As a mode of expression and tool of forming identities for a society, fashion has undergone several changes over the years to develop to what it is today. From the houppelandes to mantuas and now peplums, fashion has come a long way of reflecting the mindset and attitudes of the populations and their perceptions towards morality, sexuality, and art, as well as life in general. This paper examines the fashion history between the 15th and 20th centuries in Europe, as well as Africa and the Far East with a special focus on the prevalent trends in fabric, design, and colors.
The 15th Century
In the 15th century, wool, hemp, and linen were the most common fabrics; among, the popular clothing, there were different types of rough un-dyed and fine broadcloth. The people preferred the rich colors of red, green, gold, and blue; meanwhile, silk was reserved for the royal class and extremely wealthy households. This century saw the introduction of the floral designs of pomegranate and artichoke; the necklines were mostly V-shaped so as to reveal a decorated kirtle. Another popular component of fashion in this century was slashing; it involved slicing the outer garment to reveal the lining or inner garments.
As a rule, women in this century wore cotehardies, houppelandes, and farthingales while men wore shirts, doublets, robes, and hoses. Animal fur also made a great impression with dark brown sable and marten taking the center stage. The lynx and ermine furs were rather rare and thus expensive; therefore, they were the privilege of the ruling class in wealthy countries. The 15th century saw very little in terms of popular fashion as most men and women wore simple plain working clothes except for the social occasions, and there were very few of them except for the ruling class families.
The 16th Century
This period is believed to have been a little colder as proved in the way the fashion changed. People mostly wore voluminous garments with many layers, assumed to have been for the purpose of keeping warm. The linen shirts and chemises had full sleeves, and the shoes were mostly flat with square toes. In terms of the fabric, this century saw the introduction of silk and velvet with different floral patterns as seen in the previous century. In addition, small geometric patterns were quite popular with the people.
The main colors were yellow and red; the warm colors were supposed to divert people from the cold weather. As for the accessories, the bobbin lace along with silver, gold, and multicolored embroidery kept those who could afford them at the center of attention. The items were relatively expensive and yet indulging in terms of their beauty. The people in this century might have been dealing with climate problems, but they also tried to define themselves through the way they dressed.
The 17th Century
The men traded their hose for breeches and the waists went up. Both men and women were seen wearing their waists quite high at that time. Floral designs became more popular and commonplace even amongst the peasants with an increasing interest in needle lace. The main trends in the 17th century fashion included the over gowns and linen silk jackets mostly worn by the middle-class citizens. The more privileged members of society chose the solid colored satins that were a new feature in the fashion of this era.
Women in this century increasingly wore lower round necklines and long-waisted bodices to emphasize the hips and waistlines. As opposed to the full sleeves of the previous century, this century saw the virago and slashed sleeves taking over. It may not have been a great breakthrough, but it looked differently and originally. The 17th century was also relatively flirtatious as the women showed more skin than their predecessors while also spending more time wearing the fashionable clothes.
The 18th Century
This century saw a particularly interesting approach to the concept of fashion. The people exuded some impressive levels of intricate elaboration and decorative freedom, as well as flair. Consequently, fashion became an influential point in most cultures. For the men, the main fashion items were coats, waistcoats, and breeches. These were not only the formal items but also the internationally accepted dress codes for public appearances. The waist also went a little lower as compared to the previous century.
The women, on the other hand, enjoyed the introduction of the strapless strays otherwise known as corsets. They wore bodiced mantuas, and their skirts were worn over the domed hoops to create a curvaceous illusion. Therefore, in general, it can be stated that fashion in the 18th century was more inclined towards relaxation as compared to the stiff and formal garments of the previous centuries. The main fabrics included the Indian cotton, silk, and damask; as a rule, the ornamentation was kept at a minimal.
With regards to colors, the young individuals chose bright pastel colors while the older people preferred dark, somber colors. At this time, the light pastel shades were by far more popular and as such they became a fad for the young populations. The older people in society opted for the quieter colors.
