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History Of Fashion


Shirts in a shop on the King's Road


The textiles industry was probably the first in which fashion was used as a marketing tool. In 1764 James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, a machine with sixteen spindles that greatly speeded up the spinning process. By 1769 this machine was being sold widely. Before any item was made using the spinning jenny it had to be planned, and then put into production. The people responsible for this planning were called designers, and it soon became obvious that planned changes in design would help sales. From the 1760s the Lyons silk industry introduced twice yearly collections to enhance differentiation between products, to stimulate trade, and to combat copying. By 1800, patterns in printed cotton for dresses changed routinely with each season. For furniture fabrics new patterns were produced every two to three years. This gives the impression of designers being in charge of fashion, manipulating changes through the seasons to keep sales high. There is of course some truth in this, but it masks a much more mysterious reality in which it is very difficult to work out who, if anyone, is actually in control of fashion. Designers manipulate fashions, but they also have to respond to fashions dictated by the people who wear clothes, who are in turn responding to designers. Some people are trying to fit in through their clothes, some are trying to stand out: some designers are trying to work out what people want, and some are trying to tell people what they want. And out of all these conflicting forces, the history of fashion has emerged.


Recreation of stone age scene at Kents Cavern, Devon

Clothing has a long history, dating back in all likelihood to the most recent ice ages, when clothing was needed for warmth. While animal fur was the obvious choice for warm clothing, wearing animal fur has a number of serious drawbacks. An animal skin wrapped around the shoulders hampers movement, and leaves part of the body exposed. Some means of shaping the pelt is required. This was difficult as animal hides become hard and stiff when dry. They can be made pliable by chewing, and it seems that prehistoric women spent much of their time chewing hides. Eskimo women still prepare hides by chewing today. An alternative method was to beat the hides with a mallet. But chewing or beating did not stop the hides stiffening up again as soon as they got wet, at which point the whole laborious process of softening had to begin all over again. The big step forward came with the discovery of the magical effect of tannic acid. Tannic acid is extracted from the bark of certain trees - oak or willow for example - by soaking the bark in water. Soaking hides in the resulting solution leaves them permanently pliable and waterproof. This revolutionary breakthrough gave a warm flexible fabric. The next crucial advance was the invention of the eyed sewing needle, a tool which allowed newly pliable hides to be shaped. Large numbers of needles made from mammoth and walrus tusks, and from reindeer bone have been found in paleolithic caves dating to 40,000 years ago (see Costume and Fashion, A Concise History by James Laver P11). The essential items for clothing were now in place, flexible fabric and a way to shape it. Once the climate warmed and people made the switch from nomadic existence to a pastoral way of life, they started to wear cloth made out of plant and animal fibres woven together on a loom. This gave a greater choice of fabrics.


The Walks at Gray's Inn

While the essential requirements for fashion were now in place, the history of early clothing is one of minimal change. Draped clothing in ancient Greece remained stable for a long period, between the thirteenth and the fourth centuries BC. Clothing might indicate rank in society, but there was little opportunity for people to try and copy the fashions of social leaders. Often laws were in place to specifically stop this happening. The same stability in fashion is demonstrated by the ancient Egyptian civilisation, where well preserved wall paintings give a great deal of information about clothing. These paintings reveal that over a three thousand year period there is little change in clothing styles. The Romans show more evidence of fashion. Hair styles in particular changed rapidly, and it seems that some statues were designed to have a removable section representing the hair, so that a new hair style could be placed on the statue when necessary. Even for the Romans, however, there were limits on changes in clothing fashion. Fashion is often driven by the copying of styles adopted by social leaders. In Roman society royal dress was exclusive by law. Only the royal couple were permitted to wear purple. This situation more or less continued until the sixteenth century, when as James Laver points out during the Peasants Revolt in Germany we suddenly have a reference to people wanting to copy the clothing of social leaders. Apparently one of the demands of the insurgents was that: "they should be allowed to wear red clothes like their betters" (Costume and Fashion, A Concise History P86). This hint of change in the fixed exclusivity of fashion became much more powerful in the late seventeenth century, during the reign of Charles II. Fashion now began to develop as an aspirational activity, and echoes of significant fashion trends set by Charles II continue to be seen today. In October 1666 Charles decided to create a fashion that would make him distinctive. He chose a Persian inspired coat, over a long vest. This style eventually developed into the waistcoat and overcoat. Charles also wore a cravat, which eventually developed into the neck tie. The cravat itself is very revealing of the new way in which fashion was being viewed. The cravat had developed in France, in the court of Charles's contemporary Louis XIV. It seems that the cravat was originally a form of neck wear worn by Croat mercenaries fighting for the French under Louis XIV. This was copied first by French officers, and then by courtiers of Louis. Louis, and his forward looking minister Colbert were anxious to encourage the French textile trade and wore its products themselves hoping to lead by example. This proved very successful. The same fashion leadership was being provided by Charles II in London, where people would go to places like the Walks at Gray's Inn to see and be seen. The great diarist Samuel Pepys walked here, looking at the attractive women and their lovely clothes. Now the whole idea of fashion was not something shut away, with certain styles as exclusive badges of office. Society was now able, and even encouraged, to follow the style of its leaders. Fittingly Chelsea's King's Road, now one of the most famous clothes shopping streets in London, was originally Charles II's private route from London to Kew. The next step was for clothes designers to help people copy the fashions of royalty. And this is what happened in the late eighteenth century. Europe's first fashion designer in the modern mould was Rose Bertin. From her workshop in the Rue Saint Honree in Paris, Bertin dressed French queen Marie Antoinette. Bertin then used the queen as a valuable promotional tool to sell clothes to other wealthy clients.


