became shorter because of practical necessity. By 1917, over 700,000 women in Britain were employed in ammunition factories. Initially, they wore a working uniform of blouse and trousers with scarves. This dress was later replaced by khaki overalls and caps. Sober colours replaced bright colours, as the War dragged on.

Skirts became shorter for the sake of convenience. Trousers became an important part of Western women's clothing as they allowed greater freedom of movement. Women began to cut their hair short so that the hairs could be easily managed.

By the twentieth century, plain and austere dress was considered as symbol of seriousness and professionalism. The schools for children also emphasized the importance of plain dressing. Entry of gymnastics and games in the school curriculum for women also paved the way for comfortable and convenient clothing.

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