Clothing and Costume Research Paper

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Although clothing serves a basic human need for protection from cold and hostile elements of the environment, it has also been used as a visual cue for determining gender, profession, social and economic status, and birthplace. Clothing has been radically influenced by social contexts and by the technologies available for making it.

As early humans moved out of Africa and into colder, more hostile climates they were confronted with the problem of keeping warm. Without a thick coat of hair to protect them from the elements they had to create an artificial means of retaining body heat in order to survive. From this basic need developed the rich and varied dress of the world’s peoples. As societies began to develop, many other factors determined the specific dress of a region or a culture, including the technological levels, relative affluence, class and hierarchy, migration, war, religion, and industrialization. Historically dress has provided people with a visual cue that allows for the instant determination of ethnicity, class, gender, profession, economic status, and even place of origin. It forms an important element in social, technological, and economic history and can be an excellent basis for the study of culture. People have used dress throughout history to both accentuate and obscure the body. Most cultures have particular dress for ceremonial occasions and life celebrations, thus dress holds a central role in ritual, social, and political life.

Early clothing was dictated not only by climate and environment, but also by available clothing materials. The earliest forms of dress were probably animal skins, at first used in their original shapes and later modified to fit the human form. The invention of textiles increased the scope and variability of early dress. Despite the wide diversity of dress globally, early humans developed a limited number of basic garment shapes. The first woven garments were probably simple rectangles or squares of fabric draped or wrapped around the body. These multipurpose garments could be used as a skirt, cloak, or even as a shelter or bundle for carrying possessions. Its descendants include the Roman toga, the Indian dhoti, and the Indonesian sarong.

A hole for the head in the middle of the basic rectangle increased the possibilities for covering the body. This garment could be worn loose, like the Peruvian poncho, or belted around the body. The sides could be sewn up to form a closed garment, like the Greek chiton. The addition of sleeves created the T-shaped tunics of the Roman and early European medieval periods and even the humble T-shirt. By slitting the T-shaped garment down the front, coat-like overgarments such as the Arabian abbaya were created. In the steppes (vast, usually level and treeless tracts) of Central Asia nomads refined the coat by adding triangles of fabric to the front opening that overlapped the chest area. This garment, the cross-fronted tunic, influenced early Chinese and Asian dress and can be seen today in the Afghan and Central Asian khalats and even the Japanese kimono. Any of these basic garments could be worn in combination or in addition to skirts or pants to further cover the body and protect it from the elements.

After the basic necessities were taken care of, dress became more elaborate, formalized, and regulated. It began to differentiate one group, class, culture, or religion from another. Clothing that mirrored social divisions and defined subcultures allowed an instantaneous visual determination of the wearer’s place and status. Any deviation from the norm could be read as a change of identity or status and determine who was friend or foe. Dress became even a tool of governmental social policy—to promote national solidarity, to define the limits of accepted society, and even to force modernization. The Russian czar Peter the Great’s insistence on nobles wearing Western dress, and the Turkish soldier and statesman Kemal Ataturk’s dress reform for Turkey, were attempts to achieve modernization through clothing reform.


Gender is an important component of dress. Most cultures have specific styles that differentiate or reinforce gender divisions and enforce gender and social stability. For Western societies gender dress has meant skirts for women and pants for men. This differentiation is not a global standard, and women often wear pants, whereas in other regions men wear “skirts,” usually in the form of sarongs, hip-wraps, or kilts. The symbolism placed on a garment by a particular society makes a garment “male” or “female.” Gender-specific dress can accentuate physical differences between the genders and/or emphasize erotic areas of the body, often by deformation of the body by padding, corseting, or other means. In many cultures women’s dress directly reflects the wealth of their husbands or fathers, making dress an economic indicator. Some forms of women’s dress, such as foot binding in China, have become symbolic of women’s reduced position in paternalistic societies. The Islamic veil, to many Westerners, symbolizes the subjugation of Islamic women. But for many Islamic women the veil is a symbol of religious identity. It is also an example of the strength of custom. Veiling predates the Prophet Muhammad by six hundred years or more and is not a requirement of the Qur’an. As Islam spread, religion and local customary practices became inextricably linked. Deveiling campaigns in the former Soviet Union, republican Turkey, and modern France have met with resistance by religious women who view the veil as an important part of their religious identity.

Dress also has served to identify and define class and to mark social divisions. Divisional dress predates the rise of consumerism and is tied to a desire for upward mobility. Elaborate garments for the ruling elite highlight personal and national prestige and wealth and set the ruling elite apart from the rest of society. At the same time prescribed dress for those participating in royal courts limits their participation outside the rarefied atmosphere of the court. Expensive fabrics, trimmings, and extravagant cuts elevated the wearer above the working classes. This elevation came at a price. Women’s fashionable dress in Renaissance Italy, with its ultrawide sleeves, restricted movement, as did the heavy woolen folds of the Roman toga. Court ritual in China required the emperor to comply with elaborate rules and highly specific dress requirements for rituals. He was both elevated and restricted by the same dress that reinforced his power.

Dress also can be used to enforce the status quo. Sumptuary (relating to personal expenditures) laws that govern the clothing of particular classes developed in early times. They are most numerous where class tension exists. During the early Ottoman Empire sumptuary laws were seldom published, implying that the social boundaries between classes were generally accepted. In early modern Europe, however, the frequent publication of such laws coincided with the struggle for power between the nobility and the rising middle class.

