Clothing has been covered essential part in life as much as food and house. According to definition of Wikipedia, the practical function of clothing is to protect the human body from dangers in the environment: weather, insects, noxious chemicals, weapons, and contact with abrasive substances, and other hazards. Clothing can protect against many things that might injure the naked human body. However, as time goes by, clothes began to play important role; more than just protect people themselves from the outer danger or stimulus. They have been worn for not only safety but comfort, and modesty and to reflect religious, cultural and social meaning. Especially, when it comes to women, it’s more special than the men’s. Women’s clothes in history were so luxurious compared to those in nowadays. Even though the forms of clothing were distinctive by regions and ages, most of them were obviously elegant. Surprisingly, among women’s clothing history, there rarely had been trousers but dresses in both Eastern and Western society. How come such a similar culture existed all over the world for hundreds or thousands years? The followings would let you know incredible facts in women’s clothing history.
Different Countries, Different Clothes
Ancient Egyptian Clothes
Ancient Greek Clothes
Clothing has been varied by its region and period. In ancient Egypt, women used to wear simple dress made of a rectangular piece of cloth. It was folded in half and sewn down the edge to make a tube. Because of its hot weather, ancient Egyptian wore wigs which served to protect them from direct sun ray. Instead of wearing simple dress, they are known to wear magnificent accessories. (http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/women's%20clothing.htm)
Later, in ancient Greece around BC 5th century, women wore one large piece of wool or linen, wrapped around them and pinned in various ways to make it stay. The noticeable rule in this ancient Greece was that ladies couldn’t wear more than 3-layered clothes to prevent wasting. (http://www.historyforkids.org/learn/greeks/clothing/index.htm) The length of cloth was also restricted for same reasons. This was the first ban in clothing history.
In the Middle Ages, the clothing was getting more abundant in its color and style. Still, their clothes were closely related to religion reflecting society of that age. By the time of Renaissance, women’s clothing was epitome of that time. As culture flourished, ladies wore extravagant dresses decorated with gold and jewels. Burckhardt, the historian in mentioned Renaissance costumes as follows; The costumes of that time, as given us by the Italian painters, are the most convenient, and the most pleasing to the eye which were then to be found in Europe. The nation was vain and even serious men among it looked on a hand some and becoming costume as an element in the perfection of the individual. In 17th century, the era of Baroque, the clothing was free than that of Renaissance, stressing the beauty of curves. In 18th century, the tendency of extravagant clothing was increased in Rococo style. This also reflects the atmosphere in 18th century. Culture and life at that time were pretty immoderate and unrestricted. Women wore richly decorated gowns, often with a fancy corset above the waistline that was worn in public and adorned with bows. Not only their clothing, but also their hair style is very noticeable. As shown in many works of art, their hair was ‘piled’ high on the head. The hair style of that time was rather ‘masterpiece.’ Hair dressers decorated the huge wig with jewels, ribbons and feathers. Some even planted vase into wigs and fixed the flowers. The hair styles sometimes described specific shapes or events. In 1778, when defeated in naval battle, this was materialized by the art of hair. Once they trim their hair, they had to last the hair style for about 1 or 2 weeks. It is no wonder that their hair was so unhygienic that swarmed with insects. (http://www.earthlydelights.com.au/rococo.htm)
Here is the order of dressing in 18th century showing the way of dressing.
1. Put on a pair of over-the-knee stockings. Bind them above the knee with tapes or buckles.
2. Put on your shoes and do up the buckles.
3. Put on your mid-calf length chemise, followed by a modesty skirt.
4. Now put on your stays and smooth out the chemise underneath.
5. Tie your pocket around your waist.
6. Put on your paniers.
7. Cover the paniers with your petticoat that will hide the panier bones.
8. Put on the outer petticoat.
9. Pin the stomacher to the front of the stays, pinning through the tabs which are located at the sides of the stomacher.
10. Put on your robe, pulling it on like a jacket.
11. Pin the front edges to the stomacher, hiding the pins down the front under the pleats.
12. Put on your fine white linen or lace cap and cover your neck with a scarf (fichu). In cooler weather a mantelet and headscarf may be used.
In Eastern countries, particularly among royal families, luxury fineries were frequently seen as well. In Korea, women wore similar clothes in Koryeo Dynasty (936-1036) as Hanbok, the traditional clothes which have existed for a long time as main clothing. The clothes were wider than Hanbok you can see nowadays. The brilliant accessories are noticeable. Except noblewomen, wearing earrings was restricted except marriage. In Chosun Dynasty, however, it was banned to wear golden accessories and metalworking industry was declined. Instead, queens and royal harems used to put on big and decorative wig called Gachae in Chosun Dynasty.
The Heian Era of Japan, approximately from 9th to 13th century, was so called ‘the Golden Age’ of Japanese culture. Costumes in this period, especially women’s one got more intricate than before. They wore multi-layered clothes called Juni-hito, meaning ‘twelve layers.’ In fact, until the sumptuary laws were passed in 1074, it was not uncommon to find noble women wearing up to forty layers. Juni-hito is still controversial among historians in that whether it is caused by cold Japanese winters, or just a symbol of wealth. During the Muromachi age (1392-1573), the Kosode, a single kimono formerly considered underwear, began to be worn without the hakama pants over it, and thus began to be held closed by an obi 'belt.' During the Edo period (1603-1867), the sleeves began to grow in length, especially among unmarried women, and the Obi became wider, with various styles of tying coming into fashion. Since then, the basic shape of both men's and women's kimono has remained essentially unchanged.
