A History of Clothing

By Tim Lambert

Egyptian Clothes

Not surprisingly given the hot climate Egyptians wore only light clothing. Men wore a loincloth and a kind of kilt. Women wore dresses with shoulder straps. Clothes were made of linen or cotton. Later in Egyptian history clothes became more elaborate and colorful.

Egyptians shaved their hair and wore wigs. Children had their heads shaved to prevent lice (although they usually had a braid left at the side of their heads). It was normal for children to go naked. Most people went barefoot much of the time but they sometimes wore sandals made from papyrus.

Egyptians wore jewelry. Those who could afford it wore jewelry of gold, silver, and precious stones. Poor people wore jewelry made of copper or bronze. Both men and women wore makeup.

Ancient Greek Clothes

Despite the warm climate, Greek women wore clothes that covered most of their bodies. Originally Greek women wore a peplos. It was a rectangle of cloth folded and pinned. It was tied at the waist. Later Greek women began to wear a long tunic called a chiton. Women also wore cloaks called himations. Women wore jewelry like necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. Rich women carried parasols to protect themselves from the sun.

Women did not cut their hair unless they were mourning. It was worn in many different styles.

Ancient Greek woman's dress
Ancient Greek Woman

Greek men wore plain tunics of wool tied at the waist. Men also wore cloaks called himations and if they were travelling they wore broad-rimmed hats. Although ordinary Greeks wore clothes of wool or linen the rich could afford cotton and silk.

Roman Clothes

Roman men wore tunics. Roman citizens wore a semi-circular piece of cloth called a toga. It was folded over one shoulder. Men wore white togas made of wool or linen. Senators wore a toga with a purple stripe as a mark of their rank. Women wore long dresses called stola, dyed different colors. Often they wore a long shawl called a palla.

Ordinary Romans wore clothes of wool or linen but the rich could afford cotton and silk. Roman clothes were held with pins and brooches. Both men and women wore wigs and false teeth.

Saxon Clothes

Saxon clothes were basic. Saxon men wore a shirt and tunic. They wore trousers-like garments called breeches. Sometimes they extended to the ankle but sometimes they were shorts. Men might wear wool leggings held in place by leather garters. They wore cloaks held in place by brooches. Saxon women wore a long linen garment with a long tunic over it. They also wore mantles. Both men and women used combs made of bone or antler.

Clothes in the Middle Ages

In the 12th and 13th centuries, clothes were still quite basic. In the Middle Ages, men wore tunics. Some men wore shorts and all wore ‘hose’ (tights or stockings).

Medieval women wore nightie-like linen garments. However, they did not wear knickers. They wore a long tunic (to their ankles) and over it another garment, a gown. Women held their dresses with a belt tied around their waists.

In the Middle Ages, both sexes wore clothes made of wool but it varied in quality. Wool could be fine and expensive or coarse and cheap. From the mid-14th century laws lay down which materials the different classes could wear, to stop the middle classes from dressing ‘above themselves’. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive clothes anyway!). However, most people ignored the law and wore whatever clothes they wished.

In the late 14th and 15th centuries clothes became much more elaborate. Fashion in the modern sense began. For the wealthy styles changed rapidly. Women wore elaborate hats and men wore long pointed shoes called crakows. Poor people wore practical clothes. If it was wet and muddy they wore wooden clogs.

Aztec Clothes

Different classes of Aztecs wore different clothes. Upper-class Aztecs wore cotton clothes and feather headdresses. Ordinary people wore clothes made from maguey plant fiber. Men wore loincloths and cloaks tied with a knot at one shoulder. Women wore wrap-around skirts and tunics with short sleeves. Married women curled their hair on top of their heads.

By law, only upper-class Aztecs could wear cotton. If commoners wore cotton clothes they could be put to death. Aztec women wove clothes in their own homes.

Inca Clothes

Incas made clothes from wool or (in warmer areas) cotton. Ordinary people wore coarse alpaca wool but nobles wore fine vicuna wool. Inca men wore loincloths and tunics. Inca nobles wore gold earplugs. Inca women wore a long dress with a cloak on top fastened with a brooch.

