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Every human society completes the individual body with a form of dress, which may include painting, tattooing, permanent ornaments, and scarification along with the draping, wrapping, and tailoring of fabric into garments. Humans have always believed that the bare adult body is intolerably unfinished; it needs visible modification for acceptance into human society, and thus for self-acceptance. When normal modification consists of clothes that are habitually put on and taken off, absolute nakedness must remain a regular transient state, a nice or dread reminder of bare facts. Clothes themselves may then at times seem to absorb all human wickedness and to be themselves bad, by contrast with the notional purity of the raw organism. On the other hand, clothes may stand for all human effort to transcend brute nature and thus seem inherently good, by contrast with the notional beastliness of the raw organism.
But the true conceptual unity of the body-plus-dress combination is apparent in art that represents human beings, where the dressed form is usually shown as natural and the naked form as a special case, a dressed body with the clothes absent. Artists tend to fashion a nude costume for the naked body, to offer a comforting normative version (complete with orderly variations) of fearfully multiform naked humanity. They will give this nude image the shape and proportions required of normally-clothed bodies, which dress has rendered intelligible.
Animal skins were doubtless the first human clothes in the Northern hemisphere, worn just as they came off the beast, or variously joined together. The skins of trees, in the form of a flexible cloth made by treating strips of the inner bark, were among the earliest sources for human clothes in tropical countries. The earliest woven stuffs were made for use or ornament, before refinements in spinning and weaving permitted textiles malleable enough to clothe the body. Since then, in much of the world, clothing has taken the form of one or more garments made of fabrics that are woven, knitted, or felted in a range of spun fibres (both natural and synthetic), or of treated leather, metal, or synthetic materials. Such garments fall roughly into two categories; cut-and-sewn, or wrapped-and-draped. Schemes of clothing combine these two or use only one of them, employing different methods of stabilizing garments around the body according to whether they are meant to fit closely, to fit more loosely, or to hang free.
Tailored garments made into close-fitting, three-dimensional forms, such as the Renaissance doublet or the modern suit-coat and trousers, must be fitted onto the body with applied attachments such as lacings, hooks or buttons with holes or loops, two-part clasps, or zippers and velcro. Untailored, loose garments sewn into flat forms out of rectilinear pieces, such as the Japanese kimono and the earliest forms of sleeved tunic and trouser, can be held around the trunk and limbs with attached ties or with separate wrapped sashes and belts, or they can hang open and float like the North African djellabah. They, too, may have buttons, hooks or clasps at neck, shoulders or wrists. Untailored garments may also be controlled by drawstrings threaded through flat channels sewn into the cloth, which can gather them close and secure them to the body at wrist or ankle, neck or waist, elbow or knee. Ancient knit garments fitted fairly close without tailoring but usually had fastenings. Synthetic elastic fibers and modern machine knitting have latterly permitted stretchable skin-tight garments that mould to the body without tailoring, fastening, or belting.
Garments made of single woven-to-size and uncut rectangles of cloth were the first fabric clothes, and are still in use. They may be wrapped tightly, and tucked in or tied together around the chest, waist, or hips (e.g. the Tahitian pareo or Javanese sarong); loosely draped around the whole body but anchored with a hidden waistband (e.g. the Hindu sari); or pinned on the shoulders and visibly belted (e.g. the classical Greek peplos). Rectangular, single-piece outer garments may hang down front and back straight from the shoulders, with the arms free and the head through a slit (e.g. the South American poncho); stoles and shawls may be wrapped around the shoulders and held on by the arms. A veil, scarf, or kerchief may be suspended from the head and attached there with a headband or hairpins, or it may variably wrap the head, neck, and shoulders.
Casually fixed on at each wearing, such single-piece garments dress the body in mobile cloth without defining it, so that the body's action creates random play in the cloth, which underscores the body's moving shape and produces the individual aesthetic vitality of the clothes. Taken off, the garment becomes a flat object of which the color, the woven pattern, and the applied ornament can have separate interest. In wear, if the draped garment randomly exposes the body, as in classical Greece, the acceptable nude costume dresses the unclad and partially clad person, as Greek art amply demonstrates, so that clothes and body remain in aesthetic balance and not opposed.
