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Clothing – By Valerie Steele


Clothing, coverings and garments intended to be worn on the human body. The words cloth and clothing are related, the first meaning fabric or textile, and the second meaning fabrics used to cover the body. The earliest garments were made of leather and other nonfabrics, rather than of cloth, but these nonfabric garments are included in the category of clothing.

Fashion refers to the kinds of clothing that are in a desirable style at a particular time. At different times in history, fashionable dress has taken very different forms. In modern times nearly everyone follows fashion to some extent. A young woman would look odd if she wore the clothing that her grandmother had worn when young. However, only a small minority of people dress in the clothing that appears in high-fashion magazines or on fashion-show runways.

It is not always easy to tell the difference between basic clothing and fashionable clothing. Especially today, fashion designers often use inexpensive and functional items of clothing as inspiration. Blue jeans, for instance, originated as functional work clothing for miners and farmers. Yet today, even people who dress in jeans, T-shirts, and sports clothes may be influenced by fashion. One year, fashionable jeans may have narrow legs; the next year the legs may be baggy.

Clothing historians trace the development of dress by studying various sources, including magazines and catalogs, paintings and photographs, and hats, shoes, and other surviving items. Reliable evidence about everyday clothing from the past can be hard to obtain because most publications and images concern the fashions of the wealthy. Furthermore, clothing that has survived from the past tends not to be typical of what was worn in daily life. Museum collections are full of fashionable ball gowns, for example, but have very few everyday dresses worn by ordinary working-class women. Even fewer examples of ordinary men’s clothing have been saved. Images, such as paintings, prints, and photographs, do provide considerable evidence of the history of everyday clothing. These sources indicate that although everyday clothing does not usually change as rapidly as fashionable dress, it does change constantly.


Since prehistoric times, people in almost all societies have worn some kind of clothing. Many theories have been advanced as to why humans began to wear clothing. One of the earliest hypotheses is the so-called modesty/shame theory, also known as the fig leaf theory. This theory is based on the biblical story of creation. In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve, the first human beings, realize they are naked after they eat an apple from the tree of knowledge. Ashamed of their nakedness, they make clothing for themselves out of fig leaves. As late as the 19th century, most Europeans and Americans believed that people wore clothing primarily for reasons of modesty. With the rise of a nonreligious worldview, however, people began to offer other theories. Some argued that the origin of clothing was functional—to protect the body from the environment. Others argued that some clothing was designed for sexual attraction—to display the body’s beauty.

Evidence that early clothing was indeed functional came from a 1991 discovery of a 5,000-year-old male body, frozen on top of a glacier near the Austrian-Italian border. It was clothed in a fur cap, a crudely tanned leather cape, a loincloth (strip of cloth wrapped around the waist and between the legs), leggings, and leather shoes. A grass cloak covered the fur and leather clothing. These clothes would have provided protection against the cold and rain. The Iceman, as he is called, also had tattoos, which may have been marks of decoration or tribal identity, or were perhaps intended to provide magical protection.

Decoration seems to satisfy a fundamental human need. Other animals groom themselves, but only human beings have ornamented themselves. Although in some societies people have worn little or no clothing, so far as we know, people have decorated their bodies in some way in all societies throughout history. Archaeological and anthropological evidence suggest that early people may have decorated their bodies with paint, tattoos, and other types of ornamentation even before they began wearing clothing made of fur or fabric. Body decoration, like clothing, has served a variety of social and symbolic purposes.

Modern scholars believe that clothing provides a mark of identity and a means of nonverbal communication. In traditional societies, clothing functions almost as a language that can indicate a person’s age, gender, marital status, place of origin, religion, social status, or occupation. In modern industrialized societies, clothing is not so rigidly regulated and people have more freedom to choose which messages they wish to convey. Nevertheless, clothing can still provide considerable information about the wearer, including individual personality, economic standing, even the nature of events attended by the wearer. When a woman who usually wears blue jeans puts on a frilly, flowered dress, she may be stating that she wants to look more traditionally feminine. A person wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a rock band is probably a fan of that music group and may have attended one of the group’s concerts.

A society’s economic structure and its culture, or traditions and way of life, also influence the clothing that its people wear. In many societies, religious laws regulated personal behavior and permitted only members of an elite class to wear certain prestigious items of clothing. Even in modern democracies, clothing may represent social standing. Clothing with a designer label tends to be relatively expensive, so it may function as an outward sign of a person’s economic standing. Clothing most obviously defines a social role in the case of uniforms, such as those worn by police officers and nurses, and garments worn by clergy or members of religious orders. Clothing metaphors—blue-collar and white-collar workers, for example—are used to distinguish between types of work (factory or office, in this example).

Clothing also derives meaning from the environment in which it is worn. In most cultures brides and grooms as well as wedding guests wear special clothes to celebrate the occasion of a marriage. The clothing worn for rituals such as weddings, graduations, and funerals tends to be formal and governed by unwritten rules that members of the society agree upon. Clothing may also signal participation in leisure activities. Certain types of recreation, especially active sports, may require specialized clothing. For example, football, soccer, and hockey players wear matching jerseys and pants designed to accommodate such accessories as protective pads.

Most modern societies comprise different social groups, and each group has its own beliefs and behaviors. As a result, different clothing subcultures exist. Within a single high school, for example, teenagers known as jocks are likely to wear different styles of clothing than teens called nerds. This difference can indicate to which group a teen belongs.


