Monday, January 20, 2014

Clothing as a Map to the Past

By Philippa Jane Keyworth

Medieval Clothing - Clothing as a Map to the Past by Philippa Jane Keyworth
Richard Grassby wrote in his article ‘Material Culture and Cultural History’ in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, that ‘Clothes in a draw have no meaning, but when worn they become a uniform with social and moral implications.’

I am a woman, and I love clothes. What a stereotype – except that if you continued to talk to me about them, you would see that I have an obsession with clothes of bygone ages rather than what’s in high-street stores right now.

As an amateur historian, I am coming to the firm conclusion that to assume people just wore certain clothes because they liked them is missing a much broader range of motivations. There were many reasons individuals in the past chose to wear what they wore.

Many previous historians have given the main motivation, when people were choosing what to wear, as ‘social emulation’. The basic meaning of this being to dress like your betters and hope to rise through society’s ranks. Of course that is a just consideration. It is clear from eighteenth century accounts of working and middle class people that they would dress like their betters in order to enhance their job prospects and to feed their social aspirations. How many people have bought Ugg boots in the last few years because everyone else has a pair?

The idea I would like to present to you is one that sees a host of other motivations as well, and that these motivations often reflected the contemporary social, economic and political events of the day. ‘I’m confused!’ you say – but have no fear, I wish to give some examples to better explain my theory!

Whilst studying the medieval period, I was astonished to find that there were such things as sumptuary laws. These laws were designed to govern the wearing of sumptuous dress, restricting certain clothing to the rich and certain clothing to the poor. This way, if someone were to look at someone else on the street, they would be able to determine their rank within society immediately. This is much like a football player wearing his team colours.

The clearest example of these laws is in furs. Rich people were allowed to wear furs such as ermine, whilst poor people were confined to furs such as squirrel. If the poor were to don ermine they would be breaking the law. So, in this case, the type of clothing worn gives a map of the social hierarchy in society at the time which can be viewed in documents and through art.

Elizabeth I's Clothing - Clothing as a Map to the Past by Philippa Jane Keyworth
Jumping forward, Elizabeth I’s motivations when choosing the clothing she was portrayed wearing in her portraits reflects the political and gender mindsets of her time. Roy Strong’s book Gloriana explains her use of ermine was a signifier of purity, establishing her as the Virgin Queen and reinforcing her claim of marriage to her country. Equally, the fact that she chose to dress in similar clothes to her father with the masculine broad shoulders and puffy sleeves shows her legitimising her claim to the throne both by associating herself with her father Henry VIII and asserting her authority to rule in spite of her sex. Elizabeth’s choice of clothing reflected her political tools and from it you can deduce the challenges to her rule i.e. not marrying, the questioning of her claim to the throne and her sex.

Georgian Clothing - Clothing as a Map to the Past by Philippa Jane Keyworth

And what can the eighteenth century tell us? Oh, the wide-pannier court dresses and the lavish wigs! It was all pomp and splendour and what for? The obvious answer is to display wealth. When materials were expensive and there was no mass production available, dresses using yards and yards of the stuff were the perfect way to display wealth, importance and power. The same goes for those astronomical wigs. The larger the wig, the more expensive – I hear that’s where the term ‘big-wigs’ comes from, the wearing of big wigs by the rich and powerful.

Then on to the Regency, that most elegant of ages, what were the motivations for dressing in tight buckskin breeches and flimsy muslin dresses, (not at the same time I hasten to add)? I agree with Christopher Breward in his book The Culture of Fashion, that after the violence of 1789, the English aristocracy wanted to distance themselves from the indulgences of their French equivalents. They discarded embroidered frock coats in favour of plain jackets reminiscent of the middling classes. Then there was also the harking back to neo-classical philosophies in the previous century. The Enlightenment had brought with it ideas of equality and appreciation of antiquity. Surely that had something to do with those muslin dresses that looked so much like the clothing of caryatids? Not to mention influencing the wearing of tight buckskin breeches that Ian Kelly in Beau Brummel, said were to show the nudity of ancient statues in the everyday dress of men.