Ancient Egyptians used modes of regular pleating to control a rectangular garment's behavior on the body, instead of permitting the random drapery and slippage created by motion. Such pleats, made in stiffly starched white linen that bent and swept around the body, or lay close to it, proposed an aesthetic value for wrapped garments only while they were formally dressing the figure and giving it the required static and abstract look. An idealized nakedness was again necessary to complete the desired effect, as expounded in Egyptian art, since much of the body was deliberately exposed, some of it through transparent fabric. A very different effect was created in China and Japan, with large, untailored silk garments that were so stiffly woven, lined, interlined and disposed around the body as to hide and replace it completely. In such a scheme neither the distinctive shapes nor the articulated movements of the body had any visual authority in the desired clad results, again as expounded in art. Human nakedness was given no added nobility, but unworn noble garments did command separate admiration.
Cutting cloth on a curve was discovered to permit high, round armhole seams and high crotch seams, and to allow for close-fitting, round necklines and for the curved hems that make hanging garments fall evenly around the body with no dropping corners. It was sparingly used to begin with, since precious woven stuff is wasted by this technique, and curved cut edges demand added binding or facing to stop the raw thread-ends from fraying. Leather, on the other hand, has always lent itself well to tailoring — as for shoes, for example — being non-woven and irregularly shaped in its natural state. Garments of felt may also be edged on a curve without hemming, as for hats and capes.
Modernity, getting under way in late medieval Europe, saw the development of fully-tailored garments that closely covered and modified the body's articulated shape with articulated shapes of their own. These were modelled with subtly curved cutting and seaming helped by stiffening, padding, constriction, and extensions for the clothes of both sexes, including hats, hoods, and shoes. Randomly draped, regularly pleated, or wrapped fabric became only partial elements in the aesthetic scheme for Western clothes, not its main character. European clothes became three-dimensional forms that seemed to compete with the body they covered, even while creating its ideal look; off the body, the three-dimensional garment would look like a ghost inseparable from an individual human soul. Nudity became part of the scheme, too, in despite of climate, with selective exposure requiring the selective idealization of bodily parts such as the female bosom and the male leg. European nude art shows the amount of variation in the common vision of ideal nakedness that was created by the way clothes shaped the body.
With the complex clothes of the late Middle Ages in Europe came the rise of fashion. Sophisticated form in dress required a constant shifting of its visual emphasis and stylistic flavor, including erotic, societal, and self-referential flavors. The two sexes were conventionally distinguished by dividing male legs with some form of hose and breeches, and veiling women's legs in flowing or stiff ground-length or shoe-length skirts. Variation was more flexible for the upper body, however, including suggestive similarities as well as vivid differences between the male and female effects that were modish at different periods. For example, fashion might flatten women's breasts and widen men's hips at one time, or enlarge both women's breasts and men's shoulders at another time. Shifts in fashion were first led by powerful and leisured groups at courts and in towns, and realized by their tailors, but fashionable change was eventually promoted among middle and lower class people and their tailors by the increasing dispersal of imagery made possible by the printing-press. Fashion in Western dress more and more became an imaginative sexual, social, and political medium, with the steady help of other media.
Visual art has always been the agent of elegance in dress. For millennia before fashion, sculptors and painters offered stylized versions of clothed persons to public view, so that people could admire, imitate, and feel rightly portrayed by superior visions of accepted clothed appearance. The reproducible graphic arts, however, later helped to hasten the adoption of changes in fashions by emphasizing their immediate extremes and priming the public eye for alternatives. By the late eighteenth century, reproduced pictures were affecting general and personal taste through popular journals and magazines, some devoted entirely to fashion in dress. Photojournalism, movies, and television continue to offer stylizations of clothed bodies that guide taste and propel its fluctuations, often in the form of promotion for things other than clothes. Exposure of the body's surface has lately increased among fashions for both sexes, creating a revived need for the stylization of body parts to go with changing modes in semi-nude costume.