The development of new materials for use as covering or ornament has played a major role in the history of clothing. In early prehistoric times, the range of materials for clothing was small. Until about 10,000 years ago, people used animal skins for clothing. Single skins were worn as capes thrown around the shoulders; two skins fastened together at the shoulder made a simple garment. Fitted clothes, such as trousers or a parka (an outer garment with a hood), were also made from animal skins. Simple needles made out of animal bone, found in many sites in Europe and Asia, provide evidence of sewn leather and fur garments from at least 30,000 years ago. However, only with the development of textile technology did greater variety become possible.

A Beginnings of Textile Production

Tens of thousands of years ago, early humans learned to obtain fibers from wild plants, such as wild flax, hemp, and nettles. Such fibers could be spun into thread and made into cloth textiles. People began to weave fabric during the Neolithic Era, a period that began around 8000 bc. Evidence of early weaving comes from fragments of flax fibers found in Switzerland. In some cultures, people made cloth without weaving, by pounding sheets of bark to produce a soft, flexible textile. The development of agriculture led to the domestication of fiber plants, such as cotton, hemp, and flax.

The production of textiles requires the ability to process fibers, spin them into thread, and make cloth from the thread. Cloth can be made in a variety of ways, such as knotting, knitting, and braiding, but most cloth is made by weaving. Weaving is usually done on a loom that holds long threads (called the warp) under uniform tension so that other threads (the woof or weft) can be inserted over and under them. Many different types and patterns of weaving are possible, depending on the fiber used and the arrangement of the threads. Ancient Egyptians wove their earliest textiles from flax, which produced linen; in southern Europe, the earliest textiles came from wool; in China, from silk; and in India, Peru, and Cambodia, from cotton.

A1 Wool

Wool was probably the first animal fiber to be made into cloth. People began to raise sheep for wool about 6,000 years ago. Different kinds of wool, and mixtures of wool with other fibers, can be used to create tightly woven fabrics with smooth surfaces or more loosely woven fabrics with rougher surfaces. In many Middle Eastern societies, nomadic peoples beat wool into a matted fabric called felt, which they used to make clothing, saddle blankets, tents, and other useful items. Sheep-raising nomads in the Middle East also invented carpets made by knotting woolen weft threads onto a linen warp.

Woolens came to be the characteristic textile for European clothing during the Middle Ages, which lasted from about the 5th to the 15th century. People still commonly use wool for clothing, either as pure wool textiles or in blends with other fibers. Wool has obvious advantages as a clothing fabric because it is warm, even when wet, and readily accepts a wide range of color dyes.

A2 Silk

China’s chief contribution to world clothing has been the development of silk thread and cloth. By 3000 bc the Chinese had domesticated silkworms, feeding them mulberry leaves and unwinding their fresh cocoons to produce long strands of silk fiber. This fiber was spun into thread, and the thread was woven into cloth. By 1500 bc elaborate weaving techniques had been developed, using thread dyed in many colors. Silk is lustrous, soft, and lightweight but warm, and it can easily be dyed. Silk cloth excavated from tombs dating from the 2nd century bc includes gauze (thin, loosely woven fabric), twill (fabric with a woven design of parallel diagonal ribs), damask (fabric woven with patterns on both sides), brocade (heavy fabric woven with an intricate raised design), and plain cloth embroidered with different stitches. Farm women in China of the period were expected to raise silkworms and produce silk as part of their regular household duties.

Silk was used in China, and it was also exported along the Silk Road; this ancient trade route linking China and the Roman Empire was named after the primary export carried on it. The silk trade, conducted between western Asia and the Mediterranean as early as ad 200, brought great wealth to ancient China and sustained the economies of towns along the route. China kept the technology of silk production secret; the ancient Greeks speculated that silk grew on a special tree in China. Christian monks finally broke China’s monopoly on silk production in the 400s, when they smuggled silkworm eggs to Syria on their return from China.

A3 Cotton

Domesticated cotton first came into widespread use in ancient India around 3000 BC. Much Indian cotton cloth had a simple weave to take advantage of the material’s lightness and airiness; it was then dyed and printed by hand using wood blocks that had patterns cut into them. Indian textiles have influenced textiles of other regions from antiquity through the modern era.

One type of printed cotton fabric, called calico by Europeans (after an Indian textile center named Calicut), was exported from India to Europe in large quantities in the 16th century. Imported Indian cotton became extremely fashionable and undermined the European woolen cloth industry. This helped stimulate the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, as Europeans tried to develop ways of producing cotton cloth by machine more cheaply than it could be made by hand in India.

B Regional Differences in Textiles

The materials used for clothing vary around the world. Some textiles are better suited to a particular climate. For example, knitted wool is more useful in cold climates, and thin woven cotton is more useful in warm climates. For most of history, the textiles people used depended on the raw materials available locally, such as flax in Egypt, cotton in India, and silk in China. Beyond considerations of utility and availability, however, people tend to derive regional or national identity from their most characteristic textiles, just as they do from their typical foods. Thus, a European businessman defines himself in part by his woolen suit, an Indonesian farmer by his cotton sarong (skirt of brightly colored cloth, worn wrapped about the waist). For centuries, silk-wearing Chinese people despised wool, which they considered the fabric of uncivilized people. Today, such considerations of identity have weakened amid international trade and international cultural exchange.

