History of Western Fashion

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
The history of Western fashion is long but we'll sum it up in 1,000 words or less! Western fashion has evolved from the simple toga to complex fabrics and architectural influences. Two things have remained the same: imitation and recycling.

The History of Western Fashion in a 1,000 Words or Less?

Considering the first clothes appeared somewhere between 100,000-500,000 years ago, that is a lot of territory! For our purposes, we are focusing on fashion in the Western tradition, meaning from classical Greece to the four main centers of fashion today: New York, London, Milan, and Paris. We have come a long way from carefully placed fig leaves.

Western Fashion: The Quick and Dirty Version

Before we roll through 2,000 years, let's remember that fashion usually involves two things: imitation and recycling. If something seems like a new idea, it will inevitably be imitated. That doesn't mean it's a good idea. Lead face paint, corsets, and even that sexy icon of fashion, the high heel, are probably some of the dumber ideas in Western fashion. Almost guaranteed, someone in the future will create a fashion idea that will injure or maim, yet it will be imitated.

Beautiful but deadly.
High heels

Recycling obviously means taking old ideas and making them into something new. This means that fashion will most likely repackage itself in the future. This also means someone will inevitably be wearing MC Hammer pants and a shirt that says 'Wake Me Up Before You Go Go' in our distant future on another planet when humans colonize the galaxy. As designer Karl Lagerfeld said, 'Trendy is the last stage before tacky'.

Fashion Takes Form

Draping is everything!
Fashion 1

Humans invented the bone needle about 30,000 years ago, the sandal about 7,000 years ago. Beginning with classical Greek and Roman tradition, the toga swept an empire that spanned most of the known world. Long before people used designer sheets to drape themselves for toga parties, togas were the way to go in hot, humid conditions. Dyed fabric showed wealth, style, and social level, but you couldn't wear purple unless you also had one of those leafy crown things made of gold! Purple was for the emperor. By the 2nd century BC, however, togas were worn exclusively by men and prostitutes. The stola, a more drapey version of the toga, became the rage for women.

Take a leap of faith and jump 1,000 years. Fur, wool, linen (if you could afford it), and silk ruled fashion. The tunic, a type of form-fitting dress for men and women, has emerged from Rome, Byzantium, and Northern invaders who destroyed the Roman Empire. Venice has opened trade routes from the East and Western fashion is about to imitate Eastern ideas.

By 1200, dyeing and embroidery became status symbols and new colors emerged. We like to think of previous humans as wearing drab, sad clothing. Not true. Our ancestors realized color and our ability to accessorize separated us from the animals, too.

By 1300, Western fashion has actually become a thing. Clothing has gone from draping to tailoring, and the emergence of breeches (pants), headgear, and the belt. English royalty has invented the weapon of choice for grandmothers everywhere: the handkerchief.

By 1400, being 'out of style' has created the first fashionistas and fashions have begun to trend. Clothes have become national as well. Even though there wasn't England, France, and Italy as we know them today, fabric and fashion flowed through the Italians to well-located French (Burgundian) fashion centers to the English court.

Fashion Goes Over the Top

The bigger the hoop, the better.
Fashion 2

By 1500, Western fashion was heavily influenced by Spain and then British power under Elizabeth, and opulence was the word. Crazy high collars that looked strangely liked those plastic cones on dogs were the 'it' thing. Those plastic cones on dogs are now sometimes referred to as Elizabethan collars.

By 1600, the collars had been replaced by lace ordeals for men and women, giant hats, and - you guessed it - breeches that slightly resembled MC Hammer pants. The period ends with insanity over giant wigs for men.

By 1700, we come into a period more familiar to most Americans with riding habits for men and larger-than-normal, lower-sectional dresses for women. Thank goodness the collars were gone but the French, who had now established many of the fashion houses we know today, were over-the-top crazy until the French Revolution (1789-1799).

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