What did people wear? The History of Clothing
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History of Clothing

stone statuette of woman wearing a grass or string skirt
Woman wearing grass or
string skirt, ca. 25,000 BC
(now in the Musée
de l'Homme, Paris)

Clothing was very expensive in the ancient and medieval world, because without engine-powered machines it was very hard to make. So most people had very few changes of clothing; many people probably owned only the clothes they were wearing. Many children had no clothes at all, and just went naked. In the Stone Age most clothing was made of leather or fur. Because leather was expensive, for everyday clothes many people wore skirts of woven grasses.

By the Bronze Age people had learned to spin yarn on a spindle and to weave cloth out of the yarn on looms. Although many clothes, especially coats, were still made out of leather or fur, most clothes were made out of wool (from sheep) or linen (from the flax plant) or cotton. Some rich people wore silk. In the Middle Ages (the medieval period), people invented the spinning wheel, which made spinning yarn go about four times as fast. Clothes were a little less expensive than they had been before, but still most people had only one or two outfits.

Indian woman in a sari with bare breasts
Indian woman from the Mauryan period (ca. 200 BC)

People wore different kinds of clothes. Clothes helped to show where you were from, and whether you were rich or poor, and whether you were a girl or a boy.

Around the Mediterranean, in Egypt and North Africa and Greece and the Roman Empire, people mostly wore wool or linen tunics (like a big t-shirt). Women wore long tunics, and men mostly wore short ones. Over their tunic, they might wear a wool cloak, if it was cold. Further north, in Europe, a lot of men wore wool pants under their tunics - as you probably do today.

In West Asia, both tunics and pants were also pretty common, but they were made out of linen, and then in the Islamic period people began to use more silk and cotton.

In China, too, people wore tunics, and a lot of people wore pants. Their tunics and pants were made out of hemp and ramie and silk, and later out of cotton.

But in India and Africa, people mainly made their clothes without sewing, out of one big piece of cloth wrapped around themselves in various ways, like a woman's sari in India, or her kanga in central Africa. Most people's clothes were made out of cotton or silk.

Clothing after 1500 AD - Cotton becomes cheaper

Bibliography and further reading about ancient and medieval clothing:

Eyewitness: Costume, by L. Rowland-Warne (2000). For kids, but mainly European clothing, from earliest times to modern.

Dazzling Disguises and Clever Costumes, by Angela Wilkes (2001). Make your own costumes - here are directions written for kids!

Clothing: A Pictorial History of the Past One Thousand Years, by Sue and John Hamilton (2000). Includes Africa and Asia, but only as far back as 1000 AD. Easy reading.

World Textiles: A Concise History, by Mary Schoeser (2003). For adults.

Linen
Cotton
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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