C Recent Trends in Textile Manufacture

Throughout the 20th century, the trend in textiles has been toward lighter-weight materials. Better transportation and improved indoor heating have made warmth a less important aspect of clothing for most people than it was in earlier centuries. Since 1900 the weight of average clothing fabric has fallen by more than one-third. When people need extremely warm clothes, they tend to wear special outer garments such as parkas that today are typically made of lightweight synthetic materials.

Synthetic materials, produced from chemical compounds rather than from plant fibers or animal hair, have provided less-expensive substitutes for natural fabrics. Synthetic materials can also be superior to natural fibers in strength and durability. Rayon was an early synthetic substitute for silk. Nylon, a synthetic fabric introduced in the 1930s, was another early substitute for silk and quickly became the fiber of choice for women’s stockings. Polyester, a form of plastic, was introduced in clothing in the early 1950s. Blended with rayon or cotton, polyester found its first use in so-called wash-and-wear fabrics that needed little or no ironing.

Synthetic fibers fell out of favor in the late 1960s and 1970s, but new kinds of polyester that are more durable and have a softer, more natural feel to them have become increasingly popular in the late 20th century. Synthetic fibers such as spandex have revolutionized clothing by making possible the production of extremely flexible, form-fitting garments. Other synthetic fibers, created for special purposes, range from lightweight but extremely warm or water-resistant fabrics, such as polypropylene and the composite polymer Gore-tex, to woven, bullet-proof fabrics such as Kevlar that serve as body armor.


In addition to factors such as climate and natural resources, historical changes in religion and culture also exert an influence on clothing. For example, most people of ancient Egypt wore few clothes because of the hot climate. After the introduction of the Islamic religion, with its emphasis on physical modesty, in the 7th century ad, Egyptians began to wear more concealing clothing, which included veils for women.

Political history also affects clothing styles. After conquering a region, conquerors usually introduce their own type of clothing. From about 1500 on, European colonial expansion brought European clothing to other continents.

The following sections summarize the history of clothing in different parts of the world.

A The Ancient Western World

The ancient western world consisted of civilizations that developed on lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It encompassed ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Crete, Greece, and Rome.

A1 Egypt

“She who was rich in fine linen, who loved clothes, lies in the cast-off garment of yesterday.” So begins an ancient Egyptian funeral lament. Although ancient Egyptians usually wore few clothes, clothing was important in their culture. A papyrus drawing from a collection of religious texts known as the Book of the Dead depicts Egyptians growing flax, a plant that yields fiber for linen. A three-dimensional wooden model of a weaving workshop that was found in an ancient Egyptian tomb shows workers spinning linen thread and weaving it into cloth. Archaeologists have also retrieved garments from tombs along the Nile River valley.

A dress from about 3000 bc, excavated in ad 1912, was rediscovered in 1977 among a bunch of dirty linen rags in a museum in London, England. It later went on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, also in London. Perhaps the world’s oldest fully preserved garment, this dress consists of a skirt attached to a pleated bodice (fitted upper part) with a V-shaped neckline and long sleeves. Two other ancient Egyptian dresses survive from about 2400 bc. Surviving garments worn by Egyptian men include shirts, tunics, and loincloths. These garments suggest that ancient Egyptian art depicting Egyptian dress exaggerated the extent to which clothing revealed the body.

The ancient Egyptians did expose much of the body, however, and children, slaves, and entertainers often wore no clothes at all. The Egyptians fashioned most articles of clothing out of lightweight linen rectangles. Because the basic items of clothing were simple, the quality of the fabric and the use of accessories typically indicated the social status of the wearer. Finely pleated fabrics were highly valued.

The basic attire for ancient Egyptian workers was a simple loincloth. Men of the upper class wore a wrapped skirt that somewhat resembled a kilt over the loincloth. This skirt was called a shenti. By 2800 bc the shenti was knee length; by the 1700s bc some shentis fell to the ankle. By 1100 bc men wore a close-fitting shenti and a fuller long one. During the reign of King Tutankhamun (1333-1323 bc), the shenti had a triangular projection in front. Cloaks or capes were draped over the shoulder. For shoes, the Egyptians wore sandals of leather or rush (a stiff marsh plant) fastened with a thong and a strap across the instep.

Women wore a long sheath dress called a kalasiris, which extended to the ankles and was held in place by one or two straps over the shoulders. Later, some of these dresses had sleeves sewn in. The kalasiris followed the outline of the body, but it was probably not as form-fitting and sheer as represented in art. From about 1600 to about 1000 bc Egyptian women also wore a loose, sleeveless cloak, called a haik, over the kalasiris. The Egyptians favored white for most clothing, but by the 15th century BC they used colors, including yellow, red, blue, and green. Woven patterns and embroidery added borders and designs to clothing.

Both men and women wore jewelry and headgear in ancient Egypt. Gold jewelry, set with carnelian and turquoise, included necklaces, pectorals (pendants worn on the chest), amulets (charms against evil), earrings, bracelets, and wide, jeweled collars. Headgear was rich and varied. Women of elite classes often wore gold headbands that wrapped across the forehead and around the head. The crown was a royal symbol of authority, and several different types of crowns represented authority over different regions.

Many ancient Egyptian men and women shaved their heads and wore wigs. Women painted their lips and, using a reddish-orange dye prepared from the leaves of the henna plant, colored their fingernails. Men and women also painted their eyelids with kohl, a preparation made from soot or a substance called antimony. Kohl was similar to the eyeliner used by women today.

