Many fashion enthusiasts take a keen interest in the evolutionary journey of modern style. Even looking back as recently as 5 years ago will reveal massive changes in cuts, silhouettes, fabrics, accessories, colours, prints and more. It’s obvious that certain classic styles are frequently upcycled into refreshed versions but do you sometimes wonder about the origins of these designs? Ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Victorian English and Native Americans have long captured the collective imagination of fashion designers who still reference certain aspects of these cultures in their creative processes.
In eras before the advent of photography the only glimpse into the prevailing fashions amongst ancient humans is through portraits. And since portraits were not easily accessible to regular folk what has survived the test of time are the images of royalty and nobility. There is sporadic evidence of the styles adopted by commoners in paintings, sculptures and carvings depicting everyday life scenes but even back then everyone took their fashion cues from the celebrities of their time. And these celebrities were clearly none other than the royal family and those surrounding them.
Everyone aspired to dress like the kings, queens, princes and princesses of their time. This fascination translated into royal fashion becoming the benchmark for all style advancements. So for anyone wanting to study the origins of modern fashion it’s important to go back to these ancient times and investigate what was being donned by the royal classes and understand how their choices permeated down to the masses.
The hot and humid conditions in Egypt necessitated that costumes be light and airy to prevent heat exhaustion at a time when all work was done manually. Pharaohs and queens did little work themselves but still chose to wear linen sheaths woven from locally grown flax. Royal women and goddesses were often depicted wearing long ankle length sheaths of varying styles depending on the period.
The sheaths features broad straps in the Old Kingdom period, which were later transformed into thin strap sheaths decorated with colourful beading and gold thread in the New Kingdom. The sheaths could be form fitted or loose depending on the wearer and being bare breasted was of no concern. Men from all walks of life wore a linen loincloth wrapped around the waist evolving from shorter to longer with time. However the main distinction between the classes came from their jewellery. Both men and women adorned themselves with as much jewellery as they could afford as an indication of their social standing. Make up like eyeliner was also widely used by both sexes to exaggerate the shape of the eyes.
Ancient Egyptian Fashion
Ancient Egyptian Fashion
The Chinese were a class-obsessed society that used clothing as an important indicator of their affluence and influence. Both men and women wore open robes that were fastened from left to right. Women’s robes were longer, colourful and much more ostentatious than men’s robes that were shorter and in solid colours. Both featured voluminous sleeves and were also layered over and under with coats and padded garments during the colder months. Lower class Chinese people who toiled in fields wore clothes made from hemp and later cotton when it was introduced after the Mongol invasion. Upper class Chinese like royal families, aristocrats, scholars, priests and anyone else of note wore clothes made from silk.
There was even a law that made it punishable for poor people to wear silk. Colours also played an integral role in ancient Chinese dressing, as they were a people who laid great emphasis on visual cues and appeal. Yellow was exclusively worn by the Emperor on his everyday dragon robes as well as by queens and concubines of high standing. There were strict dress codes governing royal dressing with different robes for different occasions like festivals, travel, hunting expeditions, formal ceremonial occasions and more. Poor Chinese people were forbidden to wear yellow and could only wear simple robes in blue or black.
Chinese Emperor’s Dragon Robes
Ancient Chinese Noble Women’s Fashion
The ancient Japanese took a lot of inspiration from Chinese culture but added their own rules to the fashion of their time. Some fundamental rules including the tying of robes left over right and the use of specific shades of red for a certain class of royalty and aristocracy were Chinese imports that prevailed for a long time. But unlike the Chinese, they did not restrict the use of fabrics between classes and almost everyone wore silk robes. Courtly women wore crossed collar robes while men adopted scholarly round-necked robes in the style of Prince Shotoku.
The Kimono that is synonymous with Japanese culture was worn by all high-class ladies and is one of the most recognisable forms of clothing the world over. Kimonos were erroneously labelled as having 12 layers when in fact high-class women could wear up to 20 or more layers of silk in different variations of colour and style depending on the seasons. Commoners were wearing something that aristocrats wore as an under robe under all those layers of silk. Lowers class men and women wore single layered robes that were fastened at the waist and often included trousers underneath to afford them the freedom of movement required for manual labour.
Ancient Japanese Noble Women’s Fashion
Ancient Japanese Noble Men’s Fashion
Ancient Japenese Commoner’s Fashion
England’s history is rich with fashion references as the country’s wealthy royal and noble families always dressed impeccably. However the most documented and referenced age was the Victorian Era. Queen Victoria was extremely stylish and set an example for proper dressing through her own sartorial choices. Her white wedding gown that followed the tradition of her royal family wearing silver became the blueprint for modern white wedding gowns. The classes and masses alike very quickly imitated Queen Victoria’s style cues like boned corsets, exposed shoulders and elbow length sleeves. Upper Class ladies wore elaborate gowns with many layers and lots of decorative elements to show off their wealth.
Their corsets were very restrictive to create the illusion of an hourglass shape that was most desirable in those times. They often required ladies maids to help them dress in numerous layers. Similarly upper class men wore custom-made hand stitched suits in expensive fabrics. Just like the king and queen, they maintained an extensive wardrobe of clothes suited to different activities and dressed according to the strict norms. The middle class also dressed fairly well thanks to their newfound wealth from the Industrial revolution. Middle class women usually wore a long tunic with a long skirt and scarf for everyday activities so they could easily perform their daily chores.
But they also had a few fancy dresses for social occasions. Middle class men wore long straight pants with a thick skirt or vest as they also spent a lot of time outside. Lower class Victorians often wore hand me downs that were passed on from the upper classes. They resized ill fitted clothes if possible or made new clothes from cheaper fabrics like wool and cotton in dark colours. Their clothes needed to be practical as their spent most of their time doing manual labour so the women wore looser corsets and the men wore bigger jackets.
Queen Victoria’s Portraits From Her Wedding & Coronation
Victorian England Upper Class Fashion
Victorian England Middle Class Fashion
Victorian England Lower Class Fashion
Current fashion is seeing a massive resurgence of Native American elements and it’s understandable given the variety of culturally and artistically rich reference points. The original inhabitants of America had a unique and diverse sense of style, which was distinguished by their tribe rather than social classes. Native American women mostly wore tunics, mantles or one-piece dresses made from fur, buckskin or any other kind of animal hide from their immediate surroundings. In some tribes shirts were optional for women and were treated like coats. The men wore Breechclouts or Breechcloths that were long rectangular pieces of cloth tucked into a belt.
Tribes from colder regions added leather leggings, fur trousers or short kilts under the breechcloth or wore them without one. Their attire was simple but was accessorised with complicated hairdos and large headdresses. Men and women of importance within the tribe wore the most ostentatious headgear. All Native American articles of dress were painstakingly handmade ensuring that no two items were the same.
Ancient Native American Women's Fashion
Ancient Native American Men's Fashion
Ancient Native American Men's Fashion
Sources: Pinterest.com, Rheagupta1995.wordpress.com, Ancienthistorylists.com, Dailymail.co.uk, Owlcation.com, Ells-big-little-life.blogspot.in, Fashionfromthevictorianera.weebly.com, Katetateersall.com