Remember when Adam and Eve discovered they were naked? Adam simply grabbed the closest thing available - a fig leaf - while Eve no doubt sought to accessorize - a piece of fruit here, a vine there....
Fashion has become more complicated - and colorful - since that debut in the garden of Eden. Religious edicts, social prestige, climate, class, and economic status all played a role in fashion through the millennia. In Western Europe, clothes went from purely utilitarian to highly decorative garments that connoted wealth and position. Political intrigue, revolution, and changing sexual mores added to and subtracted from the fabric of fashion.
Imagine yourself as a fashion reporter sent by Vogue to cover the Fashion Show of the Millennium. From a front-row seat, you watch models parade down the runway in garments of bygone eras, your pen poised to catch each style as it glides by.
The Middle Ages (1000-1300s)
A man and woman saunter down the platform, dressed in loose, simple tunics that brush against their soft-soled brown leather shoes. Long cloaks with full-length sleeves are worn on top, accessorized with a honey-yellow cord to create that ascetic look.
The fabrics are multicolored, crudely stitched linens and wools. A splash of silk along with embroidered borders at the neck, wrists, and hem, sets the landowners apart from serfs, who dress mostly in wool. The biggest fashion disaster seems to be leg coverings - stockings, whether on master or peasant, are baggy, ill-fitting, and held up by garters or thongs.
Next to strut down the runway are a knight and lady. She's carrying the latest accessory - a glass mirror brought back by Crusaders returning from the Middle East. Her full-length, linen undergarment has long, tight sleeves; over this she wears another gown with a long neckline. The gown is fitted to the figure, ending that centuries-old shapeless appearance. Three-quarter-length sleeves fit tightly and reveal a flash of undergarment sleeve.
To show she's no field-laboring serf, she achieves a glamorous, pasty look by patting her face with white flour. In a touch that's over the top, she wears an impossibly tall headdress to give height and slimness. This piece is inspired by the Gothic arches found in the Middle East. High and narrow, this new style of architecture has become the rage in Europe.
The knight, meanwhile, is dressed to kill in all-enveloping chain-mail coat and leg coverings. This costly, 60-pound armor is made by connecting thousands of tiny steel links with metal plates. His buffed and shined helmet fits smoothly atop a matching chain-mail hood. He's cleanshaven, another inspiration from the Crusades.
As the world turns (1350-mid-1500s)
Now real fashion starts to appear, as clothes are tailored more to fit and display the figure, rather than hide it. Males, taking their cue from nature, are more elaborately and excitingly dressed than females, which will be true until the 1700s.
The world is coming closer together. As Spanish explorers return from Mexico, Central and South America, they bring back native dyes such as cochineal (red) and indigo (blue), as well as other riches, including gold. The wealth from expanded colonial trade trickles down to the European middle class, making possible more affordable silks, linens, and finer woolens. The technology of weaving remains essentially hand-looming.
With each military conquest, centers of fashion and style shift. Florence is known for fine silks, and later Lyon, France, takes the lead. Flemish weavers earn a reputation for fine, patterned fabrics. England begins to catch up in the 1560s, when Queen Elizabeth I grants a charter to Dutch and Flemish settlers in Norwich to make silks and damasks.
But our history lesson is interrupted by movement on the runway. A bejeweled lady and a smartly turned-out gentleman step gallantly onto the runway.
Her gown sparkles with diamonds, emeralds, and pearls. (With no safe-deposit boxes, why not wear all one's jewels at the same time?) Her hair is coifed high, her dress's sleeves are long and wide, and she is so tightly corseted that her ribs overlap. Her skirt - popularized by Queen Juana of Portugal in 1470 to hide her illegitimate pregnancy - is stretched over a wide, hooped, stiff underskirt (keeping suitors at bay).
The gentleman's shirt is stuffed with bombast - composed of rags, horsehair, cotton, and bran - to swell his torso to magisterial proportions. The audience applauds the new developments in legwear: Instead of baggy stockings, the man wears close-fitting tights, held together with lacing. And the doublet - provides a finishing touch for the Renaissance Man collection.
Rococo motion (1700s)
Although it's the Age of Enlightenment, clothing puts on a few more pounds. A trio of ladies promenade past, dressed in voluminous draped fabrics. The bodices of their gowns are squeezed by tightly laced corsets.
Next comes a handsome fellow in a three-piece suit. This tight-waisted, flared-at-the-hip jacket is made of plush vermilion velvets, azure brocades - and worn with frilly shirts and ruffled sleeves. Topping it off is a ponytail wig, tied with a large red bow. After many turns and gestures, he returns to the narrow doorway to assist the lady.
It appears she won't fit through the door. Her bust is pushed up, neckline down, and a massive hooped gown flares all around. But this lady, not to be subdued by a doorway, simply collapses the sides of the gown (pannier), then charges through.