A2 Mesopotamia

At the same time that Egyptian civilization flourished along the Nile River valley, civilization thrived in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what is now Iraq. Mesopotamian culture endured through several changes in ruling ethnic groups. The earliest people to govern Mesopotamia, from about 3500 to 2500 bc, were Sumerians. Babylonian rule began in about 2000 bc, followed by Assyrian domination starting in about 1000 bc. In 539 bc the Persians conquered Mesopotamia, led by Cyrus the Great.

Whereas the Egyptians generally wore lightweight linen clothes, the Sumerians and their successors favored heavier woolen garments. Wool was produced in Mesopotamia for export as well as for domestic use. The traditional Mesopotamian garment was a woolen skirt; over time, a T-shaped tunic (loose-fitting garment extending to the knees) replaced it. Shawls were draped around the upper torso. Embroidery and fringe generally ornamented Mesopotamian tunics and shawls, and dyes gave clothing a variety of colors. Priests determined which colors were suitable for particular occasions. Men wore beards, and some Mesopotamian sculptures show the men in turbanlike hats.

Veils were worn in Mesopotamia, and they still constitute an important component of dress for women in many areas of the Middle East. Assyrian legal codes specified that only free, married women could wear veils; these codes specifically prohibited slaves and prostitutes from wearing them. The association of veiling and status persisted in Middle Eastern cultures; in early-20th-century Egypt and Arabia, veils were a sign of high social status and feminine modesty. However, the significance of veiling varied according to time and place. For example, in mid-20th century Iran, members of the urban elite class began to adopt Western-style clothing and to associate veiling with the less-educated classes.

A3 Persia

The Persians, based in what is now Iran, ruled an empire in the 6th century bc that included most of the Middle East and Egypt. They introduced two garments to the history of clothing: trousers and seamed fitted coats, both probably first made from animal skins. These tailored garments differed significantly from the woven rectangles of cloth generally worn in the Mediterranean region, and they served to protect people from cold weather. They were adopted for that purpose by peoples of Central Asia and northern Europe. People who rode horses valued trousers for use when astride, and in that capacity trousers spread to China and India, as well as to the Celtic peoples of northern Europe.

It is worth noting that throughout most of history trousers have not been associated with men. In China, both men and women, especially those who worked the land, wore trousers. In the Ottoman Empire (based in what is now Turkey), women wore trousers. Only in European cultures did trousers become associated with men.

A4 Crete

Minoan civilization flourished on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea from about 3000 bc until about 1200 bc, when it was devastated by earthquakes and conquered by people from the Greek mainland. Minoan art shows women and men athletes wearing little more than a loincloth while performing dangerous stunts such as leaping over bulls. Minoan wall paintings also depict goddesses and priestesses wearing what was probably the dress of upper-class women, consisting of a short-sleeved, laced bodice cut to expose the breasts; a long, bell-shaped skirt; and a tight sash around the waist. This style has intrigued historians because it differs so dramatically from typical Mediterranean clothing worn in ancient Egypt and Greece.

A5 Greece

Ancient Greece is famous for its philosophy, art, literature, and politics. As a result, classical Greek style in dress has often been revived when later societies wished to evoke some revered aspect of ancient Greek civilization, such as democratic government. A Greek style in dress became fashionable in France shortly after the French Revolution (1789-1799), because the style was thought to express the democratic ideals for which that revolution was fought. Clothing reformers later in the 19th century admired ancient Grecian dress because they thought it represented timeless beauty, the opposite of complicated and rapidly changing fashions of their time.

Ancient Greek clothing consisted of unsewn lengths of linen or wool fabric, generally rectangular and secured with a fibula (ornamented clasp or pin) and a sash. Typical of such garments were the peplos, a loose robe worn by women; the chlamys, a cloak worn by men; and the chiton, a tunic worn by both men and women. Men’s chitons hung to the knees, whereas women’s chitons fell to their ankles. The basic outer garment during winter was the himation, a larger cloak worn over the peplos or chlamys.

Women dressed modestly in ancient Greece, and in many areas they wore a veil whenever they left the house. By contrast, male nudity received religious sanction, and naked male athletes participated in ritualized athletic competitions such as the ancient Olympic Games. Although ancient Egyptians had associated nakedness with lower status—that of children and slaves—in classical Greece male nakedness represented goodness and beauty.

A6 Rome

The clothing of ancient Rome, like that of ancient Greece, is well known from art, literature, and archaeology. Aspects of Roman clothing also have had an enormous appeal to the Western imagination.

Probably the most significant item in the ancient Roman wardrobe was the toga, a one-piece woolen garment that draped loosely around the shoulders and down the body. Historians believe that the toga was originally worn by all Romans, and that it was worn without undergarments. By the 2nd century bc, however, it was worn over a tunic, and the tunic became the basic item of dress for both men and women. Only men who were citizens of Rome wore the toga. Women wore an outer garment known as a stola, which was similar to the Greek chiton.

Women, slaves, foreigners, and others who were not citizens of ancient Rome were forbidden from wearing the toga. By the same token, Roman citizens were required to wear the toga when conducting official business. Over time, the toga evolved from a national to a ceremonial costume. Different types of togas indicated age, profession, and social rank. The toga of adult citizens, the toga virilis, was made of plain white wool and worn by men over 14 years of age. A woman convicted of adultery might be forced to wear a toga as a badge of shame and a symbol of the loss of her female identity. Girls and boys under the age of puberty sometimes wore a special kind of toga with a reddish-purple band on the lower edge, called the toga praetexta. This toga was also worn by magistrates and high priests as an indication of their status. The toga candita, an especially whitened toga, was worn by political candidates. Prostitutes wore the toga muliebris, rather than the tunics worn by most women. The toga pulla was dark-colored and worn for mourning, while the toga purpurea, of purple-dyed wool, was worn in times of triumph and by the Roman emperor.