Mayan Clothes

Living in a hot climate both sexes wore simple cotton clothes. Men wore a loincloth. Women wore a long cotton dress called a huipil. If it turned cold both sexes wore a cloak called a manta. Mayans wore leather sandals.

The Mayans were short, stocky people with dark hair. Both sexes wore their hair long and tied back. They believed that flattened foreheads were beautiful. While their skulls were still soft babies had wooden frames attached to them to flatten them. The Maya also believed that being cross-eyed was attractive. So they tied a bead on the front of a child’s head so it dangled between their eyes. The child would become cross-eyed by looking at the bead. The Maya also tattooed themselves and they filed their teeth.

Maya nobles put clay on top of their noses to make a long ridge. Rich Mayans also wore jewelry made from jade. The Mayans also hunted macaws and parrots for their feathers, which were used to make headdresses.

16th Century Clothes

For rich Tudors fashion was important. Their clothes were very elaborate. For the poor clothes had to be tough and practical. All classes wore wool. However, it varied in quality. The rich wore fine-quality wool. The poor wore coarse wool.

Linen was used to make shirts and underwear. However only the rich could afford cotton and silk clothes. Rich Tudors also embroidered their clothes with silk, gold, or silver thread. Rich 16th-century women wore silk stockings.

In the 16th century, men wore short trouser-like garments called breeches. They also wore tight-fitting jackets called doublets. Another jacket called a jerkin was worn over the doublet. Over the jerkin, rich men wore a gown, or later in the 16th century a cloak or cape.

However, instead of a doublet, many workingmen wore a loose tunic. It was easier to work in. Some workingmen wore a leather jerkin called a buff-jerkin. Men also wore stockings or woolen socks, which were called hose.

In the 16th century, women wore a kind of petticoat called a smock or shift or chemise made of linen or wool and a wool dress over it. A woman’s dress was made of two parts, a bodice, and a skirt. Sleeves were held on with laces and could be detached. Working women wore linen aprons.

In the late 16th century many women wore a frame made of whalebone or wood under their dress called a farthingale. If they could not afford a farthingale, women wore a padded roll around their waist called a bum roll. In the 16th century, women did not wear knickers. However, men sometimes wore linen shorts.

In the 16th century, everyone wore hats. Poor women often wore a linen cap called a coif. After 1572 by law all men except nobles had to wear a woolen cap on Sundays. This law was passed to give the wool cap makers plenty of work!

In the 16th century, buttons were usually for decoration. Clothes were often held together with laces or pins. Furs in Tudor times included cats, rabbits, beavers, bears, badgers, and polecats.

The Tudors used mostly vegetable dyes such as madder for red, woad for blue, or walnut for brown. However, you have to use a chemical called a mordant to ‘fix’ the dye. The mordant changed the color of the dye e.g. a plant called weld was used with alum for yellow but if used with iron or tin it produced shades of green.

The most expensive dyes were bright red, purple, and indigo. Poor people often wore brown, yellow, or blue. Incidentally, in the 16th century scarlet was not a color it was the name of fine, expensive wool.

Women who could afford it would hang a container of sweet-smelling spices on their belts. This was called a pomander and it disguised the horrid smells in the streets!

Tudor women's dresses
Tudor women

17th Century Clothes

At the beginning of the 17th century, men wore starched collars called ruffs. Women wore frames made of wood or whalebone under their dresses. However, the farthingale was soon discarded and the ruff evolved into a large lace collar (for those who could afford it!).

In the 17th century, men wore knee-length, trouser-like garments called breeches. They also wore stockings and boots. On the upper body, men wore linen shirts. In the early 17th century they wore a kind of jacket called a doublet with a cape on top. Men wore their hair long. They also wore beards.

In the late 17th century a man’s doublet became a waistcoat and men wore a frock coat over it. With breeches, it was rather like a three-piece suit. Men were now clean-shaven and they wore wigs.

Women wore a linen nightie-like garment called a shift. Over them, they wore long dresses. The dress was in two parts the bodice and the skirt. Sometimes women wore two skirts. The upper skirt was gathered up to reveal an underskirt.

From the mid-17th century, it was the fashion for women to wear black patches on their faces such as little stars or crescent moons.

