History of Clothing

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The history of clothing and fashion stretches back thousands of years.

Earliest Clothing

Clothes worn in ancient Egypt.
Royal garments from ancient Babylon.

The very earliest clothes were made of fig leaves.[1] By the time the Babylonian and Egyptian empires had arisen, elaborate garments existed which demonstrated the wealth and power of the individual wearing them. These garments only existed for kings and other nobles; it is likely that the clothing worn by the everyday man in the street remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Classical Clothing in the Mediterranean

The variations of clothing worn in classical Rome were similar to the clothing worn in Greece at the same time, creating a distinct Mediterranean style. The most famous clothing item of this style, the toga, was worn by both genders and bore no distinction of rank. The differentiation between rich and poor was made through the quality of the material; the upper-classes wore thin, naturally colored, wool togas while the lower-classes wore coarse material or thin felt. They also differentiated by colours used:

  • the toga praetextata, with a purple border, worn by male children and magistrates during official ceremonies
  • the toga picta or toga palmata, with a gold border, used by generals in their Roman triumph|triumphs
  • trabea' - toga entirely in purple, worn by statues of deities and emperors
  • saffron toga - worn by augurs and priestesses, white with a purple band, also worn by consuls on public festivals and equites during a transvection
  • toga with red borders - wore by men and women for festivals

After the second century BC, besides tunics, women wore very simple clothes called stola, after the fashions of their Greek contemporaries. These stoles usually consisted of two rectangular segments of cloth joined at the side by fibulae and buttons in a manner that allowed the garment to drape freely over the front of the wearer. Over the stola the palla usually was worn, a sort of shawl made of an oblong piece of material that could be worn as a coat, with or without hood, or slung over the left shoulder, under the right arm and then draped over the left arm [1].

Clothing in Middle Age Europe

The Clothing of the European Medieval period is a fascinating development from simple garments which were universal to all classes into complex, and often restrictive fashions, which varied for each class. We will begin around 900 AD and continue to 1600, focusing on the clothing of the British Isles.

Anglo-Saxon England - 900 AD

Woman from 900 AD

The clothing of Pre-Norman England was very simple, existing primarily for protection and warmth with little or no interest in fashion. All classes wore garments of similar type. Distinctions of rank were shown in the quality of the fabric and in the person's jewelry. Wool and linen were the most common fabrics. Both were dyed in basic, natural colors. Upper class women might occupy their spare time by working embroidery, but such adornment was rare.

Women wore two long gowns with tight-fitting sleeves as basic undergarments. Over these, was worn a super-tunic, a loose gown with moderately flared sleeves which reached a few inches past the elbow and were turned back into a cuff. The super-tunic was hitched up at the sides to around knee length to keep it free of dirt. Unmarried women always covered their heads unless they were slaves. The head-dresses were nothing more than a simple draped cloth or a hood attached to the cloak. The cloak was a large semi circle of fabric which was draped around the shoulders and tied or pinned with a brooch.

A man from 900 AD

Men wore a tight fiting shirt as an undergarment. Over the shirt, they wore a tunic, which was like a woman's super-tunic, but shorter. On their legs, they wore loose trousers called braes, which were bound tight to the leg with thongs of leather. Men's cloaks could be in a variety of shapes including square, oblong, and semicircular.

Shoes for men and women were fairly simple. They were really no more than slippers, with soft soles that offered minimal protection or support. Many of the poor simply went barefoot. Shoes were little more than ornaments for the rich. Boots were also available, but again they were flimsy by modern standards.

Anglo-Norman England - 1000 AD

Women's clothing from 1000 to 1100 AD. Note the tight fitting sleeves. Also, the super tunic is no longer hitched up, but hangs long.

The Norman Conquest brought many changes in the clothing of the English people. Embroidered and appliqued borders became popular for men and women as did the wearing of belts. Square necklines gained popularity and became as common as the old round style. The Normans also transmitted their attention to cleanliness and personal appearance to the English. Soon most English combed their hair and bathed quite frequently and owned several sets of clothing. The Normans also started a trend of fine fabrics and clothes decorated to an absurd degree.

Women's clothes went through two notable changes during this period. First, the sleeves of the super-tunic were no longer flared, but fit tight to the wrist. Second, the super tunic was no longer hitched up but hung long. Women continued to keep their heads covered.

Man from 1000 to 1100 AD.
For men, the tunic was still popular, and often ornamented with trim or expensive furs. Towards the end of the century, a garment much like modern shorts became popular for a short time (see illustration). Long tunics began to be used on formal occasions. The braccos began to be cut tighter, changing into more of leggings, but the old style bound to the leg remained popular as well.

Shoes were still flimsy by modern standards, and like the rest of English costume became increasingly ornamented.

Clothing in the Renaissance

Industrial-Age Clothing

Modern Clothes


  1. Genesis 3:7