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Ancient Fashions

In general, fashions from the Ancient Greek and Roman periods and before were simple, as clothing expressed practical function over stylistic form. Generally, women's garments were not loose and flowing, never tight-fitting. Tunics, often covered with layers of draped fabric, were worn by both men and women. The most basic garment for women of Ancient Greece, for example, was the "Doric peplos," commonly worn through the beginning of the sixth century B.C. Made from a rectangle of woven wool, the Doric peplos measured about six feet in width and about eighteen inches more than the height of the wearer from shoulder to ankle in length. The fabric was wrapped around the wearer, with the excess material folded over the top and pinned on both shoulders. The excess material was allowed to fall freely, giving the impression of a short cape. Pins used for fastening the shoulders of the peplos were originally open pins with decorated heads, but they were later replaced by fibulae or brooches.

Fabrics were plain and for the most part, undecorated. This was the general rule in the Western world. In particular, during the Archaic period, clothing were generally white or off-white, and commoners were forbidden to wear red in theaters or public places. By the fifth century, however, clothing began to feature a wider range of colors. In places such as China, India and Africa, women adorned themselves with more colorful fabrics and ornamentation as compared to the Western hemisphere. China, for instance, began developing silk weaving and embroidery techniques during the Ancient era, and used such details in their clothing design and manufacturing. However, while clothing may have been simpler, women from all cultures adorned themselves with jewelry such as earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and rings fashioned from earthy materials such as stones and gems. Cosmetics were also used by women from ancient times. As for hair, women often braided their hair or kept their head covered by fabric draped about the face like a hood.

Medieval Fashions

With the emergence of Christian influences during the Medieval era, clothing styles tended to be more modest than the preceding Roman era. Sleeves and hems fell in length. Clothing tended to be heavier also, which suggested a climate change across the European continent. However, while clothing generally covered more of the body than in previous eras, fabrics became more decorative. Embroidery and beading began to appear on previously unadorned, plain fabric, especially in court and liturgical clothing. Technically, the Medieval era can be divided into the Dark Ages (400-1000 A.D.), the Early Gothic period (1000-1200 A.D.) and the Late Medieval period (1200-1400 A.D.). The style of dress during the Dark Ages was often militaristic for men. They wore tunics, capes and trousers. Shoes were generally worn instead of sandals. Women's clothing was also based upon the general design of the tunic. A loose tunic was worn over a sleeved, fitted tunic. While clothing during this first period tended to be more plain, Celtic style jewelry pieces were being developed simultaneously becoming popular.

The Early Gothic period saw a widening of sleeves and hems, often flared and using far more fabric than before. By this time, Europe had learned from Eastern cultures how to make velvet, and Western clothing became more lavish. Several factors contributed to this trend towards extravagant and highly decorated clothing. Increased trade from the East brought fine fabrics, as well as new ideas for decoration, while Western countries improved their own textile-making techniques at home. The upper, noble classes also grew during this era, as personal wealth was gained by survivors of the Black Plague. The fashionable, wealthy classes experimented with often extreme styles, from hooked shoes called "poulaines" to cone-shaped hats with long veils.

Renaissance Fashions

Because the Renaissance era encompasses approximately 150 years of history, its fashions changed dramatically from beginning to end. At the dawn of the Renaissance in 1450, clothing styles were influenced by Medieval and Gothic designs, as well as the Italian Renaissance movement in art. Women's fashions assumed a more natural appearance from their Gothic predecessors. Dresses gradually lost their long trains, and flowing skirts became increasingly popular. The robe, which was actually a dress with an attached bodice and skirt, appeared on the fashion scene. In addition, the long, rigid, corset that extended in a cone shape below the waist to a V debuted during the early part of the Renaissance period. Women also began showing their hair again. Instead of covering their heads, they adorned their coiffures with shimmering veils and dazzling jewels. In men's fashions, doublets shortened and low-necked tunics and chemises became common garb. Hose became a common necessity for the well-dressed gentleman. Brocades and velvets were among the favored fabrics for both men's and women's clothing.

After the turn of the 15th century, Renaissance fashions began to follow German styles. The simple, natural styles of the early period were replaced with horizontal, massive styles. Men's fashions became square in cut and elaborately trimmed. Breeches were lengthened, and linen chemises were decorated with lace edges and frills at the neck and sleeves. Women's gowns became voluminous, with skirts heavily pleated and supported underneath by hoops made of wire or wicker and held together with ribbons or tapes. The hoopskirt, called the farthingale, reached its maximum width around 1600, when it became a cartwheel or drum shape. Sleeves were puffed and necklines were adorned with high-standing collars with expanded ruffs or circular lace. Men's clothing adopted a similar style, with puffed trunk hose, balloon sleeves, padded doublets, and large ruff collars. "Slashing" (cutting the outer layer of cloth to reveal an inner layer of contrasting color and fabric), also became popular in both men's and women's fashions. The trend for the elaborate also extended to hairstyles. Women began wearing headdresses, at first a simple hood which then became peaked. Men wore broad hats that were sometimes trimmed with gemstones. By the end of the Renaissance in 1600, fashion had reached a zenith under the Elizabethan period.