Just as dress can denote status, it can also denote subjugation. An example is the queue (a braid of hair usually worn hanging at the back of the head) and Manchu clothing that were imposed by the conquering Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12) on the ethnic Chinese. Clothing of subjugation can take on symbolic meaning and come to represent the political system that institutes it. Its removal also can take on political overtones. One of the symbols of the 1911 Chinese Revolution was severing the queues, although Manchu clothing was mostly retained because of its practicality.


Within social divisions dress often became a marker for occupations. Specialized garments developed to protect workers or their clothing from the dangerous elements of their profession. Dress such as the blacksmith’s apron or the baker’s hat became integral parts of the craft or professional identity. In some cases, such as academic dress, specific garment details became institutionalized and continued as a marker long after their original purpose was gone. Today the color of one’s collar is used to denote hierarchy in the Western workforce. Occupational custom could be so strong that workers had to fight for the right to wear more practical attire. U.S. nurses and female hospital workers faced both custom and gender boundaries in their battle to wear pants instead of skirts and white hose at work.

Dress can be an external expression of one’s religious beliefs. For Christians, dressing the body is directly tied to the concept of original sin. For Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and people of many other religions, dress symbolizes their membership in a religious community and sets them apart from the surrounding societies. Religious attire may be differentiated by color, cut, fabric, or even, in some cases, the absence of dress itself. Like academic dress, clerical dress often contains stagnated forms of historical garments. Ritual dress for religious elites shows the power, prestige, and the wealth of the religious establishment. Modernization has altered Western religious dress, making it more secular in appearance.

A difference between urban dress and rural dress has probably existed since the development of cities, but industrialization and its accompanying mass migration of labor to the cities have made this difference even more striking. “Fashion” generated in the cities was part of the reason, but the availability of finer cloth and manufactured clothing also separated urban from rural. Workers adopted “city clothes” to fit in and show their connection with their new environment, and a mix of urban and rural dress illustrates the mixed consciousness of early industrial workers. Strangely, fashion sometimes reverses this pattern, with urban residents adopting the clothing of the countryside in a nostalgic attempt to recapture a simpler past.

Modern manufacturing, communication, and advertising have increased the importance of fashion and the speed at which it changes and spreads, even creating an international fashion of T-shirts, blue jeans, and sport shoes that defies gender, nationality, and class. Although a Western “institutionalized fashion cycle” began in the courts of fourteenth-century Europe, fashion has likely been around nearly as long as clothing. Since prehistoric times, humans have shown an interest beautifying their clothing with beads, feathers, and other sorts of trim. They have also shown an interest in changing clothing styles, although at a much slower pace than today. Roman writers described the importance of fashion during their time, and during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) in China, feathered skirts were so popular that certain species of birds were threatened with extinction.

The words native and traditional are often used in dress history to imply something that is static and unchanging. These two words are often used interchangeably with the word authentic, implying freedom from modern contamination and a continued cultural longevity. Dress, however, like material culture in general, does not develop in isolation. It develops with internal and external forces. Modern concepts of “traditional dress” are often based on festival or ceremonial clothing and are divorced from what people actually wear on a day-to-day basis. Even such festival or ceremonial clothing is a hybrid of indigenous styles and outside or modern influences. African traditional clothing, for example, is a result of centuries of contact and borrowing from African, European, and Arabic cultures. Within these “traditions” runs a current of nuanced and ever-changing fashion that may be unnoticed by outside observers. Many wearers of “traditional dress” willingly trade customary fabrics for modern human-made ones and incorporate “nontraditional” objects into their clothing in order to appear more fashionable.

The Hawaiian muumuu was concocted by missionaries to “civilize” the native population by covering its nakedness. “Native” dress in Central and South America, as well as in Central Asia and Africa, shows strong colonial influence, especially the multi-tiered flounced skirts. Western hats and garments of all sorts were adopted by indigenous peoples because of a desire to “fit in” or to mimic the ruling powers or in some cases because of market considerations. Native Americans adopted European garments and, like the workers of the industrial cities, combined them with their regular dress, creating a picture of mixed consciousness. Industrial development made fabric cheaper and often replaced native weaving styles and economy. The introduction of artificial dyes replaced natural dyes and increased the range of colors used in native clothing.

In some cases “traditional” dress has even been fabricated. The Welsh national costume for women was invented during the 1830s when Welsh advocate Lady Llanover (Augusta Waddington) romanticized Welsh country dress and published drawings and paintings of her fantasy costumes. By the twentieth century this fictitious “Welsh dress” became a popular festival dress and tourist attraction. The Scottish and Irish “cultural revival” styles of the twentieth century are other examples of the fabrication or manipulation of existing styles for political purposes.

Dress forms a rich and varied component of global history. It can be used to illustrate economic development, social hierarchy, gender, modernization, and a multitude of other factors in human history.


  1. Breward, C. (1995). The culture of fashion. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
  2. Jirousek, C. A. (1996). Dress as social policy: Change in women’s dress in a southwestern Turkish village. Dress, 23, 47–62.
  3. Johnson, K. K. P., & Lennon, S. L. (Eds.). (1999). Appearance and power. New York: Berg.
  4. Rabine, L. W. (2002). The global circulation of African fashion. New York: Berg.
  5. Vollmer, J. E. (2001). Ruling from the dragon throne. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

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