18th Century Clothes

In the 18th century, men wore knee-length trouser-like garments called breeches and stockings. They also wore waistcoats and frock coats. They wore linen shirts. Both men and women wore wigs and for men three-cornered hats were popular. Men wore buckled shoes. The top hat was invented in 1797.

In the 18th century, women wore stays (a bodice with strips of whalebone) and hooped petticoats under their dresses. However, in the 18th century, women did not wear knickers.

Fashionable women carried folding fans. Fashion was very important for the wealthy but poor people’s clothes hardly changed at all.

19th Century Clothes

In the 19th century, apart from cotton shirts, men’s clothes consisted of three parts. In the 18th century, they wore knee-length breeches but in the 19th century, men wore trousers. They also wore waistcoats and coats. The bowler hat was invented in 1849. In 1822 Albert Thurston invented suspenders (known in Britain as braces).

In the early 19th century women wore light dresses. In the 1830s they had puffed sleeves. In the 1850s they wore frames of whalebone or steel wire called crinolines under their skirts. In the late 1860s, Victorian women began to wear a kind of half crinoline. The front of the skirt was flat but it bulged outwards at the back. This was called a bustle and it disappeared in the 1890s. About 1800 women started wearing underwear.

In the 19th century, people of all classes wore hats. Wealthy men wore top hats. Middle-class men wore bowler hats and working men wore cloth caps.

Before the 19th century, children were always dressed like little adults. In that century the first clothes made especially for children appeared such as sailor suits.

Several inventions to do with clothes were made in the 19th century. In 1807 James Winter invented the gloving donkey. All gloves were hand-stitched in those days. His device was a kind of clamp that held the glove and allowed the sewer to sew faster and more evenly. Thomas Hancock invented elastic in 1820. The safety pin was invented in 1849 by Walter Hunt. The electric iron was invented by Henry Seely in 1882 but it did not become common until the 1930s. Isaac Singer patented the first practical sewing machine in 1851.

A sewing machine

The first zip fastener was invented in 1893 by Whitcomb Judson. An improved version was patented in 1917 by Gideon Sundback. Louise Austin patented pinking shears in 1893. Meanwhile, in 1863 Butterick made the first paper dress pattern.

20th Century Clothes

At the beginning of the 20th century, fashionable men wore trousers, waistcoats, and coats. They wore top hats or homburgs.

In 1900 women wore long dresses. It was not acceptable for women to show their legs. From 1910 women wore hobble skirts. They were so narrow women could only ‘hobble’ along while wearing them. However, during World War I women’s clothes became more practical.

Meanwhile, Albert Parkhouse invented the coat hanger in 1903. Then in 1913, Mary Phelps Jacob invented the modern bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbons.

In the 19th century, women wore knickers that ended well below the knee. However, during the 1920s knickers became shorter. They ended above the knee. In the mid-20th century, younger women wore briefs.

A revolution in women’s clothes occurred in 1925. At that time women began wearing knee-length skirts. In the mid and late 1920s, it was fashionable for women to look boyish. However, in the 1930s women’s dress became more conservative.

During World War II it was necessary to save material so skirts were shorter. In Britain, clothes were rationed from 1941 until 1949. Meanwhile, the bikini was invented in 1946. In 1947 Christian Dior introduced the New Look, with long skirts and narrow waists giving an ‘hourglass’ figure.

During the 1950s women’s clothes were full and feminine. However in 1965, Mary Quant invented the mini skirt and clothes became even more informal.

After the First World War men’s clothes became less informal and more casual. In the 1920s wide trousers called ‘Oxford bags’ were fashionable. Men also often wore pullovers instead of waistcoats.

In the 19th century, men’s underwear covered almost the whole body, stretching from the ankles to the neck and the wrists. However, in the 1920s they began to wear shorts that ended above the knee and sleeveless vests. The first Y-fronts went on sale in the mid-1930s.

In the second half of the 20th century, clothes for both sexes became so varied and fashion changed so rapidly that it would take too long to list them all. One of the biggest changes was the availability of artificial fibers. Nylon was first made in 1935 by Wallace Carothers. Polyester was invented in 1941. It became common in the 1950s. Vinyl (a substitute for leather) was invented in 1924. Trainers were designed in 1949 by Adolf Dassler.

Last revised 2024