Fashion and fashion technology are very important for world building.
For example, if your characters have metal accessories that means their culture has knowledge and access to both ore and metal smithing. If your characters are wearing leather that means access to animals and tanning. If they have polyester, they have plastics. I see a lot of fantasy and sci-fi world building where people basically ignore how the events in their world would impact what their characters are wearing. Wars close down trade routes, certain fabrics and dyes get hard to source, certain techniques are lost or deemed too much trouble.
This is a short essay I wrote for the final of my Fashion History class.
The prompt was to compare and contrast three tumultuous time periods and how the events of the period impacted people’s fashion and couture.
Since it was an essay we didn’t need to source things but if people are interested I can provide a list of books about fashion history that can elucidate my points.
It is impossible to separate history from fashion history, and not just because its literally in the phrase. Fashion, like all of art and culture, is implicitly connected with the values and events of its period and reflects these ideas through its construction, ornamentation, cut, and color. This is why tumultuous and traumatic periods of history can be shown through the dramatic and sometimes inexplicable shifts in clothing and textile technology throughout all of human history. In this paper I will be analyzing three different time periods through the lens of popular fashion trends and show how these events impacted not only the lives of the people who lived them, but the very fabric of society.
The fall of Rome was a tumultuous period in time. Nations that had spent several hundred years under Roman rule were suddenly cut loose and left to get by on their own, the expensive fabrics owned by wealthy Roman aristocrats were no longer as easily procured, entire trading routes and roads disappeared. Before the fall, Roman fashion had gotten quite extravagant – hair got bigger, the drapings and fibula got more extravagant, the dyes got more expensive – this could be linked to prosperity but I believe that it shows a certain degree of social stratification, something that the Roman Empire has in common with the period before the French Revolution. For most women, their everyday clothing might consist of a stola, modeled after the Greek chiton, and a secondary over tunic called a dalmatic. These pieces weren’t cut and sewn but rather draped across the body and held in place with fibula pins. Men of the period were allowed to wear the classic Toga, but only if they were actual Roman citizens and not just one of the many conquered peoples.
After the fall, most of the Roman influence over Europe disappeared. While it may have taken some groups of people more time to let go of their memories of the empire, the extravagant and overly complicated draping of the period fell out of use throughout most of Europe. It wasn’t practical to spend an hour pinning yourself into a bedsheet when you needed to hunt and farm to survive, so the clothing of the ‘barbaric age’ reflects this need for practicality, particularly in the proliferation of t-shaped tunics and trousers as common garments. While ‘Barbarian Trousers’ were around before the fall of the empire, they were only common with tribes that lived much farther north, hence the name ‘Barbarian Trousers’. Roman soldiers would occasionally wear them, but only when the weather and temperature demanded it and they weren’t considered fashionable or acceptable. After the fall, most of Europe saw an increase in cut and sewn garments over drapery and therefore embraced trousers or similar leg coverings. Even the Byzantine Empire, which wasn’t hit as hard by the fall as other parts of the world, showed an increase in cut and sewn garments, their dalmatics no longer being draped pieces but sewn garments. I think this is shows that during the breakdown of society – the loss of world powers or the increase in individual labor to ensure survival – simple shapeless garments are much more likely to proliferate. Garments like the t-shaped tunic and barbarian trousers still exist today in the form of t-shirts and jeans and serve similar functions. The fall of Rome brought couture back to the practical for most of Europe, although it wasn’t going to stay that way for too long.
One of the most memorable examples of impractical fashion and a great example of historical events impacting fashion is the French Revolution. While there were many factors that lead up to this eruptive historical event, the extravagant visual divide between the couture of the wealthy and working clothes of the common people became a rallying cry for the revolutionaries; ‘Viva la Sans Culottes!’. This phrase roughly translates to “Long Live the people who don’t wear short pants” and was commenting on the fact that the wealthy tended to wear hose and breeches instead of long pants, which were worn by sailors and working folk. Before the revolution, the aristocrats in France had taken their fashion to a gargantuan extreme; women wore extravagant gowns covered in minute details, hair was reaching new heights and the elaborate updos could have entire battle scenes staged within their powdered curls. The Watteau and English gowns, which at the beginning of the century had been monochromatic with panniers a modest few feet in diameter were now practically tables, some extending up to 6 feet across. Where today we might say ‘less is more,’ the pre-revolutionary France clearly believed that ‘more is more’ and ‘most is best’.
Enter the French Revolution. It may seem drastic but in the days of the Reign of Terror, wearing the wrong thing could lead to a permanent vacation of your head from your body. Fashion became an easy way to target the rich and affluent and the women in France suddenly found themselves ransacking their closets for their least obtrusive pieces of apparel. For most women this turned out to be their underwear – a long chemise dress made of light generally white linens or cottons, often accented with a sash creating a high waist directly under the bust. While part of this fashion came from the lack of other options, another part of it was influenced by the new cultural ideology embracing Freedom and the renewed interest in the Greeks and their democracy. This is often called the Neoclassical style and at the time Freedom meant more than just freedom from the King or the Church, but also freedom from the corset and from constrictive garments. Unfortunately for many people, this freedom also meant freedom from their necks.
Fast forward a century and the world plunges into World War 1, the war that led to the first worldwide youth movement – the Flappers and Jazz Babies. The War was preceded by a period known as ‘La Belle Époque,’ also known as the Edwardian period in the United Kingdom. For women this period was typified by the S-shaped corset, which created a permanent posture of ‘anterior pelvic tilt’ where the hips are pushed back to create a very tight curve in the lower back, which then pushes the bust forwards and out, much like a pigeon. Another motif from this time period is the Art Nouveau movement, which was typified by organic lines and natural imagery. The S-curve shows up prominently in Art Nouveau, and the sinuous lines could be seen in the tailoring of skirts from the period.
This all changed drastically after the war. The jazz babies of the 20s wanted nothing to do with their parents, adults had ruined the world with war after all. Jazz was the music of the era, and in the United States, prohibition led to a huge underground crime wave, with bootleggers and speakeasies finding clients all over the country. Its interesting to note that the fashions that arose from this more adult world of burlesque and booze were obsessed with the idea of youth. Women of the period, fashionable ones at least, wanted to look young, very young, prepubescently young – flat chests, bobbed hair, showing some leg, all of these things were in direct opposition to the past decade. The waistline dropped down to the hips, the signature look of the decade. Makeup was being embraced and smoky kohl eyes and pouty lips were all the rage when seen on the silver screen. The art of the era changed from the flowy organic look of Art Nouveau to the drastic geometric and stark look of Art Deco. While other time periods in history that suffered great losses of human life were then followed by periods of clothing that promoted procreation, this entire period feels like it was desperately trying to hold onto an innocence that had been lost during the war. I believe that this reaction wasn’t about sex, although methods of birth control were beginning to take hold, but about wanting to feel young and yet facing the dark terror of knowing that nothing would ever be the same again. Live fast, die young, and be intoxicated as much as you can to avoid thinking about how dark the world really is. Just another summer at the Gatsby mansion.
The fall of Rome, along with the French Revolution and World War 1, are periods of extreme stress and change and its only natural that fashion should change to fit the needs and ideals of the era. Whether that need is for practical garments like t-shaped tunics and pants, or simple garments to show the wearers lack of wealth, or even showy garments to broadcast a lust for life and lurid escapism – Fashion is the history we wear on our bodies. It is both an everyday need and a decade defining visual. Every garment is a reflection of the people who wore it and the time that produced it and its fascinating to see how things as ephemeral as ideals, hopes, and dreams can mix with things as concrete as weather protection, sun protection, and posture support.