The History of the Costume

Published: 09th October 2009
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Historians studying the evolution of the modern costume mutually date its origins to the 1490's. It is important to note, however, that before this time clothing existed mainly for the purpose of protection from injuries and natural elements. As society continued to advance costume became an expression of wealth, reputation or profession. It was then that more emphasis on both art and the artistic ability to make clothes that to distinguish people into classes.

It's not that decoration didn't exist before then. It was just not as widespread. Evidence from the Stone Age period revealed that cavemen wore leather skirts decorated with patterns made of pigments or perforations. So in studying the history of the costume it makes sense to start back then and follow through to the Rococo era.

Ancient Egyptian costumes were colorfully adorned with precious gems and jewels. Because of the heat of the desert, costumes were designed with comfort in mind. Regardless of gender, clothing was made of linen which was bleached in the sun to attain a brilliant white color that became very popular among the wealthy. Very few clothing items were made from wool, and only during the Christian era was cotton cloth introduced.

Ancient Greek costumes and clothing, though more voluminous, were simple and practical like the Egyptians'. In the winter they wore clothes made of wool, whilst in the summer they donned linen. The primary garment of clothing was the Chiton, an all-over body garment made from a large rectangle of cloth wrapped once around the body. The men wore these with tunics, a knee length t-shirt made of wool or linen. Footwear came in the form of leather sandals. The "Dark Age" of Greece era that followed the fall of the Mycenaean civilization brought with it bell-shaped skirts and tightly fitted bodices.

Ancient Roman costumes were made of wool. Sewing needles then were coarse and unwieldy, resulting in very basic garments. Men basically had two items of clothing, the tunica and the toga. Unlike the Greek's long sleeved tunic, the tunica was short sleeved. The toga was typically worn in public. Both these items were worn differently by various people in society to distinguish levels of authority.

Medieval costuming began with the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 476 and ran through to the late medieval times of the 13th century. At the beginning the tunic was still a major form of dress, but was soon replaced by breeches and mid thigh high hose. Cloths were adorned with fine jewels, embroidery and fur trimmings.

In this era costume and dress took on a special meaning as defined by the aristocracy. In the 14th century it was characterized by short upper garments among men and tight-fitting dresses among the women. From then on there was a greater trend towards high fashion and more extravagant dress, perhaps resulting from increased exports from the East in the wake of The Crusades, increased production and improved quality of textiles in the West, and the increasing wealth of the rising urban tradesman class.

The Renaissance era coincided with a sudden increase in inherited personal wealth of the survivors of the Black Plague (1350-1400) and the emergence of significant Italian influence. Costume was led by nobility, who dressed in elaborate and brightly colored robes and gowns embellished with furs and elaborate belts. Wigs were popular and crafted from peasant's hair. Ladies began to wear more revealing clothes with low necklines, no longer covered their hair with hoods but styled it instead, and used make-up. Where color was restricted before, by mid 1500 garments were sewn with richly colored fabric. Men did not just wear long garments over hose, but actual trousers with stockings. It is during this time that the beret also came into existence.

In 1600 Baroque costumes, the influences began in Italy and spread to most of Europe. After Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood in 1628, it was feared that tight garments might restrict blood-flow causing various ailments. Thus began an era that saw more loose-fitting and casual garments introduced for both sexes. Later large feathered hats and embroidered plumes became popular, as did highly-impractical large, soft-leather boots. Fashion was evocative of the Elizabethan style. Elbow sleeves, overskirts with trains at the back of floor length hoop skirts (also called panniers), ribbon ties, and lace cuffs for women were popular. Men were not left out in the lace department either. It was on their jackets and breeches alike. In addition they wore long coats with braided front panels buttoned from neck to hemline. Breeches were high, at or just above the knee, and fine hose was worn underneath. This attire lasted until 1715.

With the turn of the 18th century Rococo costumes emerged in France. They were opulent, graceful, playful and light, characteristic of the French culture at the time. Fabric colors were brighter (not too brilliant) as compared to those of the darker Baroque style. Solid colors were as popular as were floral motifs and stripes. The panniers with rich trimmings were the norm, and it was common for ladies to use makeup and perfume. The often had their hair powdered, coiffed and decorated with a small bonnet, flowers, jewelry, or bows. Men's costume hardly transformed during this time. They still wore breeches and waistcoats, which with time became briefer until they finally only reached the hips and were buttoned only in the stomach region.

Thus modern costume is not modern at all, but has developed over several centuries. From leather hides and skins to tunics of the medieval Byzantine era, to the exaggerated motion of the Baroque style up to the more subtle and soft French Rococo. It just goes to show that time itself is a manufacturer of new fashion styles borrowing from each other, some lasting longer than others. It is from these times that modern costumes of the 19th and 20th century have emerged.Costume is a leading online retailer of scary masks and accessories in the US. Visit online today for their complete line and have some fun!

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