Dress, Fashion, and Social Change

Dress has been defined as the total arrangement of all outwardly detectable modifications of the body itself and all material objects added to it. In other words, dress includes not only clothing, but all accessories, hairstyles, and any other alterations made to the body, temporary or otherwise. We will look at:

  • Functions of Clothing

  • Clothing Construction

  • The Evolution of Dress

  • Functions of Clothing

    Dress is an important feature of all human societies.. In addition to the obvious function of providing protection and warmth, dress serves many other purposes, most of them having to do with communicating our identity to others. Indeed protection and warmth may not have been the earliest purpose of dress. Many people have always lived in warm climates where clothing is not needed for protection from the elements, yet they have developed forms of dress.

    Modesty is another commonly cited purpose for dress. Yet the definition of modesty varies greatly from place to place, and even in the same locality, over the course of time. In Muslim cultures, for example, both men and women cover most of the body in public, as do people in many other times and places. However, in other times and places exposure of various parts of the body may not be a concern.

    Beauty/ seduction are also important purposes of dress. Most people want to look attractive, at least under certain circumstances. But what is considered beautiful is also subject to variation. Ideals of beauty also change over time within the same culture, as we will see.

    Status or Identification with one's social group is clearly a very important purpose of dress. Through our dress we all signal our affiliation with a social group: this is true whether your group is a Mayan village in Guatemala, or undergraduate students at Cornell (of which, of course, there are many subgroups, including those who profess no interest in prevailing fashions).

    Ceremony or ritual may be the purpose of certain specialized forms of dress reserved for certain occasions or people; such as wedding attire, or liturgical dress.

    Fashion or style is another purpose that drives dress in some cultures. Fashion is a process by which the accepted form of dress is transformed. Mass fashion as it is has been termed in industrialized societies is transformed for reasons that are basically economic. Mass fashion is driven by a manufacturing and distribution system that is motivated to promote frequent changes in styles- that is, frequent changes in the definition of what kinds of dress are beautiful, or confer the desired status or group identity. Since many of the new ideas for mass fashion these days are drawn from the street, even those who profess to be "anti-fashion" are subjected to the pressure to innovate, if they wish to wear styles that remain distinguishable from the main stream.

    Clothing Construction

    Historically the basic forms of clothing construction can be divided into four categories.

    Draped garments are simply a length of fabric wrapped or tied about the body; no sewing is done. The Roman toga, the Indian sari, and the Indonesian sarong are all garments of this type.

    Semifitted garments are assembled from simple shapes, usually rectangles, and seamed. There is no real attempt to shape the garment to the contours of a specific body; seams and edges are mostly straight. However, the garment may be belted or laced to the body to achieve a close fit. Semifitted garments have been worn since prehistory, particularly in cooler climates where draped garments could not supply needed protection from cold. The kimono is a well known example of a semifitted garment; but semifitted garments are certainly also part of the repertoire of modern fashion.

    Garments tailored to fit first appeared in Europe in the 14th century. The earliest examples were probably designed to be worn under heavy plate armor introduced at that time. A garment tailored to fit the individual body was needed because semifitted garments would wrinkle, bunch and chafe under the armor. Tailored garments have curved seams, round armsceyes, and darts that shape the garment to the exact contours of the body. Tailoring has been a major feature of Euro-American dress since the 15th century.

    Garments tailored to exaggerate first appeared in the 15th and 16th century. Padding and/or constriction of the body were combined with the techniques of tailoring to restructure the body silhouette. This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I shows dress that narrows and elongates the waist through corseting, exaggerates shoulders through the use of padded sleeves and stiffened collar, and distorts the lower body form and proportions by the use of a hooped petticoat (known as the farthingale) and a relatively short hemline. Corseting, shoulder pads, and even hip pads have all been used in this century to accentuate body features deemed beautiful according to current fashion.

    This web site Copyright © 1995 by Charlotte Jirousek
    Questions or comments? Let us know at caj7@cornell.edu.