The Evolution of Women's Clothing

Over the last 2000 years, Western culture has experienced many changes concerning society's outlook on women and their roles. Exploring the alterations that have occurred in women's clothing throughout history can help us learn more about these changes. Clothing is an external outlet that inevitably reflects the mindset of the society that has donned it; thus, the pressures of these mindsets notably influence women's clothing.

A look back in history can confirm this: In the 13th century, women's clothes were very lavish, covering the entire body. Invariably, a headdress was worn. These styles conformed to the religious beliefs of the times. In 16th century Europe, clothing was elaborate and stiff, featuring ruffled, pleated collars; layered, lengthy skirts spread out with a farthingale; a waist pinched to unbearable slimness and enhanced by a v-shaped bodice, representing virginity. These fashions gave witness to the Elizabethan conception of women as costly jewel, to be embalmed in finery.

Towards the end of the 18th century, a relaxed, youthful look came in vogue. The novel was a new phenomenon and works such as those by Sir Walter Scott became immensely popular. Most likely influenced by the romanticism of these novels, women began to wear simple, chemise-style gowns, reminiscent of ancient Greece. During the Victorian period, women turned once more to elaborate clothing, distorting the figure by lacing it into an hourglass-like shape, and layering petticoats beneath their skirts. The ideal of womanly beauty became an unnatural, propped shape. Perhaps this was due to the rigid morality imposed upon the people at that time; for many, conforming to Victorian conventions required suppressing their true selves, just as the Victorian woman suppressed her natural shape within her corset.

By the mid-20th century, the "Jazz Age" had appeared. Women wore straight clothing that attempted to hide any trace of the figure. These boyish styles may have reflected the discontentment women felt with the traditional female look, allied, as it was in their minds, with the bonds in which women had suffered for so long. As the women's-rights movement progressed along with the 20th century, styles revolutionized. Women dressed casually and comfortably, and clothing such as pants became no longer the rarity they once were.

It is evident that a survey of clothing can prove useful for better understanding past civilizations. Throughout history, clothing has served as a reflection of the outlook of the times; it will, in all probability, continue to do so.