New this season, her hoops, instead of being made of a rigid-basket construction at each hip, are of flexible whalebone held together by tapes. A riot of ruffles and ribbons bounce their way down the runway.
But her hair doesn't budge. It is stiffened with a flour-and-water mousse that whitens and allows it to be - with the help of horsehair inserts - swept high into a tower of curls. Slits in the stiff walls let pesky trapped insects escape. And for wrinkle-free hands, she dons chicken-skin gloves every night.
Industrial Revolution (1800s)
French designs dominate women's clothing, while men's fashion follows the model of a perfect English gentleman set by Beau Brummel.
The woman walks sedately down the runway, with her escort several paces behind. The style of her high-waisted dress recalls classical Greek statuary, and she has abandoned the dreaded corset in favor of a softly gathered bodice. Her gown is made with fewer layers and has leg-of-mutton sleeves. A vision of Romantic ideals.
The man strides purposefully ahead, dressed in a gray tailcoat, waistcoat, and trousers with no-nonsense boots; a less formal ensemble than the traditional black tails, which are reserved for evening.
The elegant simplicity of the couple's clothes belies the extraordinary technological advances that are changing the way cloth is produced. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 was only the start of a drive to mechanize fabric production. The horizontal loom, long a fixture in weaving, was greatly improved in the early 1800s by adding a Jacquard attachment. Its inventor, Joseph-Marie Jacquard, created the device to enable more intricate and often larger patterns to be made. In 1884, the power loom further revolutionized the process. Textile mills sprouted in England and Massachusetts.
In the 1870s, synthetic dyes, which were cheaper and more color-fast, were introduced, replacing the harder-to-find, plant-based ones.
Toward the Space Age (1900s)
Our fashion show speeds forward into the 20th century, with models zipping past in an endless stream of styles. It's hard to keep up. As if an invisible hand has flipped a switch on the runway, women and men fly by in fabulous garments.
The United States takes a lead in Western fashion for the first time; women have lost the pouf and shed layers of petticoats and the excruciating corset for good. Colors are brilliant, and international inspiration is everywhere - Oriental and Russian motifs dominate in the early 1920s.
The runway parade almost grinds to a halt during World War I, when efforts go toward winning the war. Women's suffrage isn't achieved in the US until 1920, but with men off fighting, women are called upon to manage businesses, work in factories, and take jobs outside the home. Comfort and practicality rule. Rayon, the first man-made fabric, is invented in 1910, as a substitute for silk. Hemlines rise to reveal ankles for the first time.
After the war, jazz ladies celebrate the Roaring '20s with flapper dresses and short skirts. Boyish figures are in, with flattened bust, and bobbed hair. Men add swing to their step with wide-leg pants, knickerbockers, and knitted pullovers.
As if in anticipation of the market's fall, skirts lengthen before the crash of 1929. Hand-me-downs become fashionable and, if there's a trend, it's toward durability.
World War II brings even greater freedom in women's lives, and ushers in the creation of nylon. Women line up at department stores to buy nylons, which replace flesh-colored silk stockings. A new emphasis on the leg comes into vogue.
After World War II, femininity returns. Christian Dior creates a revolution by unleashing his "New Look" - dresses that use yards of material - a voluptuous response to years of war-enforced restrictions.
In the late '50s, for the first time, children and young people start to get fashions of their own - instead of wearing smaller versions of their parents' clothes. In America, bobby soxers in poodle skirts and saddle shoes hold hands with greasers in tight jeans, white T-shirts, and loafers.
The '60s see another fashion revolution, but very different than the one Dior imposed. This time, it's the public that dictates fashion. And the majority of the people being young, fashions are hip, mini, and psychedelic: Gypsy princesses, hippies, and "Dr. Zhivago" Lara look-alikes make the decade look like one big costume party. The first lady of the US, Jacqueline Kennedy, is young, too, making even "conservative" fashions kicky.
The '70s bring fantasy fashion: The polyester pantsuit debuts, and a three-way split occurs in the fashion world separating punks, preppies, and disco-crazed partyers.
The '80s get down to business. Body consciousness and Japanese designers are in. Florescent clothing, acid-wash jeans, and spandex abound.
In the '90s, a new ease and comfort finally takes hold. At the same time, emanating from Seattle, a grunge movement sweeps the US with multiple body piercings, baggy pants, and gas-station shirts.
In the current millennium, fashion gurus already predict temperature-controlled fabrics, virtual-reality clothes, and laser-applied designs. They see an emphasis on the face, as a reaction against centuries-long emphasis on the body. Still, when all is said and done, men and women of the 21st century will have just as hard a time deciding what to wear in the morning.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society