The evolving history of fashion

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Fashion today is more than a way of life. In being also an evolving profession and an art that stems from creativity but is based also on the technicalities of the numbers and the angle, fashion surpasses its earlier status as being just one of the basic needs of life, when it tended also to be interpreted in more humble referrings of clothing. However, the demarcation between what shaped the conscious idea of fashion from a realm catering to the elemental requirements of the human race finds roots in not so modern times. While fashion as a choice might have started becoming more prominent a global phenomenon sometime dawning into the 1900s, the idea had already started setting into the collective consciousness much earlier. Indeed, there exist marked differences between the way fashion was flaunted then and what it embodies in the present since the passage of the eras have brought about much evolution and revolution in also this sphere of life. Nevertheless, in being as much vital a component of human living though dwelling in different essences in different periods of time, it cannot be denied that the history of fashion has come to assume substantial importance for the all of us.

What’s perhaps most surprising and interesting about the origins of fashion is it preceding a period of time marked by the advent of the Christ. Dating back to the Roman Era of 500 BC – 323 AD, clothing by then had already come to be dictated by social standing. The aristocracy were the ones to be donning lavish and stylish dresses, so extravagant a vision that readily set them apart from the plainly clad common masses. Wearing a particular type of clothing was however not just an assertion of status, wealth and occupation but also something that stemmed as a keen interest in one’s appearance.

The Roman interest in fashion found crossover also into the greater scene of the sartorial throughout Europe, drawing from the national Roma costume of the toga and the style of many an invading people like the Franks, Anglo-Saxons or the Visigoths who moved into the continent over this period roughly between 400 to 1100 AD. But while the Roman tunics were generally full length, that of the others came to prevail in their shorter and more convenient form, suited for everyday wear. Despite the conformity to this norm, what served as a distinction between the fashion sported by the elite and that by the masses came to assert itself in the fabric. Imported silk cloth from the Byzantine and later Muslim worlds, and also probably cotton were what the wealthy chose to dress in. Wearing also bleached linen and dyed and simply patterned wool woven in Europe itself, the fashion sensibilities of the rich was a stark departure from the common, simple cut clothes of the ordinary people.

Outside of Europe, it had been the region of Egypt where fashion found a stronghold even in the ancient times. Linen was the preferred choice of material, as the Egyptoans prioritised comfort as much as they leaned towards the aesthetics. Colored and bejewelled was what defined fashion in ancient Egypt, where jewelry was donned also to accessorize dresses. This land of the Pharaohs also is notable in fashion for its deep rooted belief in beauty that which had its people use a wide variety of cosmetics as well. In fact, fashion was so much a part of the luxury in ancient Egypt that the dead were even buried with as much dresses and jewelry as they possessed for a smooth journey into the afterlife.

By the Middle Ages, the fashion consciousness had begun to spread outside Europe as well even when it persisted in more prominent forms throughout the continent. Particularly in an England ruled by the Anglo- Saxons after the exit of the Romans who left behind some of their influence, fashion came to change face in its tunics. Belted tunics became the order of the day, both for men and women, even as the rich generally used to dress in additional layers of clothing as well. The Norman invasion ushered in more visible changes in the realm of style in England, as dresses emerged to be more close-fitting and elegant. Tunics made an exit as women started dressing up in full sleeved gowns and skirts. While for men, the tunics made way for short jackets over padded doublets along with fitting wool or linen hose.

While fashion had very much come to be the order of the day uptill the dawn of the 14th century, it wasn’t until the Renaissance period that it turned to amass as much importance as what it does in the present. With the aristocracy taking special interest in looking their fashionable best and splurging to ends to make that happen, it was inevitable that fashion would see a more rapid evolution than any time ever in history. And that world of wholesome difference made to fashion owes to numerous monarchs who had come to rule during the period, most notably Henry VII and Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. But while Henry VII was the one who started splurging on fashion, it was his successor who would come to win acclaim as the best-dressed sovereign in the world. Such was the extravagant grandeur of Henry VIII’s sartorial choices that they came to rule styles throughout the Western European empires. No less substantial in impact was the fashion choices exerted by Elizabeth I who has come to be a very prominent image in her white makeup painted fact that which in fact would kill her later. Whatever that might be, the Renaissance period can really be considered the modern beginnings of fashion. Interestingly though, the era also saw some quite binding fashion ideals being followed, as those that restricted clothes and colors by class permissible under law. Nevertheless, it was during this time in history that fashion came to attain an importance that went beyond what had attested to in the preceding times.

The Renaissance period might have seen an emergence of fashion ideas that weren’t encountered until then but the type of fashion that finds relevance even today started dawning more precisely some time thereafter. Almost a century later to be precise, beginning in the 1720s, emerged the first fashion designers in history. Beginning with the queen’s dressmaker Françoise Leclerc, famous French fashion merchants like Marie Madeleine Duchapt, Mademoiselle Alexandre, Le Sieur Beaulard and Rose Bertin came to dominate the style scene of the time. It wasn’t however until the 19th century that the world got its first truly modern fashion designer in Englishman Charles Frederick Worth. The primary designer of Empress Eugenie, Worth’s royal connections yielded him more than enough power to exert influence on the sartorial choices of people. As the father of haute couture founded also his own fashion house as the House of Worth, he did indeed set the stage for modern fashion to take centerstage, in such interpretations that established fashion as a commodity rooted in its aesthetics and linkings to social status. Throughout the entirety of the following century, this expression of fashion as a product began to gain greater credibility as many of Worth’s fashion concepts, including that of fashion shows started attracting more attention throughout the world.

It makes however for an interesting tidbit once again in the annals of fashion history that despite modern stemming of mainstream fashion traceable only to the 20th century in its many elements, a particular facet of the fashion business goes more than some time back in history. Fashion magazines today might be as essential a component in creating fashion awareness and helping one keep updated with latest trends but this concept of documenting fashion and style in pages found expression as early as the 17th century. It was during the reign of Louis XIV in France that the first fashion magazine was published. Named The Mercure Galant and featuring illustrated fashion plates of what the aristocracy was wearing, this particular fashion magazine however might still have been preceded by some publications of the Elizabethan era. Parallel documentations of fashion on paper alludes to the 1586 publication Gynasceum, sive Theatrum Mulierum produced by Swiss painter Josse Amman in Germany.

Returning to the discussions of fashion as primarily in its emergence and evolution, it was only as recently as the 1990s that fashion came to be viewed in more individualistic terms. Drifting away from the long drawn notion of ‘following fashion’, the later part of the last century saw everyone from celebrities to commoners adhering to their own take on fashion. Also taking a backseat was the extravagance which had long been believed to be the showy standards of style. As the world made way for minimalism and started viewing fashion in more relevant terms rendering it more relatable a life experience that goes beyond its showy relevance, this exploration of what shapes up style through an assertion of the sartorial choices came to assume a different significance altogether. In being so many things that it perhaps never aspired to be by becoming a medium of expression yielding such power thought almost elusive to it courtesy its identity that dwells mainly in the aesthetics or at most in the basic nature of needs, fashion has come of age in the present to an extent that does not allow it to remain within the facade of glamourous grandeur. Transcending beyond the realms of the ordinary and coming to rest in such waves of modernity that make it as essential a medium through which life evolves, fashion has emerged to be revolutionary in its fluidity and all the more sensuous a manifestation of the real and the essential throughout its course in history.


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