Elizabethan Fashions

During the Elizabethan period, fashion served as a mode for self-expression for all social classes. At the beginning of the era, women's clothing was particularly modest, with garments designed to cover nearly every inch of the wearer's body, from neck to ankle. Gowns were characterized by a fitted bodice to accent the wearer's small waist, square shoulders, and a ruffled yoke (particularly for the upper classes, as ruffles indicated high social status). Women's shoes were not particularly important during the period, as they were always hidden by floor-length skirts. Wealthy ladies often wore large gold pendants and a French "hood" on the neck for adornment. As the period progressed, waistlines became straight (as opposed to a V-shaped "princess" cut of earlier years), and sleeves became tight-fitted, rather than ruffled.

A headdress known as a "snood" was a type of hairnet that became highly popular during the Elizabethan era. Similar headdresses appeared, such as a bag-coif which featured a gathered bag at the back covering the wearer's head. The fabric of the bag could match the dress, or could be made of a plain black silk, covered with gold netting. In Italy, a fashionable early 16th century headdress known as the "balzo" was similar to a snood. It was a large gathered bag, often made of woven strips of fabric, fancy gold material and lace, or other materials, worn over the hair. From the front, it looked more like a roll worn over the hair, as the greater portion of its bulk was above the head.

Men's fashion during this period experienced dramatic changes. At the beginning of the era, men wore embroidered "jerkins" (vest-like shirts with buttons down the front), and loose-fitting pants that extended at the knee. Wealthy men donned shoes of fine leather, and either a flat velvet or silk hat, or a tall crown hat made of fabric or feathers. As the era progressed, gentlemen wore cloaks fastened by a chain and crucifix, fine silk stockings, and beaver hats or bonnets with a plume on one side.

Baroque Fashions

The "Cavalier" style of dress became popular during the early part of the Baroque period. This style marked a distinct change from the fashions of the prior age. Starched, stiff fabrics were replaced with natural atins and silks. Trimmings were simple and confined to buttons, buttonholes, and lace. Women's bodice necklines were cut wide and square, and waistlines heightened. By 1630, sleeves became full and draped softly below the elbow, revealing the wearer's lower arm for the first time in centuries.

Cavalier fashion for men paralleled the trends in women's clothing. Men wore "doublets" (short Bolero-style jackets) made of stiff fabric or pointed in front, and "jerkins" (utility jackets made of leather). Waistlines were often adorned with ribbon bows which held the doublet and breeches together. Sleeves were trimmed with horizontal rows of braid or vertically slashed and finished with buttons. The stiff hose of the past was replaced with full, long breeches trimmed with braid and slashed on the side, as well as softer, wrinkled hose below. Later in the period, men wore baggy breeches known as "Rhinegraves," which were gathered below the knees with lace frills. This trend in breeches led to the popularity of "Petticoat breeches," which were full skirts worn low on the hips.

Georgian Fashions

The richly decorated gowns worn by wealthy Georgian women were often adorned with an "eschelle stomacher" (a fancy corset designed to be worn in public and adorned with bows of decreasing size) above the waistline and an embroidered and trimmed petticoat below. Ladies' skirts were supported by wide hoops made of cane or rattan, and sometimes laid over quilted under-petticoats. Under the hoops and corset, ladies wore "shifts" (knee-length undergarments with elbow-length sleeves adorned with a froth of lace). Properly dressed ladies also wore stockings gathered at the knee and made from rich silk fabrics with woven patterns or embroidered motifs, and high-heeled shoes covered with silk to match the gown. Women's tresses of this period were gathered and piled high, with wildly enormous hairstyles emerging near the turn of the century. In addition, elaborate and often frivolous caps were fashionable.

Men of the period dressed plainly for sports and country life, but adorned themselves in high fashion at court. Their suits were made from rich velvets, silks and satins, and decorated with braid, embroidery, and buttons of gold, silver, and jewels. A gentleman's suit consisted of a long and flared coat, sleeveless waistcoast, shirt adorned with lace ruffles at the wrists and neck, and knee breeches. Men also wore silk stockings with embroidered designs at the ankles and high-heeled shoes. A cravat made of soft fabric and tied at the neck or a stiff neckcloth buckled at the back completed a properly dressed gentleman's outfit. Men's hair of the period was worn shoulder-length and tied at the neck, or powdered with tight curls. Powdering hair consisted of applying a sticky substance and flour dyed in brown, gray, white, blue or pink! Men also wore wigs for formal occasions. In addition to powdering hair, fashionable men of the period applied makeup (pale powder, rouge, and lip color), as well as carried fans and embroidered silk handkerchiefs drenched with perfume.

