Cloths of Change: The Birth of Fashion in Europe

Clothes began as an essential tool to survive weather conditions in colder climes, before becoming symbols of wealth, power and privilege. Clothing became fashion as the it became less practical and more out of touch with the average person. Massive bustles, wide skirt hoops and impossibly long stomachers are examples of how fashion overcame function in women’s wardrobes from the 17th century onwards, but prior to the rise of these dresses came the first fashion revolution; that of class segregation.

Clothing has always been used to denote positions within tribes, villages or kingdoms, be it with a crown or a cloak or a staff. From the inception of fabrics until the 12th century, northern European clothes were made from simple materials such as undyed cotton, wool, furs and linen, and shared the same cut of a tunic with trousers for men, and layered tunics for women. If you were rich, you could have embroidery, silks and brightly dyed fabrics, as well as jewelry and accessory clothing such as short cloaks. However, it was the turn of the 1300s when the wealthy classes strayed from the template by introducing tightly laced gowns with low and wide necklines for women, and tight tunics at the torso with flaring skirts for men. Moralists of the time criticized the introduction houppelandes, with their full sleeves trailing to the ground and high collars, for being too extravagant. Silk was brought back from the crusades and through trade, and brocade and damask was woven in Italy for those who could afford it. Velvet was available to the upper classes, as was golden thread, stones and pearls for embroidery. Women had elaborate headdresses such as the hennin, a long conical headpiece with a veil trailing behind it, which could even reach the floor. It was an item of clothing, which had no practical use, and was simply a status symbol, especially coupled with the trend to pluck eyebrows and shave foreheads to create the fashionable receding hairline. Lower class citizens would never have the time or need for such frivolity, and therefore it remained a symbol of the upper class gentlewoman. However, whatever the nobility had worn a century before had trickled down to the lower classes. There was a rise in the use of gloves, the placement of a wimple to mimic the hennin and the trade of woodblock printing of cloth to mimic elaborate patterns seen on wealthy hems.


14th Century Houppelande

The nobility understood the importance of dress to identify and maintain social class, and subsequent laws known as the ‘Acts of Apparel’ regulated the clothing choices of the lower classes. This was done by forbidding people the purchase of items “above their station”; wives of servants could only spend 12 cents on a veil, and wives of yeomen could not wear kerchiefs of silk. However, the wealthy were not regulated and allowed to wear anything of any price they desired. This prevented social mobility as people had to be dressed in accordance with the status they were born into, and further laws in the 1430s ranked professions by their importance. Interestingly, these laws only focused on the middle and upper classes as the lower classes could never afford such luxuries, but the middle classes could have tried to emulate the nobility. Certain colours of fabric were very expensive due to their manufacturing processes, and were reserved for the upper echelons of society. Red dye was hard to obtain as the madder plant (its source) could only be harvested once a year, while purple was exclusive to royalty and the pope as it was extracted from tens of thousands of Murex sea snails or brazilwood trees in East India.

The mid-14th century is seen to be the birth of fashion in Europe, and style changed at a pace unknown to most other nations in the world from then on. Clothing was used as a device to enforce the status quo according to the upper classes, and even today, the ambition of the middle and lower classes to attain or imitate the vestiges of wealth remains.

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