A History of Women’s Clothes

By Tim Lambert

Women’s Clothes in the Ancient World

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

Originally Greek women wore a peplos. It was a rectangle of cloth folded and pinned together. 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 them from the sun. Greek Women did not cut their hair unless they were mourning. It was worn in many different styles.

Roman 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.

Women’s Clothing in the Middle Ages

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. Viking women spun and wove cloth at home and made the family’s clothes. Women wore a dress-like garment called a shift made of linen or wool. Over it, they wore a dress open at the sides, held with shoulder straps. In cold weather, they wore cloaks or shawls. Clothing was held in place by brooches. Viking women often had their hair plaited or held under a headscarf.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, clothes were still quite basic. Women wore a nightie-like linen garment. 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 they 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 what 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. At that time women wore elaborate hats.

Women’s Clothes in the 16th Century

For rich Tudors fashion was important and 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. However only the rich could afford cotton and silk. Rich Tudors also embroidered their clothes with silk, gold, or silver thread. Rich Tudor women wore silk stockings.

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 later 16th century, women wore corsets made with whalebone. Women often wore corsets for 400 years until the 20th century when they were replaced by bras and girdles.

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 farthingale women wore a padded roll around their waist called a bum roll. In the 16th century, women did not wear knickers.

In the 16th century, everyone wore hats. Poor women often wore a linen cap called a coif. In the 16th century, buttons were usually for decoration. Clothes were 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! However, it is a myth that in Tudor times people were personally dirty. Most people tried to keep themselves clean. Some women wore wigs. Both Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots wore them. When Mary was beheaded her wig came off.

Women’s Clothing in the Americas

Different classes of Aztecs wore different clothes. Upper-class Aztecs wore cotton clothes. Ordinary people wore clothes made from maguey plant fiber. (By law only upper-class Aztecs could wear cotton. If commoners wore cotton clothes they could be put to death). Aztec Women wore wraparound skirts and tunics with short sleeves. Married women curled their hair on top of their heads.

Aztec women wove clothes in their own homes. The Aztecs liked bright dyes. A red dye was made from the cochineal beetle. It took about 70,000 beetles to make half a kilo of dye.

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

Women’s Clothes in the 17th Century

In the 17th century, women wore a linen nightie-like garment called a shift. Over it, 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 fashionable for women to wear black patches on their faces such as little stars or crescent moons.

Women’s Clothing in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, women’s clothes were basically the same as before. In the 18th Century, both men and women wore wigs. Women still wore corsets and hooped petticoats under their dresses. Fashionable women carried folding fans. Fashion was very important for the wealthy but poor people’s clothes hardly changed at all.

Women’s Clothes in the 19th Century

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.

In the 19th century, women still wore corsets. However, it’s a myth that corsets were very uncomfortable.

About 1800 women started wearing underwear. They were called drawers. Originally women wore a pair of drawers i.e. they were two garments, one for each leg, tied together at the top. In Britain, in the late 19th century women’s drawers were called knickerbockers then just knickers.

Several inventions to do with clothing were made in the 19th century. 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. The zip fastener was invented in 1893 by Whitcomb Judson. An improved version was patented in 1913 by Gideon Sundback. In 1863 Butterick made the first paper dress pattern.

20th Century Women’s Clothes

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, in 1913 Mary Phelps Jacob invented the modern bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbons. In 1915 lipstick was sold in tubes for the first time.

In the 19th century, women wore knickers that ended 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. Clothes were rationed 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.

In the second half of the 20th century, fashions for both sexes became so varied and 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 and polyester was invented in 1941 by John Whinfield and James Dickson. It became common in the 1950s. Vinyl (a substitute for leather) was invented in 1924.

Last revised 2024