When studying past civilizations, one of the key pieces of information to obtain is the fashion of the era. This is because fashion provides a glimpse into the way people thought at the time and what they considered to be valuable. Fashion trends naturally change as people evolve, now faster than ever. From the loose-fitting, breathable clothing of ancient Egypt to today’s yoga pants and denim jeans, fashion has always provided a snapshot of the lifestyle of the people.
Ancient Egyptian Fashion
The types of clothing worn by people in ancient Egypt were dependent on the wealth and social class of the person. Wealthier Egyptians had access to the finest linens. These garments were very thin, which made them perfect for the intense heat of life in the desert. Men wore wraparound skirts cinched at the waist with a belt, while women wore full-length dresses. During the New Kingdom era, pleats became fashionable in both men’s and women’s clothing.
Men and women also both adorned themselves in jewelry. While those of a higher social class could afford the use of gold, the majority instead wore copper. Common stones used in jewelry included pearls and emeralds. While jewelry of metal and stone was used, beaded jewelry was also common in ancient Egypt.
The use of linens in ancient Egypt shows how industrious they were as a people. The process of turning flax into linen was very labor-intensive and took a great deal of time. The jewelry worn by people of the era was used to distinguish oneself as a member of a higher social class but also to be more attractive to the gods. Using clothing and jewelry as a means to be more appealing to deities shows the importance that ancient Egypt placed on fashion.
Ancient Roman Fashion
Ancient Roman fashion was marked by the use of tunics. These loose-fitting garments were used by men and women, adults and children, and in most social and professional settings. While men wore knee-length tunics, women typically dressed in a longer, sleeved version. Romans used a variety of colors in their clothing choices, which they achieved through the use of dyes. Although the toga is commonly associated with ancient Rome, after the days of the early republic, they were only worn on formal occasions.
Footwear in ancient Rome varied depending on the situation. Ancient Roman footwear was flat-soled. Casual occasions often called for the use of sandals, while military personnel wore marching boots. Slaves wore wooden clogs for work in the fields. Wealthier citizens and members of government used more expensive footwear to stand out from others.
Like many civilizations before and after, ancient Romans used their fashion to distinguish between classes. Sculptures and paintings from the era depict royalty adorned in their finest garments, showing the importance ancient Romans placed on fashion as a symbol of status.
Medieval and Byzantine Fashion
The Byzantine Empire used similar clothing to ancient Rome. Byzantines wore rich, bright colors and loose-fitting garments. However, while the toga had already been designated for formal occasions in the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire did away with the toga completely. The Byzantines cherished silk, and without the sumptuary laws that limited clothing options in ancient Rome, the only limiting factor in a person’s ability to wear silk was being able to afford it. However, silk was still only possessed by the wealthiest of the Byzantines.
Unlike in the Byzantine Empire, medieval fashion in northern and western Europe was limited by sumptuary laws that were passed in order to keep separation between royalty and common people. King Edward III passed laws banning anyone other than royalty from wearing any clothes of gold or purple silk, designating these as royal colors and fabric. Most common people wore plain clothing in dull colors. Many peasants made their own clothing.
Both the Byzantine Empire and medieval Europe reemphasized the ideology of fashion as a method for displaying social status. Although the Byzantine Empire did not have any sumptuary laws in place, fine silk was used to differentiate between class levels. Medieval Europe used sumptuary laws to ensure that certain articles of clothing could only be worn by royalty and nobility, establishing a fashion hierarchy.
The Renaissance was yet another period where clothing was limited based upon social class. Sumptuary laws during this period were very strict. Working-class citizens wore less expensive, rough linens, such as wool. This was done not only for thrift but also for practicality. Linen was a much cooler material to wear in working conditions. Laws in Elizabethan England prohibited the production or import of cotton in order to protect England’s wool industry.
Women during the Renaissance opted for more tight-fitting gowns than in previous time periods. Higher-class fashion during the Renaissance was heavy and inconvenient. Working-class women typically opted to wear looser clothing that was more practical. Men of the time period wore hose in lieu of trousers. The upper hose were often puffed out and met the nether hose near the knee. The fashions of Henry VIII became popular around this time, including methods to enlarge the figure.
The Renaissance continued the trend of using fashion as a symbol of social class and wealth. However, during this time period, there was also a shift in the clothing of the working class to encourage practicality. This tends to be more in line with modern fashion that promotes comfort as well as style.
18th and 19th Century Fashion
The 18th century and 19th century saw an emphasis on modesty in dress. Women covered the majority of their bodies, often only leaving the neckline visible. It was during this time period that people began to think of trends in fashion. Marie Antoinette famously set fashion trends in France that women sought to mimic. During this time period, fashion trends began to be shared with neighboring countries.
Women in the 19th century dressed in many layers and were mostly conservative with their garments. Men began to transition to trousers. The 19th century also saw the development of the top hat as a men’s fashion item.
During the early part of the 20th century, fashion trends began to change more rapidly. During these years, a large number of modern fashion staples arrived in the mainstream. The 1920s brought flapper fashions and the beaded evening dress. The 1950s were well-known for poodle skirts, the leather-clad greaser, and pencil skirts. The free love generation of the late 1960s brought flower power en vogue and famously shed clothing entirely.
During this time period, as clothing became more rapidly produced and communication made the world seem smaller, the desire for the next hot trend kept driving fashion innovation.
By the 1980s, athletic wear had become popular as casual attire and leg warmers were more of a fashion statement than cold-weather necessity. The 1990s toned down the flash of the 1980s, with grunge becoming a popular style among the youth culture. As the 1990s led to the new millennium, trends again began to change.
The 2000s brought low-rise jeans and yoga pants into women’s fashion. Also coming with the 2000s was the idea of “fast fashion.” Fast fashion was the availability of high-fashion-inspired trends on the racks of retail and department stores.
Fast fashion, along with the rising popularity of social media, has created a fashion environment that is in a state of perpetual change. Minimalist design is still the prevailing trend, but using a combination of both current and past fashion trends has become acceptable. One of the greatest examples of this phenomenon is the invention of hipster fashion, which puts a modern twist on historical looks. A greater emphasis is also placed on comfort today than ever before. Athleisure wear is common, with some forms of athletic wear considered to be work-appropriate today.
Fashion trends will certainly continue to change as people and lifestyles change. It is possible that one day in the future, people will look back to today’s modern fashion to gain a greater understanding of how we live today.