The 19th Century
It was right after the French Revolution and the concept of individualism was developing in most civilizations at the time. Fashion, thus, focused rather on the self expression than social identification and classification. While distancing themselves from the French aristocracy, common people started wearing whatever they felt suited them best, without necessarily following the fashion tastes of the ruling class.
The first most significant change in fashion during this century was the adaptation of the natural figures in determining the waistline. As a result, the waists were neither too high nor too low, and people preferred whatever best suited them. The society embraced not only the aesthetics of fashion but also its sexuality in terms of bringing out the sexiness of one’s body. For the men, the trousers were introduced and popularized while, for the women, accessories became a major way to express oneself in the society.
From the blind loyalty to fashion trends, the people in this century paid attention to details such as the weight of the fabric and its ease of use, as well as the level of comfort it offered. With the increasing number of middle class women and men during this century, fashion went beyond looking good to feel good, as well. The gloves were also an important part of the women’s attire with special designs for the day and night wear.
The 20th Century
This century saw a complete paradigm shift from exaggerated beauty to basic enchantments that included short hair and garments showing a lot of skin. With the new craze about the sun tanned skin, people were more interested in clothes that exposed them to the sun such as halter tops, bare midriffs, and calf-length skirts and dresses. In more ways than one, the garments in this century became much lighter and easier to wear than in the previous centuries.
Amongst the popular fashion items in this century, there were the white dinner jackets, long skirts and dresses, and tiny bolero jackets that stopped above the waist to emphasize on the breadth of the shoulders in comparison with the width of the hips. This issue may imply that, despite the growing craze for very thin women, the fashion trends favored the curvaceous bodies more.
Amongst the popular accessories of this century, there were the gloves and the headscarf turbans. With the craze for short hair, turbans were an exceptional option for staying classy and composed at all times. Women in this century had only begun working and voting; as such, they needed to define their own spaces through fashion.
Far East (Oriental) Fashion
In the Far East, fashion was mostly casual; during the Song Dynasty, the designs were largely relaxed. High fashion was a reserve of those who could afford it, mostly the comfortably wealthy members of the contemporary society. For the general population, the fashion remained plain and functional for a better part of this era. Between 900 and 1200 AD, however, fashion became a little bit higher and incorporated luxurious designs that were unadorned and yet very high in quality. The plain garments were made of different material such as silk and linen, as well as pure cotton from the finest plantations.
The next century brought about a revolution in the oriental fashion scene as complex designs and accessories emerged to emphasize the natural beauty and limitless potential of the designers. With flowers and trees as sources of inspirations, the fashion trends between 1200 and 1300 AD in the Far East showed a great amount of precision and finesse; women paid more attention to their appearances and defined their position in the society. High fashion was, thus, no longer confined to royalty but rather spread out to all those who could afford it. The period between 1300 and 1900 AD then increased the elegance and glamour in the way the people dressed. With more refined garments and largely international designs, oriental fashion slowly interlocked with the designs from other parts of the world in the name of modernization.
Africa is known for its reach natural resources; the fashion industry also has its roots in the nature aspect of this vast continent. Amongst the very first fashion items in this part of the world, there were the animal hides and skins, as well as the bark cloth. Animal hides and skins were often as a sign of the hunting occupation and the best of the game were a reserve of the kings and tribal rulers. The bark cloth, on the other hand, was made with a beaten bark of a plant to make it soft enough and thus wearable. At this point, it would be important to note that the fashion trend was not followed by many Africans.
Later on, African fashion has evolved to feature loose-fitting robes and high-end headdresses, as well as wrappers for the women. Accessories mostly include beads, bangles, necklaces, and earrings made of wood, seeds, bones, or husks, among other natural materials. The batik fabrics are also popular in Africa, as they use body paints and scarification as accessorizing options. Today, however, there is little difference between the fashion in Africa and the rest of the world; this trend is caused by globalization and influence of the western imperialism among other issues.
The history of fashion is as diverse as the social configuration of the world. Each part of the world and each specific time frame have their unique features that make up the prevailing fashion trends. From skirts worn over dome to high waists and breeches, fashion has been perceived uniquely in different contexts; appreciating it as a whole requires understanding of all the available contexts described in this paper.