Togas could be wrapped in different ways, and they became larger and more voluminous over the centuries. Some innovations were purely fashionable. Because it was not easy to wear a toga without tripping over it or trailing drapery, some variations in wrapping served a practical function. Other styles were required, for instance covering the head during ceremonies. Roman writer Seneca criticized men who wore their togas too loosely or carelessly. He also criticized men who wore what were considered feminine or outrageous styles, including togas that were almost transparent.

The ancient Romans were aware that their clothing differed from that of other peoples. In particular, they noted the long trousers worn by people they considered barbarians from the north, including the Germanic Franks and Goths. The figures depicted on ancient Roman armored breastplates often include barbarian warriors in shirts and trousers. The Romans would have been horrified to learn that fitted, sewn clothing replaced their draped garments.

Roman clothing took on symbolic meaning for later generations. Roman armor, particularly the cuirass (breastplate), has symbolized imperial power. In Europe during the Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), painters and sculptors sometimes depicted rulers wearing pseudo-Roman military attire, including the cuirass, military cloak, and sandals. Later, during the French Revolution, an effort was made to dress officials in uniforms based on the Roman toga, to symbolize the importance of citizenship to a republic. The 18th-century liberty cap, a brimless, limp cap fitting snugly around the head, was based on a bonnet worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome. The modern Western bride has also inherited elements from ancient Roman wedding attire, such as the bridal veil and the wedding ring.

B Africa

While the clothing of ancient Greece and Rome has long been familiar to Europeans, scholars have studied the clothing of Africa only for the last 200 years or so. Because the African continent is vast and contains a variety of different environments and societies, the people of Africa dress in many types and styles of clothing, with some basic similarities appearing in the clothing of each region.

In ancient times Berber people inhabited deserts and mountains of North Africa west of Egypt, which was part of the Roman Empire. Some Berber clothing, such as the haik, or cloth drape, is related to the Roman toga. After the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th century ad, most Berbers converted to Islam.

Since the Arab conquest, Islamic codes about physical modesty have heavily influenced the clothing of North Africa. Many men in North Africa still wear a full-length tunic, with elbow-length or long sleeves, called a djellaba or a kaftan. The djellaba is made of cotton or wool, and in modern cities it is often worn over a European suit or trousers. A similar type of loose-fitting overgarment is a cloak called a burnoose, which often has a hood. With the djellaba, men traditionally wear turbans, headdresses that consist of a long scarf of linen, cotton, or silk wound around the head.

North African women have traditionally worn veils and scarves to cover their heads, and long robes. Beneath their robes and veils, they wear a long blouse or a second robe with either traditional loose trousers, called chalwar, or a skirt. Alternatively, they may wear modest versions of Western dress. Both Berber and Arab women usually wear a great deal of jewelry, some of which forms part of their dowry (property brought to marriage) and indicates wealth and status.

Nomadic peoples of North Africa, including the Tuareg and the Fulani, have their own special costumes. Among the Tuareg, men, rather than women, wear a headdress and a veil. Fulani women characteristically wear bright robes of cotton, elaborate hairdos, and large gold earrings.

In northeastern Africa clothing typically consists of tunics and wrapped skirts. The Amhara people of Ethiopia practice a very ancient form of Christianity, and their clothing resembles that worn in the Roman Empire during the early Christian period: long tunics, togalike wraps, and, for men, white turbans . In Somalia, Islam has influenced clothing, and many women wear veils after marriage. Both men and women wear elaborate beaded jewelry.

Many nomadic herders live in East Africa. The Masai people live mostly in Kenya and Tanzania, and the Dinka people live in the Republic of the Sudan. Traditionally, the Masai, like other Nilotic peoples, have worn minimal dress, such as a simple cloth wrapped around the waist and legs, and elaborate body paint. They also wear beaded ornamentation in the form of necklaces or collars. Traditional dress depends on age and marital status. Young warriors, for example, wear beaded necklaces and earplugs (thick, cylindrical ornaments worn on the earlobe), with special hairstyles and headdresses. Warriors also wear short skirts of fur or hide, while women wear cloth skirts. Unmarried women go bare-chested and wear a beaded belt with their skirt. Married women traditionally wear cotton cloth body wraps, which come in a variety of colors, with red a favorite.

During the European colonization of East Africa beginning in the 1800s, Europeans were shocked by the near-nakedness of the native nomadic peoples. Traditional African body decoration such as body paint and scarification (patterns of decorative scars) also distressed Europeans. Modern African governments have exerted pressure on nomadic groups to wear modern clothing sufficient to cover the genitals and women’s breasts. Dinka men, for example, traditionally wear only a beaded waist corset, the color of which conveys their age. By the 1980s, however, they were legally required to wear additional clothing when they entered a town.

Dress has also been a political issue in Central Africa, where traditional clothing and adornment is seldom seen today. After Rwanda and Burundi gained independence in the early 1960s, their governments required the people to wear modern clothing. During the 1960s and occasionally thereafter, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo discouraged both traditional dress and certain Western styles, such as the miniskirt, that it viewed as immodest. As a symbol of personal freedom, some young people in cities wear modern, European-style fashions as seen in fashion magazines such as Vogue.