China has also its long-lasting traditional clothes, Ch’ang-p’ao. It was derived from the Manchu. The styles of Ch’ang-p’ao were varied through the ages, but the basic form – long one-piece and narrow sleeves - was not changed. It was flourished in Qing dynasty together with its political heyday. The clothes of the Manchu ethnic minority and the Han Chinese were mixed and harmonized. Later, in early 20th century, political confusion also influenced clothes. Ch’ang-p’ao was transformed to the style of these days with the influence of Western civilization. Many learned girls wanted to break the rule of wearing Ch’ang-p’ao, the symbol of clothes that please men, and began to wear new form of clothes called Chi-pao. They began to wear Chi-pao as an influential and new Western culture.
As many types of clothes shows, these reflects the conditions they lived like society, climate, and religion. However, it is true that most of them were splendid and decorative whether in ancient or modern times, Eastern or Western history. What’s more, not only the elegant clothes, but extravagant hairstyle was shared across the world.
With those deluxe clothes, ladies looked gorgeous indeed. It was naturally believed that to follow the standard of beauty was right. However, in order to seem to be good, women suffered so much pain for a long time. A corset, a garment worn to mold and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic purpose, sometimes caused women to die for their organs didn’t work well. In 1874, a doctor warned 97 lists the corset may cause including weakened respiratory organs, hysteric melancholy, and sterility. In Korea, Gachae represented her social status in Chosun Dynasty. That’s why high-class women at that time wore showy wigs. At that time, it caused social evil because of its high price. People who couldn’t afford to wear Gachae sometimes squandered property to manage this. Also, it was so burdened as 4~5 kilograms that these leads to neck disorder like ruptured disk and even death. It is no wonder that actresses in historical drama feel uncomfortable with heavy Gachae. Clothing in was not an exception. As mentioned above, Juni-hito was a multi-layered dress which was even hard to wear. According to recordings, people who wore Juni-hito had to move around on their knees and lying about a lot in the palace. The beautiful garments weighed so much that they damaged the spine. They were physically unable to rise up, so died in fire not fleeing from it. Actually, they ‘could not’ flee from it. Foot-binding in was also an evil practice lasting for about 1000 years. Young girls were forced to bind their feet to prevent growing. Their feet were not longer than 10-15 centimeters. Ladies were hard to walk and had to suffer from pain. The abnormal feet used to performed power over women in patriarchy society. It was said that women couldn’t escape far from house because of their bound and painful feet.
Girls, Throw away Corsets
Industrial Revolution brought about problems on women’s labor. A feminist Flora Tristan criticized what restrict women. She said, ‘Because of wearing corset, women are physically underdeveloped. Also, their intelligence is as young as kids. They are considered like a doll.’ In fact, corset was obstacle for women to work in the Industrial Revolution. Not only feminist but doctors resisted against wearing corset for its physical and mental cruelty. However, while the movement seemed not successful, Amelia Bloomer promoted women to wear trousers like men in 1851. It was not exactly the same trousers we wear nowadays but considered as women’s first practical clothing. She continued the corset-free movement and tried to reform male-dominated society.
Thanks to this feminine social atmosphere, Coco Chanel, the famous designer in the world, was able to advance the movement with revolutionary clothes. She knew that women in early 1900s wore binding corsets, too heavy hats and uncomfortable dresses. She thought that this was wrong dandyism. Instead, she made clothes to wear. She designed little curvy and loose women’s clothing that doesn’t require wearing corset. In addition, Chanel astonished the world again by launching mini skirt. (The Weekly Hankook, 2003.9.19.) It was the first clothes in the world to expose women’s legs. She often said that she only designed things that she would wear herself, and accordingly often modeled her own clothing. With her efforts, she also invented shoulder bags to free women’s hand and practical women’s jacket with pockets. Of course, she was a designer but she was rather an inventor or scientist in fashion.
Still to Discuss
As mentioned above, women’s clothes were so luxurious all over the world and for whole ages. However, it has been also abused by men to keep established rights over women. Surprisingly, whether women of the age realized or not, a number of them were used to keep practicing political and social power, especially for men. This seems to be over these days, but still it is controversial for Islamic countries to wear Hijab. It is the Arabic term meaning ‘to veil, to cover, or to shelter.’ Islamic women wear the scarf, Hijab around their head to veil their face. The problem is that is it forbids women’s right of freedom or not. In fact, some countries legalized not wearing Hijab while others didn’t. This would be a huge problem between the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion. Hijab had been criticized to violence women since it limit sight. Furthermore, the matter of gender discrimination was also raised. However, from religious aspect, it’s a matter of one’s identity. That’s why it’s still controversial and hard to conclude which is right and which is wrong.
By just looking the history of clothes, you may be able to notice the society. When it comes to women’s clothing, it was usually a history of oppression up until 20th century. And you may not notice but your clothes would be the historical materials to study the time you lived. Not really luxurious dress in the medieval times reflects many aspects of the time, according to Rachel Hartman. It is said that the single form of clothes in medieval times served as a gender marker, social marker. It is also known to mirror its rigidly structured society. Clothing itself can raise so many questions on the life at that time. So don’t be just fascinated by its splendor.