“Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life” —Bill Cunningham—
Love it or hate, fashion is not a modern invention and it has been around ever since men emerged from their cave-dwelling, or almost. The primary function of clothing was a purely physiological one: protecting us from the elements. This explains why the earliest possible evidence for clothing in ancient humas is some stone tools found at archaeological sites like Gran Dolina, in Atapuerca, and dates back to 78,000 years ago. Humans were clearly using needles and awls made of stone and bones some 40,000 years ago. In fact, archaeologists believe men started wearing clothes as early as 170,000 years ago. This allowed people to migrate from Africa to colder regions and conquer the whole globe. However, clothing does not only satisfy a physiological urge. From the evolutionary point of view, we have learned that it is much easier to survive if we are integrated in a group. We therefore strive to fit in it. If we are part of a bigger group, finding food and other resources becomes easier, so it is quite convenient to be part of one.
Let’s explain that in terms of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs.
Clothing satisfies our physiological need of protecting us from the elements and it helps us feel safe. When primitive men covered their feet with sandals, they were safer because they avoided getting their feet burned in the hot sand for example. And there is more to it than that. On a third level all humans need to develop a feeling of love and belonging to be part of a tribe or group that might protect them from enemies and other dangers. Not being alone meant also more security.
A good proof that clothing does not only meet a physiological need is that in tropical regions, where clothes were not required, humans tattooed their bodies to decorate them and signal group membership, believes or marital status. One of the earliest clues abour tattoos is in the body of the 5,200 year-old frozen man Ötzi, found in the border of Italy with Austria. His tattoo has shown that ornaments were used by humans to express themselves and to present themselves to others in a certain way, to increase their esteem by means of showing their status and gaining recognition. We have 4,000 year-old tattooed mummies in Egypt that indicate that tattooing was a relatively common body decoration. So early humans used fashion as a sign hierarchy, to show off or to simply decorate their bodies and increase their self-esteem.
Civilisation as we know it began when men stopped being hunters and developed agriculture. This revolution took place in what is called the Fertile Crescent, a vast area that covered the Mediterranean Levant and reached Mesopotamia and Persia and that had plenty of grain and a great variety of animals that could be kept in herds. When humans started to live in settlements where they kept their food stored, they had more free time for “unnecessary” things such as production of fine clothing and jewellery because they were no longer forced to go hunting or collecting every day.
The first loom weaving we have dates back to 6,000 BC and it was made of flax, wool, hemp and nettle.
Clothing soon became a visual way to distinguish the ruling from the non-ruling classes though. In Mesopotamian society the longer the skirt, he higher the social rank.
Regarding Egyptians it must be said that they were extremely demanding about their appearance. The rich classes wore expensive outfits and wigs and make up was worn by men and women. They used fashion for self-actualisation.
The kohl sold nowadays for women around the world was widely used by Egyptians to protect their eyes from the bright sun of the dessert. This eye make-up was the first “sunglasses” humans produced. We must also thank the Egyptians for the first eye-drops and the taming and export of cats, but that is really a different topic.
As mentioned earlier, dresses and garments communicated one belonged to a certain class -often the ruling one- or signaled marital status. Romans for example only allowed togas for those in power and the use of clothing restricted to the ruling by the non-ruling was severely punished by law. Married women wore a different attire to convey the idea that they were no longer available.
Humans have desired to distinguish themselves and mark to which class they belonged to from the very beginning. And in order to avoid confusion and “intruders”, a lot of countries had sumptuary laws to ensure upper-class clothing and jewellery were worn exclusively by the ones in the highest ranks.
During the Sui dynasty, only the emperor was allowed to dress in yellow. In later Europe, purple was a colour for the aristocrats or Royal Family for a long time since the pigments to dye clothes and turn them purple were extremely expensive. As it can easily be seen, fashion has been used to segregate people.
And as far as gender is concerned, fashion became a burden to many women in vast areas from an early stage too. Chinese women bound their feet with bandages to prevent them from growing since the beauty canon required women with small feet. Beauty conventions in Europe changed women’s shape in such a horrendous way they all suffered from dismays and respiratory problems.
It was only with the Great War that European women saw how their clothes became less oppressive.
The fashion industry and the textile production have moved a lot of money for centuries, yet globalisation has led to the mass manufacturing of cheap attire in poor countries to make us westerners believe clothes are just another disposable item. The true cost of it being the destruction and pollution of the developing countries where these clothes are churned out. And also the pollution and exploitation of the soil of the cotton fields in USA.
Believe it or not fast fashion has become the second most polluting industry of fresh water in the world and the first to pay the consequences of it are the developing countries that manufacture our clothes.
Fashion, even though we love it, has now an undesirable impact on this planet: it pollutes, it oppresses workers in manufactures in poor countries such as Bangladesh, it accumulates wealth in the hands of a privileged few and finally, if we are not critical enough, it makes us believe if we can’t afford it, we are nothing.
We all should take our time to become aware of the real problem by watching documentaries such as “The true cost” or “China blue”. Maybe then we might consider our needs before buying.
It is time for us humans to reassess which aspects of progress really mean a regress: plastics, pesticides, processed and packaged food, etc. And to go a step further maybe we should think of what we can do to change what we can to reverse the trend.