Class 9 History

Clothing: Social History

Most of the times, history teaches us about the kings, especially about the victorious ones. Sometimes, history may teach you about contemporary economy. But you will seldom get to read about the history of clothing.

Man started to wear clothes in order to save his body from vagaries of weather. In due course of time, clothes became integral to cover our vanity. The style of dress changes according to times, occasion, social status, cultural ethos, etc. In this lesson, you will read about social history of clothing. In the first part, you will read about various changes in clothing in Europe. In the second part, you will read about effect of colonial rule on clothing in India.

Before the eighteenth-century Europe, most people dressed according to their regional codes. Their choice of clothes was limited by the types of clothes and the cost of materials that were available in their region. Clothing styles were also regulated by class, gender or status in the society.

Sumptuary Laws

During the medieval period in Europe, dress codes were sometimes imposed through actual laws. The dress codes were spelt out in detail through these laws. People of France were expected to strictly follow the sumptuary laws from about 1294 to the time of French Revolution in 1789.

The sumptuary laws attempted the behavior of people who were considered as social inferiors. They were prevented from wearing certain clothes, consuming certain foods and beverages and hunting game in certain areas. Items of clothing were regulated not only by income but also by social rank. Expensive materials like ermine, fur, silk, velvet and brocade could be worn by only the royalty. However, such distinctions ceased to exist after the French Revolution.

Effect of French Revolution

During the French Revolution, members of the Jacobin clubs wore dresses without knee breeches. The Jacobins were also called the sans culottes. People began to wear loose and comfortable clothes. Blue, white and red were the dominant colours of dresses as these colours symbolized the nationalism in France. Other political symbols also became a part of the dress code, like the red cap of liberty, long trousers and the revolutionary cockade pinned on to a hat.

Sumptuary laws were not always made to emphasise social hierarchy, rather some of them were made to protect home production from imports. For example, velvet caps made with French imported materials were quite popular in sixteenth-century England. A law was passed to compel all persons over six years of age to wear woolen caps made in England, on Sundays and holidays. This law did not apply to those at high positions. This law remained in force for twenty six years and was very helpful in building up the English woolen industry.

Even after the end of the sumptuary laws, differences between social strata remained. But difference in income now determined the way a person dressed. People from different economic background developed their own clothing style based on sense of fashion, decency and practicality.

Clothing style was also determined by gender differences. Men were expected to be serious, strong, independent and aggressive. Women were expected to be delicate, passive and docile.

From childhood, girls were laced up and dressed in stays. Stay is a kind of support in a woman's dress to keep the upper body straight. Older girls had to wear tight fitting corsets. Wearing a corset meant inflicting huge pain on the body. Nevertheless, corsets were worn to maintain a slim waste which was considered ideal for women.

Women' Reaction

Many women believed that it was their duty to remain docile and graceful as per the prevalent social norms. They thought it as their duty to bear whatever pain and suffering they had to, while maintaining a slim waist.