Until the nineteenth century, for all classes of society, clothes were made either at home or by artisans who constructed hand-made garments to individual order. For a very long time, fine spinning and weaving, complex dyeing, and embroidery were the finest arts of clothing, and construction was simple where it existed. This situation still obtains in Japan with respect to the traditional feminine kimono, even though Western clothing has been otherwise universally adopted there. In Europe, during the Renaissance and thereafter, fashionable dress gradually came to demand a similar degree of skill from urban and court tailors and from artisans specializing in headgear, footwear, and gloves, or in lace, braid, and buttons as well as embroidery. Regional clothes were made by local artisans or at home — though not without constant fashionable influence on regional traditions. The very poor in towns and cities could buy second-hand clothes and alter them. Crude work clothes were hand-produced in bulk for laborers, common sailors, slaves, and convicts.
Early in the nineteenth century, the English invention of the tape measure and a new understanding of men's average bodily proportions made it possible for American merchant-tailors to produce many well-tailored coats and trousers at one time, in a range of sizes guaranteed to fit a large number of men. With the development of the sewing machine and later the cutting machine, the ready-to-wear men's clothing enterprise in America expanded to furnish not only the military, but also rural workers, miners, and railroad men with well-made fitted garments — the blue jeans, work shirts and overalls that are still being made and worn. In the twentieth century, although traditional made-to-measure tailoring persisted everywhere at higher social levels, the ready-made suit became the standard public costume of the modern ordinary man. His body was generalized by the suit's smooth, flexible envelope into a useful image of modern male equality. Women's visual equality, among each other and with men, came somewhat later.
Dressmaking had become a women's craft separate from men's tailoring late in the seventeenth century, and thereafter women's clothes more and more outdid men's in visual complexity. Stay-making also became a separate craft, and separate corsets became a common part of female fashion, variably modeling the torso under the clothing. At the very end of the nineteenth century, however, fashion began to reduce the expressive shapes and surface embellishments of women's clothes, and they gradually came to match men's in the clarity of line and easy style of bodily fit that had become common for male dress during the previous century. After 1900, everyday skirts were increasingly shortened to allow the shape and action of women's legs to form part of their complete clothed image. By the second decade of the twentieth century, as fashion continued to simplify women's modes of dress, the rules of proportionate sizing could be applied to them as well. A large ready-to-wear industry for ordinary women's fashionable garments became possible, spurred by the new needs of working women, whose fashions eventually came to include trousers as well as skirts. Factory-made clothes for both sexes became the staple of mainstream fashion in the industrialized world, and for ordinary clothes everywhere as local artisanal traditions declined.
Just after the middle of the nineteenth century, however, offsetting this incipient trend, the Haute Couture came into existence for women's fashion. This French enterprise specialized in the superior artisanal creation of fashionable feminine clothing, conceived by artist-like designers whose high prices flaunted their distance from both home sewing and mass production, and whose personal fame came to increase the worldwide prestige of their works. Ordinary dressmakers in Europe and America, and eventually clothing factories, therefore copied and modified Haute Couture designs for the general female public.
In the last third of the twentieth century, original creative designers were engaged directly by both the male and female fashionable clothing industries, while the Haute Couture, later including Italian, English, and American designers, came to have a more limited influence on ordinary female dress. The multiple-production aesthetics of industrial design, however, came generally to affect all fashion design for both sexes, as well as for children. With the global clothing markets of the late twentieth century, a certain neutralization has thus occurred in the contemporary look of the clothed human body, which in a great part of the world is commonly clad in the shirts, sweaters, pants, and jackets originally designed as Western masculine gear for work and sport.
Ordinary work and leisure clothes for men, women, and children now look very much alike, and the more traditional fashionable dress that sharply distinguishes sex, age, and social stratum is thought to be special costume for public life, office work, or festal moments. In undeveloped countries, pre-modern woven rectangular shapes still persist, often in combination with tailored factory-made garments; at the same time versions of simple, ancient gear are steadily recurring in tailored, mass-produced Western fashion. It is worth noting that the world's clothing, despite some irreversible changes, has somewhat come full circle, as if returning to the days of wrapped and draped rectangles or T-shaped tunics for every human body.