Clothing in West Africa shows the influence of Islamic styles imported from North Africa, especially in the extent to which it covers the body. Women usually wear a long wrapped skirt, a loose blouse, and a head wrap. Many of the skirts are made of printed cloth, the patterns of which change from year to year. Men in some areas wear a long robe, called a gandoura, over loose trousers. In other areas they wear Western-style pants and shirts. On ceremonial occasions, tribal leaders and other important men in Ghana wear a garment wrapped like a toga.

In West Africa clothing for people of the highest status is made of kente cloth. Tribal kings traditionally wore this silk material, which is notable for its elaborately woven decorative patterns. Kente cloth (and its imitations) has become an important symbol of African pride among descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas. Whereas weaving has been considered women’s work in most of the world, in West Africa, men weave certain kinds of prestigious textiles. Other well-known textiles of West Africa include mud-cloth of Mali and cotton textiles of Nigeria. Mud-cloth has patterns of gray-brown on an off-white background, which are produced by a special dying process. Nigerian cottons are elaborately decorated with blue dye from the indigo plant.

In southern Africa both minimal and modest styles of dress exist. Among the Himba, a nomadic herding people living in Namibia, men and women wear little more than red body paint and short skirts. These skirts were once made of hide but are now made of cloth as well. The Himba have elaborately braided hairstyles. For protection from the elements and as decoration, they cover their bodies, including their hair, with a mixture of animal grease and red ochre powder. Among the Herero, also of Namibia, women wear full-sleeved and full-skirted long cotton dresses, a style introduced by German missionaries in the 19th century. Among the Xhosa of South Africa, unmarried girls wear short skirts and go bare-chested; married Xhosa women wear longer skirts, cover their breasts, and wear elaborate head wraps. The Zulu people of South Africa, who dress similarly to the Xhosa, also create elaborate beadwork for belts, pouches, jewelry, and other accessories. Zulu chiefs wear leopard skins on ceremonial occasions. Zulu women often wear tall, stiff woven hats.

C Asia

Asia can be roughly divided into Chinese and Indian spheres of influence. Chinese clothing styles have influenced the clothing of neighboring countries, including Japan and Korea; Indian clothing styles have influenced the clothing of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Thailand.

China is the most populous country in the world, home to members of 56 different ethnic groups distinguished primarily by language and religion. As a result of its size and diverse population, China has seen many clothing styles.

Many Westerners think that Chinese clothing has remained unchanged for 5,000 years. In fact, styles have changed greatly over the centuries. Although the basic garment has remained a long, wide-sleeved robe that is tied with a sash and worn over a skirt or trousers, experts can distinguish easily between the clothing of different periods. Around 200 BC, a popular women’s fashion in southern China was a robe of patterned silk, which was wrapped in a spiral around the body. Soldiers of the same period wore armor, made of small metal plates, over tunics and trousers. From the late 6th century through the 7th century ad, for example, Chinese women wore high-waisted skirts and short jackets. This style formed the model for Korean women’s dress in modern times. In the 8th century, women in royal Chinese courts often wore flamboyant clothing, with long, flowing sleeves and winglike decorative panels that hung from the sleeves. Until the 9th century, when foot binding was introduced to prevent the feet of girls from growing, both men and women in China wore the same kind of high shoes.

When the Manchus from the north conquered China in 1644, they modified Chinese men’s official dress to make it look more like their own. Manchu women wore long robes and platform shoes, while Chinese women had bound feet and wore shorter robes (more like jackets) over skirts or trousers.

Clothing in China was regulated by social status, gender, age, and occasion, beginning at least as early as 500 BC and continuing until the early 20th century. A man’s status was apparent in the type of hat that he wore, as well as by badges of rank that indicated his exact place in the social hierarchy. Members of the upper class tended to wear long robes. Both male and female peasants wore jackets and trousers. Members of the imperial court and court officials could wear the dragon robe, a long gown embroidered with dragons, legendary creatures that were an emblem of heaven and the emperor. Dragon robes appeared as early as 1000.

The regulations regarding apparel appeared to break down at times. In the 14th century, Chinese conservatives complained that fashions were changing too rapidly and that the lower classes were usurping the styles of their superiors. Although a pattern of regular style change comparable to that of modern fashion had not emerged, it appears that fashion-oriented behavior has existed in a number of non-Western regions in various historical periods.

From the 8th to the 12th century in Japan, for example, it was a term of praise to call something imamekashi (up-to-date). Although the kimono—a T-shaped garment with wide sleeves that was tied with a sash—remained essentially unchanged as the basic article of clothing for Japanese women for centuries, colors and patterns changed according to the current fashion, as did the way of wearing kimonos. Social conventions also influenced kimono styles. A kimono with a brightly colored flower pattern and long dangling sleeves was, and is still, regarded as suitable only for a young, unmarried woman.

In the early 20th century, traditional clothing began to give way to styles that combined elements of Asian and Western dress. For example, in the 1920s Chinese women began wearing the qi pao (or in Cantonese, the cheongsam), a new slim dress with a high collar and a slit skirt that combined Chinese, Manchu, and Western styles. After a Communist government led by Mao Zedong took control in China in 1949, Chinese people increasingly had to wear the so-called Mao suit, a jacket and trousers of heavy, dark blue cotton. The outfit, which resembled a uniform, was worn by Mao. After Mao died in 1976, the Chinese began again to choose their own styles of dress, and interest revived in the traditional clothing of China’s many ethnic minorities.