Worlds End - Vivienne Westwood's shop in the King's Road

The textile industry had developed as a way of making large amounts of clothing for people who wanted to copy the styles of their social betters. But people did not want to see fashion in these terms. They did not want to see their clothes as mass produced copies of fashions others were wearing. In fact they wanted the sense that their clothes expressed individuality. It could be argued that the myth of the great fashion designer grew up to meet a need for a sense of individuality in fashion. In place of a large scale industrial process people preferred to see clothing produced by a gifted individual. So the fashion business obliged by providing a succession of artist designers who appeared to dominate the world of fashion, from Charles Frederick Worth, who began as an apprentice at Piccadilly drapers Swan and Edgar in 1838, to the designers of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, such as Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen. It is also relevant that the fashion leaders people looked towards have tended to be specific individuals, rather then groups. It is true that there has long been the use of military styling in fashion - remember the neck tie originated as the neck wear of Croat mercenaries - but generally speaking it was individuals who chose styles around them, and turned them into fashions. In the early 1800s George IV was an enthusiastic style leader, as was Edward VII. Into the twentieth century aspirational figures frequently came from the expanding world of celebrity. The first leaders were dancers Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker, actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt, and professional celebrities such as Stephen Tennant and Oscar Wilde. Into the 1950s a succession of style rebellions began in which young people used clothes to supposedly set themselves apart from society. The role models for style were often seen as anti-establishment - James Dean for example. Developing through the teddy boy, and mod fashions, these trends reached their peak in the punk fashions of the 1970s. This anarchic style of ripped clothing, and home made jewelry made from safety pins and razor blades, was supported by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren from their shops in London's King's Road. Punk stood as the ultimate anti-fashion. But almost as soon as it erupted, punk became a commercial proposition. If a lot of people want to opt out from commercial trends, then that opt out itself becomes commercial. Punk developed into the New Romanticism of 1979 where youngsters could have fun dressing up, and the people supplying the clothes could keep making money. Fashion cannot escape the sense of aspiration which created it. Vivienne Westwood, once the designer for punks, is now as exclusive as Charles II making his sumptuous way down the King's Road. Princess Diana and Kate Middleton, would continue to set styles in the same way that Marie Antoinette did.

A pair of jeans perhaps encapsulate best the history of fashion. Denim, a blue-dyed hard wearing cotton, has been linked with early sixteenth and seventeenth century textile centres in Nimes, France (hence "denim") and the Italian port of Genoa (hence "jeans"). Denim became work wear for eighteenth century American sailors, and then nineteenth century land labourers. Into the twentieth century jeans were linked with the heroic years of American expansion before life settled into its modern industrial form. By the 1950s a mass consumerist society had turned to jeans as an "escapist legend," a kind of anti fashion. This legend was given extra momentum by James Dean and Marlon Brando who wore jeans while playing anti-establishment characters in their films (see Fashion by Christopher Bryward 166 - 7). Into the 1970s a previously largely standardised garment was given subtle styling differences, to give the familiar pattern of fashionable change and brand differentiation. A pair of jeans reflects the move to mass consumerism, and the reaction against it, and the compromises that go into balancing the two opposing forces.