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)

September 2016 - 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 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), hemp or cotton. Some rich people wore silk.

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

Almost as soon as spinning and weaving were invented, rich people started to capture and enslave hundreds of women to work in big factories making very beautiful fine clothing that the rich people could sell or give away to their supporters. Egyptian pharaohs made women prisoners spin very fine linen; Sumerian and Mycenaean kings made women prisoners spin fine wool; Chinese emperors made women prisoners spin beautiful silks. These rich people were always looking for ways to make cloth cheaper and better, so inventors were always working on this problem. About 1000 BC, they were using nalbinding to make hats and socks. By 200 BC Chinese inventors were making steel sewing needles that the women used to make fancy embroidery and sew pleats and ruffles on expensive clothing. The invention of knitting, about 400 AD, let the factories make socks and hats much faster than nalbinding. In the Middle Ages, about 1200 AD, Chinese or Iranian inventors made the spinning wheel, which made spinning yarn go about four times as fast. But these new methods were mainly for expensive clothes. Regular people still had only one or two outfits.

colorful knitted sock
Egyptian knitted sock (400s AD, now in Leicester)

By this time, Europe was getting rich from selling wool cloth, and the next clothing inventions came from Europe. One was the knitting machine, in 1589 AD, and the next was the spinning jenny, in the 1700s. Making clothing got cheaper as people got richer, and by the 1700s many people were wearing clothing made in factories. Instead of enslaved prisoners, now the rich people hired free women and children to work in textile factories, but for very low wages. They forced people in India to grow cotton to spin in their factories.

photo of black people picking cotton
Picking cotton

But the big revolution in clothing came at the very end of the 1700s, when Eli Whitney (and other people working about the same time) invented the cotton gin to get the seeds out of North American short-staple cotton. White men started enormous Southern plantations to grow huge amounts of cotton, forcing enslaved African-Americans to do the work for them. They sent most of the cotton on ships to England, where poor women and children ran factory machines spinning and weaving the cotton into cloth. For the first time, clothing became cheap enough that most people could change their clothes regularly. People started to wear more underwear. They started to put sheets on their beds and curtains at their windows.

Buy fair trade dresses, made
by people getting good wages

Even after the Civil War, most black people kept on picking cotton. But in the 1950s, scientists invented machines to pick cotton instead. Many black people lost their work, but cotton got even cheaper, and people started to throw away good shirts and dresses just because they were tired of them, or they had gone out of fashion. Scientists also invented polyester cloth made out of oil. Even today, most of the clothing you wear is made of cotton, grown in the southern United States, or of polyester, and spun and woven and sewn in Cambodia or Vietnam or any other poor country, where women and children will work for very low wages.

Learn by doing: check the labels and see what your clothing is made of and where it was made
North American clothing after 1500 AD

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.

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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