Grace Kelly - Clothing as a Map to the Past by Philippa Jane Keyworth
Finally, a friend pointed out something to me I did not know about the large 1950s skirts that women wore. We were watching Grace Kelly in Rear Window (a great film if you’ve never seen it), and were admiring Kelly’s beautiful dresses. My friend remarked upon the fact that the reason pencil skirts were so popular in the 1940s was because of fabric rationing due to the war, and when this rationing was lifted, full-bodied skirts came into fashion. Right there, a little passing comment made me realise that from two different designs of skirt the international relations and economy of countries was alluded to.

I hope that by touching upon a few highlights of bygone fashions you are starting to see clothes as I do. They can provide a map to view beliefs and attitudes in the past. They can echo the current economy, social situation, governmental changes and individual’s desires. They really do provide us amateur historians with a map to the past.

In writing all this, I do not want people to think I am completely discarding the idea of people choosing a dress or jacket simply because they like the design. I am sure they did, but along with that desire, there were lots of underlying motivations, either conscious or subconscious, that can be discovered and unpacked when looking at clothing. Next time you are looking at historical attire, why not see what it can tell you about the past?


Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I by Roy Strong

The Culture of Fashion: A history of Fashionable Dress by Christopher Breward

‘Material Culture and Cultural History’ by Richard Grassby in Journal of Interdisciplinary History


Philippa Jane Keyworth, known to her friends as Pip, has been writing since she was twelve in every notebook she could find. Whilst she dabbles in a variety of genres, it was the encouragement of a friend to watch a film adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that would start the beginning of her love affair with the British Regency. Her debut novel, The Widow's Redeemer (Madison Street Publishing, 2012), is a traditional Regency romance bringing to life the romance between a young widow with an indomitable spirit and a wealthy viscount with an unsavory reputation.

The Widow's Redeemer - Regency Romance - Philippa Jane Keyworth


  1. Fascinating stuff! And there were indeed reasons other than liking it. I have read recently that as the Lady Elizabeth, the future Gloriana wore simple black and white for the most part,to show herself as a virtuous Protestant maiden. Mary was furious, wanting her to wear something fancier.

    The narrowness of pencil skirts reminds me of something my Renaissance Dance teacher said about why clothes went from simple mediaeval to elaborate Renaissance. Apparently, there were merchants with narrow bolts of cloth who would persuade buyers it was all the rage. Of course, when you have narrow cloth, you need more bits to put together into clothes.

  2. Indeed, great entry. I might add that the availability of fabrics (the crusades opened up trade to the Middle East and suddenly there was cotton and silk available at more reasonable prices) or technology (the development of the button or the zipper) also had an impact on style. People like what's new, and a new fabric for fastener automatically opens up new options in design. There's much more to this topic, and I bet we see more entries on it!

  3. This post was very informative, but I am confused by the information on Regency fashion. I have read many times that the Empire style favored during this time and inspired by Greek and Roman fashion was actually copied from the French. Empress Josephine and her court were said to have introduced these styles, taking them to shocking extremes of little to no underclothing.

    1. Hi Karen, You are quite right, the Empress Josephine was copied in England and I suppose this could be linked to the fact that if the Enlightenment were to be given a capital it would have been Paris so it would then make sense that neo-classical styles emanated form there. Thank you for reading! Philippa

  4. I've read that the merchant class (and those who could afford the fines) wore the fur they wanted, with the exception of ermine, and paid the fines. Also, dress does change with the economic times in terms of skirt fullness and length.

    When a household's wealth was in its plate and furnishings, clothing and bolts of fabric were part of that wealth as well.

    Loved this article. Thanks! :)

  5. It's interesting how even when people are trying to be different -they end up wearing a uniform of sorts.
    G x

  6. Wonderful blog. One other thing I find fascinating, is women's skirt lengths. The shorter the skirt, the better the economy, the longer the skirt, the poorer the economy, I have yet to see someone connect the economy and skirt length and a reasonable explanation. But check it out.


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