Regency Fashions

Regardless of the wearer's social class, fashions of the Regency era were lighter and simpler than those of past decades. The stiff brocades and embroidered silks of the Georgian period were replaced by lightweight fabrics in plain, subdued colors. Inspired by Grecian statues, Regency designers raised the waistline to just below the wearer's bosom. The waistline was often defined by a wide sash tied in a bow at the back of a dress and accentuated by a crossover gauze bodice or muslin neckerchief above. Properly dressed ladies wore spencers (long-sleeved jackets cut beneath the bosom) or pelisses (long-sleeved jackets cut three-quarters down the length of a skirt) out of doors, along with a broad-brimmed hat tied under the chin with a ribbon.

Following the trend of women's fashions, men in the Regency era were dressed more soberly than their predecessors. The richly colored, brocaded suits were replaced by plain, dark cutaway coats which were especially practical for horsemanship. Knee breeches, stockings and buckled shoes gave way to pantaloons tucked into high riding boots. Finally, the powdered wigs of the Georgian era were forever relegated from fashion, as men of the period began wearing their hair short and natural.

Victorian Fashions

During the Victorian era, the precise cut, material and color of a garment revealed the social class of the wearer. With the growing prosperity of the day, fashions for women of the higher classes became increasingly complex. Dresses were composed of several layers of different shades, cloths and trimmings, and intended to be worn with both under-dresses and over-dresses. Properly dressed ladies accessorized with gloves and bonnets. Bustlines rose, as Victorian modesty gained widespread adherence; and waistlines fell as designers revived the popularity of formal dresses reminiscent of Georgian France. In the first quarter-century, puffy "mutton-leg" sleeves became all the rage, but these were later replaced by fitted sleeves and eventually bell sleeves. Victorians considered the "hourglass" shape to best flatter the female form, and women wore restrictive corsets to achieve this ideal. The Victorian era also saw the progression from crinoline skirts to hoop skirts and finally to bustled skirts. Finally, the invention of sewing machine revolutionized women's fashion on a practical level, as ladies devoted themselves to designing, customizing and making their own garments.

As for accessories of this era, the cameo became all the rage of the mid-19th century. Although Queen Elizabeth was known to favor cameos to complement her garments and Catherine the Great had an impressive collection as well, Queen Victoria revived the jewelry piece during her reign. Cameos during the Victorian era were often attached to a black velvet ribbon and worn as a choker. Jewelers during the nineteenth century used gemstones, stone, shell, lava, coral and manmade materials as mediums to carve cameos. Shell had been used by Italian carvers since 1805, and by the Victorian era, was the favorite material of cameo designers. Popular subjects for cameos included depictions of deities from Greek mythology (especially the Three Graces, the daughters of Zeus), the Biblical Rebecca at the well, and the Bacchante maidens adorned with grape leaves in their hair. The Victorians' appreciation for naturalism, especially their love of gardening, was also captured in cameos featuring flowers and trees. Finally, the Victorian woman of means often commissioned a cameo in her likeness, while other artists depicted an idealized woman with an upswept hairstyle and Romanesque features.

Men's fashions of the era were comparably more comfortable for the wearer. It was considered impolite society for a gentleman to appear in his shirt sleeves before a lady other than his wife, so Victorian men nearly always wore wore an informal "sack coat" during the day. The sack coat was a loose-fitting, single-breasted garment appropriate for travel or business, which was distinctive for its small collar, short lapels, a fastened top button close to the neck, moderately rounded hems, flap or welt pockets on the hips, a welt pocket on the chest and a slightly baggy appearance. Men's formal attire consisted of a top hat, dapper cutaway coat or frockcoat, waistcoat, cravat and trousers.

Edwardian Fashions

At the advent of the Edwardian era, the shape of women's fashions transitioned from the popular "hourglass" figure to dresses designed with an "S" curve. The new style allowed women to cast away the confining corsets of the Victorian age and embrace the new "health corsets" that supported the spine and abdomen. The curvaceous clothing line of this period resounded with the curving lines of Art Nouveau style. In addition, ladies' hats became larger, a trend that continued steadily until 1911. The Art Nouveau style also invaded women's jewelry styles, as peacocks, dragonflies and moths created out of dazzling enamels and gold filigree became standard adornments for ladies' combs and brooches.

Throughout the Edwardian period, women's fashions were highly influenced by the advancing feminist Suffrage movement. Women modeled their behavior and appearance upon the "Gibson Girl", the popular image of the "New Woman". Designers soon borrowed from men's clothing styles such as the suit, shirt, hard collar and tie, to create fashions appropriate for women entering professions formerly occupied by men.

During the later half of the Edwardian era, fashions once again transitioned from the "S" curve dresses to the pre-flapper, straight-line clothing of the late 1910s. As women began participating in athletics, casual and comfortable "sport clothing" also became popular. Women's fashions also generally became lighter in construction and materials, as epitomized by the "lingerie dress", a feather-light white cotton dress inset with strips of open-work lace and net. In sum, women's fashions became progressively more comfortable, practical and aesthetically pleasing during this era, such that the period from 1890 to 1914 is remembered as "la Belle Epoque" ("The Beautiful Epoch").