A History of Fashion Design

Was it modesty, changing weather patterns or sociological behaviors that led early man to clothe his body around 250,000 years ago? Cultural anthropologists and historians likely won’t agree on a single answer because it’s highly likely that all three factored into the mix.

Before things like throw blankets even existed, man needed a way to clothe himself and body wraps made of animal hides weren’t the only way humans “clothed” themselves. Social scientists point to decorative objects like necklaces and tattoos applied with ochre and manganese pigments that were trendy even before the word “fashion” was coined.

You’re about to go on a journey through time that highlights the changing picture of fashion, from primitive man to contemporary fashionistas. Surprisingly, some of the dynamics that drive changing fashion haven’t changed a bit over time, so this history of fashion design could do more than delight you; it could surprise you, too.

History of fashion design 2

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little to no influence on society.” — Mark Twain

Early evidence of the oldest clothing styles have fascinated archaeologists, especially those focusing on Neanderthal populations. These people lived at a time when shifts in glacial and inter-glacial conditions persisted so an early version of today’s climate change were prime reasons man decided to clothe himself.

From Neanderthals to Homo Sapiens, early society depended up reindeer, caribou and other species for food, thus skins were tanned and shaped into wraps, tents and even shoes using primitive tools. Nothing went to waste.

“My kingdom for a toga.” — Julius Caesar

There is enough evidence within the archaeological record to draw conclusions between fashion preferred by Greek and Roman societies. Weather had become more temperate thus people in the Mediterranean region and large swaths of Asia relied upon sheep-shirring and plants to fashion garments. The toga became the equivalent of today’s little black dress.

The most important wardrobe item of the era was a large square or rectangular section of cloth, dyed with vegetable tints, that served myriad purposes, acting as a garment, blanket or shroud. Tunics fabricated for the wealthy could measure 6-feet wide and 12-feet long. Going barefoot was common—inside and outside the home. A pair of primitive sandals was worth its weight in gold.

“Is that thine codling or art thou glad to see me?” — Anne Boleyn to Duke Fabrizio of Bolognia

Scholars comparing the simplicity of Greek and Roman garb to fashion of the Medieval and Renaissance periods (1100 AD to 1650 AD) witnessed a creative evolution. Not only were there myriad types of cloth available to seamstresses, but intricate embroidery, jewel embellishments, gold and silver threads identified one’s status in society.

Fashion laws were passed that required men and women to dress for their stations in life. The lower class was limited to linen made from flax plants, wool or sheepskin. Landed gentry had no such restrictions, thus they wore the finest silks. Cotton was illegal in Renaissance England to force people to support the wool industry.

“Riches don’t make a man rich. They only make him busier.” — Christopher Columbus

The settling of the Americas in the 18th Century proved pivotal to a changing fashion scene. Chronicling this evolution were contemporaries Thorsten Veblen (1857-1929), an American economist and German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918). Each wrote a history of fashion design that focused on how clothing identified classes of people.

Pilgrims dressed in colonial-style fashion found themselves eager to clothe Native Americans in order to meet their puritanical standards. Despite hardships borne of settling into this new continent, society’s most efficient clothing was conservative and simple: Women wore caps, capes, dresses, gowns, hats and petticoats. By perpetually wearing caps, women could go weeks without washing their hair, so this fashion statement served a practical use.

“The novelties of one generation are only the resuscitated fashions of the generation before last.” –George Bernard Shaw

When the Industrial Revolution dawned, the textile industry blossomed. The demand for cloth woven by machinery literally transformed the way fashions were made on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean thanks, in part, to the invention of the Spinning Jenny. The sewing machine had a profound influence on fashion.

Class distinctions were never more profound. Retail stores elevated a small ready-to-wear clothing industry to prominence and women’s fashion magazines made bold suggestions that could be replicated at home thanks to the invention of paper patterns.

Hems grew shorter. Much shorter. As the Great Depression impacted world markets and economics forced people to keep wearing their oldest clothing, consumers turned to movies for fantasy and fashion clues. Glamour, shortages and sensibilities converged to turn fashion into social statements, say social scientists studying the relationship between a nation about to go to war and daring new looks. This era gave birth to a movement in which fashion equaled power.

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” — Bill Cunningham

Despite shortages, rationing and difficulties experienced as a result of WWII, a thriving black market did more than supply women with butter and soap: Nylon stockings became the ultimate accessory for women. Even brides wore simple dresses rather than silk and satin wedding gowns. Marrying in simple garb showed the world that women were proud of wearing the most efficient clothing during wartime.

For the wealthy, conspicuous consumption remained—well, conspicuous—and clever designers, inspired by men in uniform, churned out designs that emulated the colors and tailoring of Army and Navy uniforms.

Empowered by a war that got women out of the kitchen and onto airplane production lines, the nation sunk into a post-war funk that muddied gender roles. The fashion industry, quick to respond to social change, churned out house dresses, gloves, hats and shoes that encouraged women to play the role of consummate housewives.

“What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language.” — Miuccia Prada

How did fashion come to dominate the lives of women around the globe? The industry is complicit. So is the media. In sum, trends—from blue jeans going global to barely-there gowns worn by celebrities, the psychology of fashion is one of the 20th century’s most fascinating studies.

Celebrity designers became as famous as entertainers. Knock-off runway style seduced women into believing that it’s possible to reinvent oneself simply by wearing the latest trend. Complicity ran rampant: style magazines, cosmetic companies, designers and manufacturers tracked celebrity style, then churned out copycats.

Select social scientists were fascinated by this phenomenon. American anthropologist Joanne B. Eicher, Ted Polhemus (an authority on street fashion) and sociologist Diana Crane artfully compared American economic fluctuations to changes in women’s fashion, but in fact, it was a need for love, attention and admiration that drove this movement.

“Men [say] I’ve saved their marriages. It costs them a fortune in shoes, but it’s cheaper than a divorce.” — Manolo Blahnik

Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner’s “Psychology Today” magazine article nicely sums up ties between women’s needs and fashion. Baumgartner explains why women’s brains love trends because getting a hot new garment lights up pleasure centers, whether that sensation comes from browsing fashion magazines or browsing Nordstrom racks. Women feel powerful and confident dressed in clothing and that feeling can be as potent as an opioid.

“The return to femininity has important sociological implications,” says Baumgartner who equates a dynamic wardrobe with confidence, strength and sometimes, superiority—especially when a woman wears elegant clothing around other women to show she’s in control or sexy clothing to disarm men.

“I’m just trying to change the world, one sequin at a time.” — Lady Gaga

Shopping for new fashion can change brain chemicals and relieve women of concerns and problems, but that euphoria is short lived, Baumgartner has proven. So while the fashion industry continues to make millions for designers, binging on fashion has its downside for women who believe that a “cold shoulder blouse” can mediate problems.

In fact, being overwhelmed by credit card bills, a closet filled with unworn togs and the constant belief that one more wardrobe addition can deliver love, success and happiness is more common today than at any time in history. How does this bode for future fashion trends and the motives that drive them? That remains to be discovered!