In Japan and Korea, Western-style clothing became widespread for both men and women in the 20th century, but by the end of the century interest in traditional clothing had returned. While many people in both countries wear Western-style clothing every day, they may wear traditional clothing for special occasions and holidays.

Clothing styles were well established in India by 3000 bc. Indian clothing styles were based on large rectangles of cloth wrapped around the body. The classic Indian clothing styles include the sari for women and the dhoti for men. The sari, a long piece of fabric, is made of cotton or silk, often elaborately decorated with dyed, woven, or embroidered patterns. It is wrapped around the body and worn with a short, fitted bodice. There are many styles of wrapping saris, and various styles are associated with different regions of India. In Pakistan, which was once part of India, women wear very full-cut trousers under, or in place of, the wrapped sari. The dhoti is also a rectangular cloth that can be wrapped around the legs to form a skirt or wrapped and brought up between the legs to form loose pants.

Wrapped and tied cloth rectangles called sarongs are typical apparel for men and women in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Sarongs can be wrapped to form a full-length garment or to form a skirt that is worn with a fitted jacket or top.

Tailored clothing that fits the body closely reached India and other parts of southern Asia with the expansion of the Islamic religion to the region, beginning in about the 14th century. Islamic influence resulted in the introduction of garments based on Persian clothing, such as trousers and fitted coats, as well as veils for women and turbans for men. As in other parts of the world, by the 20th century Western-style clothing had greatly influenced everyday clothing styles in India and Southeast Asia.

D Europe

After the fall of Rome in the 5th century, a T-shaped tunic remained the basic garment for European men and women until about 1300. A cloak or cape worn over this tunic provided warmth. Men also wore untailored drawstring trousers called braies.

In medieval society a military, landowning aristocracy dominated the vast majority of the people, who worked as agricultural laborers. Rule by a military elite meant that armor was the most important form of dress for medieval lords and the men who served them. Advances in military technology stimulated a demand for new styles of armor. Some medieval armor was soft—that is, it was made either of quilted fabric or leather. Most armor, however, was chain mail, made of interlocked metal rings.

During the 14th and 15th centuries chain mail armor was gradually replaced by plate armor, made of large pieces of metal. Arrows shot from a crossbow could pierce chain mail; a complete suit of plate armor provided greater protection. The new style of armor covered the limbs and torso, and a helmet and a moveable visor protected the head and face. To protect his metal armor from rain or the heat of the sun, a knight might wear an outer garment of cloth or leather called a surcoat.

After the new style of armor became standard, men adopted a short upper garment, called a doublet, which barely reached to the thighs and sometimes only to the waist. Initially worn under the armor, it evolved into a new kind of jacket for men. It was worn with tights and long, pointed shoes. Once this costume became general, clothing for European men and women began to diverge dramatically. For the first time, the long robe or dress became associated with femininity.

As European clothing styles became more various, tailors became more skillful at cutting and sewing clothing. They learned, for example, to set sleeves with curved tops into curved armholes. Curved seams provided greater ease of movement and permitted clothing to fit more closely to the body. Aristocratic women began wearing dresses with high waistlines, long trains, and low necklines. The clergy disapproved of these new styles, calling them indecent. Fashionable colors among the upper classes included red, purple, and black. Most peasants wore undyed clothing in the natural shades of the cloth, such as beige, brown, and gray. Peasant men wore trousers, vests, and shirts; peasant women wore skirts and looser blouses.

Fashion, distinct from everyday clothing, had begun to emerge in Europe by the 14th century, although it was still restricted to small groups of people, mostly at royal courts. By the 15th century, fashion had begun to spread, first to Italy. There, fashion was closely associated with the rise of cities dominated by the merchants and manufacturers who were prosperous enough to purchase clothing for style’s sake. Because this kind of economic system that supported a wealthy merchant and manufacturing class first developed in the West, fashion was for many centuries primarily a Western phenomenon. Within Europe, some countries—England, for example—developed a modern industrial economy more rapidly than others. Already by the 18th century, many working-class people in England wore clothing that resembled fashionable styles. In contrast, much of Eastern Europe retained traditional styles until the 20th century, when Western-style clothing became predominant. Some traditional clothing of Eastern Europe came under the influence of Turkish styles and differed from that of Western Europe. The Ottoman (Turkish) Empire ruled much of the Balkan Peninsula in Eastern Europe, starting in the 15th century.

E The Americas

A variety of peoples with different styles of clothing inhabited North, Central, and South America before Europeans arrived beginning in the late 1400s. In the northern Arctic regions, the Inuit (Eskimos) and Aleut peoples wore fur parkas and trousers. The clothing of nomadic hunting societies farther south was made of animal skins. Men in some societies wore little more than a loincloth and leather leggings. Both men and women wore one-piece robes, generally made of animal skin, with an opening for the head. Decoration on articles of clothing and jewelry might consist of featherwork and quillwork (decoration made with porcupine quills); body paint was also used. After the Europeans introduced colored glass beads to the Americas, these, too, were applied to jewelry and to moccasins (soft slippers) and other apparel of animal hides.

After Spanish conquerors introduced sheep to the Americas in the 16th century, the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest became the first of the native cultures to weave sheep’s wool into cloth. Earlier, the peoples of this region and elsewhere had made cloth from plant fibers and bark. The Native Americans also adopted vests, woven cloaks, and other items of European clothing.

