Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.
Historical Fashion Trends
Every generation has introduced some ridiculous styles of clothing that people love to hate. Modern complaints include falling-down pants and the absurd notion of purchasing jeans that have been professionally ruined with tears and bleach stains. Underwear worn as outerwear, a look that's been around since the 1980s, is another concept that seems foolish.
Whether impractical, like stiletto heeled platform shoes, or just plain ugly like those horrid polyester printed pants of the 1970s, crazy outfits seem a modern conceit.
Let's not confuse generational objections to new styles with crazy fashion trends.
After all, people once objected to women wearing pants. In the 1920s, oldsters had a fit when Flappers wore hems that ended just below the knee. The older generation often believes that their own mode of dress is the most attractive, sensible, and darn right decent.
Outlandish outfits parade down the runway every Fashion Week. The strange garments, hairstyles, and accessories offered up by designers are art pieces not intended for public consumption. Themes offered in these shows inform the design of new styles and suggest certain fabrics, textures, and shapes. We may see celebrities sporting some pretty nutty outfits at shows or on TV programs, but they are specialty designs, a romp with creativity, not styles worn by fashionable people.
The historic clothing presented in this article were garments worn by the elite, clothes that denoted respectability and status, clothes that may appear to be beautiful but were ridiculous, uncomfortable, and impractical.
The Birth of Fashion
Up to the Early Middle Ages, western garments were generally simple. The main difference between the clothing of the elite and commoners was expressed by the types of materials used in garment construction. Royalty and the wealthier class used finer fabrics in their garments. They wore finer weaves and cuts of linen and wool, added embellishments, and topped it off with jewelry.
The concept of fashion took shape as the world recovered from the Black Death (1346 - 1353). After the plague decimated the European population, new opportunities were available to clever people. A new mercantile class emerged. Trade routes to the East opened up, providing new textiles and inspiration. A new mercantile class emerged. New and more sophisticated tailoring added new cuts and styles of clothing and headgear. Suddenly, the idea of sporting unique fashions popped into popular consciousness.
Being part of the elite meant dressing the part. The wealthier merchant class couldn't wait to jump on board when royals decided to support their skirts with gigantic, inverted baskets. So much so that the Church and governments created sumptuary laws to regulate the types of clothing that would be worn depending on status and income. The laws imposed fines but were often ignored.
Children Dressed Like Adults
Today, many parents dress their children in much the same manner as themselves. Children wear jeans or khaki pants, a t-shirt, and sneakers just like mom and dad. These current styles are all about comfort. In the past, the high fashion of the wealthy classes was not created for comfort, far from it.
During much of Western history, clothing of the upper classes was worn to display status. Children were depicted in portraitures to reflect the family's social position. There was no gender differentiation in children's clothing for babies and toddlers. It was not until the late 1700s when a romantic view of childhood as a unique period in life, that children's clothing became looser and simpler than the clothing of adults.
The painting above is not of an unattractive middle-aged woman but a two-year-old boy. A child would not ordinarily wear such finery for daily life. The best garments were worn for special occasions.
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In the Early Middle Ages, women wore veils. Sometime around the 14th century, the simple and modest veil seemed suddenly so dull that a bit of tweaking created some odd headgear. Why sit around looking perfectly reasonable when you could imprison your head in a complicated system of wires and padding? Heads formerly covered for modesty began to sport architectural wonders.
A woman of high status needed attendants to help her dress. When a woman waltzed into the dining hall with her veil held up by a butterfly-shaped wire structure, she was just screaming, "I can't even put on my own hat!" If that's not status, I don't know what is!
We've all seen those dunce caps on the heads of cartoon princesses. Originating in France, a hennin often featured thin veil fabric spewing out of the top like a volcano.
Through a complicated structure of wire, Horned hennins supported and shaped the veil into a headdress that resembled two large horns.
A butterfly headdress was a structure attached to a cup. Hair was tucked into the cup. The fine fabric of the veil was held in the shape of butterfly wings.
While such over-the-top creations indicated the wearer's high status (or fashion victim), religious leaders looked askance at such vanity. Hennins were denounced from the pulpit, and a few zealous priests burned the crazy headgear in protest.
In 1360, men's shoes began to sprout pointed toes. As the style gained popularity, the length of the point increased. Called Crackowes or poulaines, the style so infuriated the higher echelon that laws were enacted to regulate the length of the point. England's Edward III mandated toes of shoes extending no longer than two inches beyond the actual toe. Scofflaws could be fined up to 40 pence.
Not to be dissuaded from just looking a little silly, poulaine aficionados took to wearing shoes with points that extended up to 18" beyond the toe. How did they walk in those things? (A question that's been asked about various forms of footwear ever since)
Just after the turn of this last century, the long pointed toe came back, this time appearing on men's boots in Mexico, associated with the tribal dance craze.
The late 1400s introduced a style that has reappeared several times over the years. If extravagance equals status, you were at the top of the A - list when you wore enough fabric in your skirt to make drapes for the entire castle.