The indigenous peoples of Central and South America had an elaborate clothing culture before European conquest in the 16th century. Clothing was woven from cotton and other fibers, such as palm leaves, throughout the Aztec, Maya, and Inca empires. Typical garments worn in preconquest Central America included the loincloth, hip-cloth (which was longer than a loincloth), tunic, and cape for men, and the wrapped skirt, untailored blouse, and poncho (a blanketlike cloak, with a hole for the head) for women. Men also wore quilted armor and ceremonial warrior costumes. Jewelry, headdresses, and featherwork were important symbols of status.

After the European colonization, European clothing replaced, augmented, and modified indigenous styles. The Spanish mantilla (a lightweight lace or silk scarf worn over the head and shoulders), long gathered skirt, and tailored blouse became part of women’s dress. The sombrero (a large straw or felt hat with a wide brim and a high crown), jacket, and trousers became part of men’s attire. Spain’s trans-Pacific trade between its colonies in Acapulco, Mexico, and Manila, Philippines, introduced some Chinese and Philippine motifs and embroidery styles into Mexican and Central American women’s clothing. When the French navy visited Guatemala in the 19th century, a particular style of straight-legged, navy blue sailors’ trousers became incorporated into local dress. By the late 20th century, commercially woven cloth and synthetic dyes had largely replaced handwoven cloth and vegetable dyes. Nevertheless, many ancient design motifs with symbolic significance, such as serpents and rainbows, still persist.

Similar changes occurred in the Andes Mountains of South America when the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire in the early 16th century. Although European styles replaced most traditional Inca clothing, some ancient Andean woven textiles have survived and are now in museum collections. These textiles were primarily made of cotton, although llama, alpaca, and vicuña wools were also used. Weaving materials were often colored with mineral and vegetable dyes. Along with patterns and images woven into the fabric, painting, stamping, embroidering, and appliqué were used to create textile designs. Despite European influence, traditional weaving remains an important activity among women of indigenous Andean societies today. Weaving and clothing are still used to communicate regional identity and marital status. In addition, many Andean women now produce hand-knitted sweaters and other garments for commercial markets.


After the Industrial Revolution began in Europe in the 18th century, it became increasingly possible to produce cloth and clothing quickly and inexpensively. Fashionable clothing styles spread rapidly from the upper classes to the middle and working classes in the West. As communication improved, styles also spread to members of the elite classes in other parts of the world. Mass production of clothing meant that the traditional clothing styles of Africa, Asia, and the Americas were largely replaced by everyday European styles.

As national economies grow increasingly international, clothing styles have become correspondingly global. Young people in Johannesburg and Jakarta, Boston and Buenos Aires all tend to wear the same kind of clothing. However, different cultures have modified these originally European styles in accordance with local values and lifestyles. In particular, religious beliefs have influenced the clothing that women wear in public. Thus, a woman in Iran may wear blue jeans and a T-shirt at home, but cover them up with an enveloping robe called a chador when she goes outside. In addition, many people enjoy wearing their traditional clothing on holidays and other special occasions for reasons of national or ethnic pride.

Fashion change includes both short-term fluctuations in style and longer-term trends. Two trends seen in the 20th century seem likely to continue in the future. The first of these is the blurring of gender boundaries. Fashionable clothing of the 19th century made very sharp distinctions between men’s and women’s clothing in color, shape, fabric, and decoration. Gradually these distinctions broke down, especially when women claimed masculine items of clothing. Trousers and tailored suits are two notable examples of men’s styles now worn regularly by both men and women.

Today’s standard wardrobe includes a large number of garments that are essentially ungendered (neither male nor female), including T-shirts, jeans, casual jackets, and many kinds of special sports clothing, such as running shorts and sweat suits. At the same time, true unisex clothing (clothing with no distinction between genders) is very rare and is likely to remain so. Men’s and women’s tailored business suits, for example, can be regarded as simply two versions of the same basic garment, but they are generally very different in shape and in details, such as on which side the buttons are placed. Even outwardly ungendered items, such as jeans, are usually made in slightly different versions for men and women. An important function of clothing is to serve as a signifier of social identity, including gender, and that is likely to remain true.

A second continuing long-term fashion trend is the increasing importance of casual and sports attire in the overall wardrobe of both men and women. Tailored suits as business attire are now rapidly giving way to more casual dress.

Innovations in textiles and clothing construction often appear first in specialized sports clothing and then rapidly spread to everyday dress. Just as clothing sends signals about gender, it carries messages about situations and occasions; special formal attire of some sort will continue to be a part of fashion for the foreseeable future. However, such clothing is likely to become even more occasion-specific than it is today, and the trend toward ever more casual everyday dress is expected to continue.

More on clothing at:

  • Clarke, Duncan. The Art of African Textiles. Advanced Marketing Services, 1997. Large format includes numerous color plates.
  • Harris, Jennifer, ed. Textiles: 5,000 Years. Abrams, 1993. History of textiles worldwide.
    Jerde, Judith. Encyclopedia of Textiles. Facts on File, 1992. Reference written for the general reader.
  • Kadolph, Sara J., and Anna L. Langford. Textiles. Prentice Hall, 1997. Provides basics of textile production and performance.
  • Mazzaoui, Maureen F. Textiles. Ashgate, 1998. Details textile production throughout the world.
  • Seiler-Baldinger, Annemarie. Textiles. Smithsonian, 1992. Comprehensive guide to fabric production.

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