Catherine of Aragon and her retinue brought the farthingale from Spain to England. A giant skirt was held away from the body with a system of hoops and straps similar to the crinoline cage of the mid 19th century.
As if the standard Spanish farthingale wasn't enough, the French farthingale or Wheel farthingale enclosed the wearer's waist in a large, circular frame. The skirt stood out away from the body, but the fabric fell straight down.
The Italian farthingale tilted up at the back.
Above the skirt, a woman's body appeared angular with a bodice slanted like an upside-down triangle. The front of the bodice was made stiff with pasteboard and held in place by a stomacher which was made of wood.
What began as a fancy collar evolved into the ruff, a style that lasted two centuries. Queen Elizabeth I took the Spanish ruff to an extreme. While the Spanish created a puffy, pleated collar, the Tudor ruff raised up behind the head, surrounding the face like a frame.
The question was, what to do when you own 3,000 dresses? Queen Elizabeth I invented the clothes closet for storage. Then, to further distinguish herself, she encircled her head with a wire cage and covered it with starched lace. No one else's ruff could be greater than the queen's, so laws were enacted to restrict ruff size.
Men wore ruffs as well. Generally made of linen, the ruff was starched and pleated. A large, well-pleated ruff could use 10 yards of fabric. Eating with such a wide collar proved impossible, which led to the creation of special long-handled spoons.
Fashionable Europeans wore wigs from the mid-1600s until the French Revolution when excess was suddenly seen as excessive. A man's status could be easily judged by the size of his wig, which is where we get the term "big wig." The wigs were powdered to cover odors and repel insects.
Women took wig-wearing nearly to the moon. In the 1760s, a stiffened cushion made of horsehair or wool supported natural hair on top of which false hair was added and built up to great heights. The hair was plastered into place with pomatum, a gooey mixture of animal fats, vegetable matter, rose water, and almond paste. The resulting sculpture was then powdered.
Having this confection built on top of your head was no easy feat, so the hairdos were left in place for months at a time. The cotton candy-like monstrosities made a convenient home for small rodents.
To top it all off, whimsical objects were often added to the architecture of hair. Feathers, flowers, miniature sailboats, and windmills completed this look. The image above depicts a young lady of quality in a giant wig and over-the-top dress (or Robe de Cour).
Robe de Cour and Panniers
Pannier is the French word for basket. In the mid-1700s, an attachment made of whalebone or osier rods held out a skirt much like the farthingale. This time width was the desired effect, and panniers could create a 15-foot wide skirt.
Not only did this style make for an uncomfortable entrance (try squeezing through a door in that), but it made whispered asides and walking arm in arm nearly impossible!
The wide skirt was just part of the Robe de Cour (Court Robe) and also included a train. Sleeves were tight at the top and ended in ruffles of fabric or lace. The skirt was usually open to reveal a fabulous underskirt. Elaborate trim could include fur, as shown above.
Gigot or Leg-of-Mutton Sleeves
In the 1840s, being outrageously dressed was not enough. The well-to-do woman had to be viewed as a person who did absolutely nothing. Dropped shoulders and huge balloon-like sleeves underscored a lady's refinement. She could not even reach up.
Gigot is the French word leg-of-mutton, a very wide cut at the top then narrows. The sleeve tapered tightly on the forearm toward the wrist in later versions. Gigot sleeves appeared several times throughout the 19th century. Their width made the waist look small.
As if the wearing of corsets wasn't bad enough, the female figure was improved once again with the addition of gargantuan skirts. Crinoline cages made of concentric rings of whalebone or thin steel created a cage-like affair to extend the skirt fabric.
Between the huge skirts and tight corsets, an hourglass figure emerged as the pinnacle of femininity. A mid-19th-century conceit, the crinoline cage made even sitting down a problem. Victorian chairs are sometimes referred to by gender. A lady's chair had no arms; they could squash the skirts like a coiled spring. A gentleman's chair had arms.
A similar style returned in the 1950s with Christian Dior's New Look. A tiny waist was highlighted by wearing, once again, a crinoline cage. Sometimes, the wide skirts were held out with ruffled half slips. The New Look was both loved and hated, embraced for its post-war extravagance and shunned, by some, for an overuse of fabric after the austerity of the World War II years.
The early 20th century ushered in a new dynamic in ladies' fashion with a loosening of corsets and an interest in comfortable clothing. The new silhouette featured a long, slim look.
The long narrow look met its zenith in the hobble skirt, which was an obviously uncomfortable style. This slenderizing style was short-lived as it made the simple act of walking down the street a difficult mincing shuffle.
- Costumes and Styles by Henny Harald Hansen; 1956; E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc; New York, NY
- The Culture of Fashion by Christopher Breward; 1995; Manchester University Press; New York, NY
- Costume and Fashion by James Laver 1969 and 1982 with updates by Thames & Hudson Ltd. of London; New York, NY
© 2015 Dolores Monet
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 24, 2018:
Enjoyed all these changes in fashion especially the outlandish ones. It is a credit to the imagination even if it was a challenge to comfort. Though I like wearing jeans, I like to see women in dresses. They just look so feminine.