Lou Taylor. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Since the 1980s new generations of academics, collectors, curators, and enthusiasts have discovered the value of the study of dress as an analytical research tool through which to examine aspects of social and economic history, material culture, cultural and gender studies, art history, anthropology, and sociology. As a consequence, the study of the history of dress has been transformed from its marginalized place of professional connoisseurship and amateur enthusiasms to become a firmly established academic and museum-based subject.

In the world of ethnography, a reconsideration of the cultural significance of clothing coupled with a rejection of old imperial approaches to ethnographical artifacts has revolutionized the field. In the early twenty-first century ethnographical museums have reconfigured their collections and displays, creating “living culture” exhibitions. These, as Michael Ross and Reg Crowshoe insist, must “see the world through another’s eyes” and must ensure that “respect [is] given to another world view” (p. 240). Many ethnographical museums are also faced with serious questioning about their right to hold on to artifacts that are specifically sacred to their communities of origin, who now demand their return.

The study of dress, especially European-American fashionable dress, has long had to deal with accusations, usually from male academics, that the entire subject is a frivolous, female, trivial interest. However, the use of material culture and history of consumption debates have finally overwhelmed these prejudices. Material culture approaches stem from the premise that all goods carry a weight of cultural meanings that can be specifically “read” through object-based and consumption analysis. Anne Smart Martin states that “material objects matter because they are complex, symbolic bundles of social, cultural and individual meanings fused onto something we can touch, see and own” (p. 142).

Even when the clothes themselves have gone, their shadows survive through archives such as diaries and family accounts. Amanda Vickery studied the dress of Mrs. Elizabeth Shackleton, a well-off textile merchant’s widow from the north of England, through a set of surviving personal papers dating from 1762 to 1781. Vickery concludes that Mrs. Shackleton used her clothing to identify her exact place in her gentry/merchant-class community. She did this by simplifying aristocratic style, consuming fashion with care and consideration, and altering her favorite clothes. Vickery shows that some clothes became so important to Shackleton in terms of family memory that they acquired talismanic characteristics. Vickery declares finally that her study of Mrs. Shackleton indicates significantly that women were highly responsible managers of “daily household consumption” (1993, p. 274) and far from frivolous spenders.

In 1998, Christopher Breward usefully outlined dress research developed from cultural and media studies. He noted a new interest in dress within social anthropology and semi-otics, for example, citing approaches by Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes as offering “cultural signifying systems, allowing the scholar to examine the social specificity of representations and their meaning across different cultural practices” (p. 306). Such dress-related representations include issues of behavior, the construction of appearance, the political question of identities (race, gender, and sexuality), subcultures, and semiotic interpretations of dress in films, literature, and magazines.

Caroline Evans discusses punk dress (with its patched-together use of schoolgirl uniform, bondage dress, and aggressive hair styling) as epitomizing a set of signs whose meaning is changed “through being jumbled up, re-ordered and re-contextualised next to other signs” (1997, p. 107). Fred Davis, in Fashion, Culture, and Identity (1992), also examined clothing as a nonverbal means of communicating social identity, “as this is framed by cultural values bearing on gender, sexuality, social status, age, etc.” (p. 191). In refuting the trickle-down style-diffusion theory, he concludes that there are two fashion systems at play at the turn of the millennium, the globalized world of mass, commodified, international fashion and the “veritable cacophony of local, sometimes exceedingly transient, dress tendencies and styles each attached, however loosely, to its own particularity, be it a subculture, an age grade, a political persuasion an ethnic identity” (p. 206).

Feminist Approaches

Vickery, Jane Gaines, and Elizabeth Wilson have argued that feminist consumption analysis of the 1970s all too easily accepted a male view that women’s interest in dress was frivolous and that women had indeed allowed themselves to become “the gilding of the patriarchal cage,” on display for male pleasure (Vickery, 1998, p. 274). Wilson comments how strange it is that “when so much else has changed there still exists such a strong hostility to fashion amongst so many radicals” (p. 28). She proposes that feminists should accept “fashion as a legitimate and highly aesthetic pleasure,” (p. 33), a view shared by Caroline Evans and Minna Thornton, who wrote in 1989 that fashion “is a field in which women have found pleasure in the elaboration of meaning—meaning which is there to be taken and used” (p. xv).

Analysis of Male Dress

A new development in the 1990s, building on Farid Chenoune’s innovative History of Men’s Fashions (1993), has been the emergence of new critical examinations of menswear. This differs from the subcultural focus of Dick Hebdige in that it looks at a far wider social range of male clothing. Christopher Breward, Frank Mort, and John Tosh focus on the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries rather than on earlier periods. Their studies investigate not only the style, retailing, and consumption of men’s clothing, but also the cultural processes surrounding the construction of masculinity and they provide, for the first time, an analysis of gay culture and its impact on mainstream dressing.

Thus, the whole field of dress history and dress studies has undergone a dynamic transformation since the 1980s, though it is useful to remember Patricia Cunningham’s warning of 1988 that dress historians should not “follow other approaches blindly, but rather let our own questions and materials lead us to new approaches” (p. 79).

Constructions of Beauty: Sexuality and Issues of Gendered Dress

Classical Greek art, including dress, has formed the basis of constructions of ideals of male and female bodily and facial beauty in the Western world, as witnessed by the continuing rereferencing of images such as the charioteer of Delphi, a bronze, life-size, votive statue from the Apollo Sanctuary, Delphi, dating from 475 B.C.E., at the end of the early classical period. In her study Fabrics of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting (2002) Anne Hollander notes that the cutting and shaping of cloth was unknown in ancient Greece. Rather “the beauty of clothing dwelt in the distinction of its woven fabric and the elegance or aptness with which it was draped around the individual body” (pp. 13-14). Typically, the charioteer of Delphi wears a long, simple, Ionic tunic held in place with cords over the shoulders that tie at the front waist. This system frees the arms and allows drapery to fall over the waist and then straight down to the ankles. Hollander notes that “the life likeness in carved Greek clothes and bodies has often produced perfection—a stylization of natural appearances so subtle as to seem absent” (pp. 13-14).

This classical draped perfection has been continually reworked within European-American dress design, nearly always in white fabric, and usually with a high waist. It was most famously appropriated as the symbol of freedom and equality during the French Revolution. Originating in the 1770s anti-establishment, neoclassical paintings of Jacques-Louis David, the style was adopted for use by women in French revolutionary festivals in the period from 1790 to 1795 and became, in modified fashion form, the fashionable attire of European and American women from 1800 until about 1825, when the high waist was abandoned. The next revivals came out of the English arts and crafts and aesthetic movements in the period from 1878 to 1910, favored by progressive, antifashion dressers. This reflected the very same search for natural feminine perfection at a time when the shape of fashionable women was distorted and restricted by corsets and bustles. The search was repeated again by Mariano Fortuny, who famously created his own “Delphos” dresses in finely pleated, plain-colored silk, modeled exactly on the tunic of the charioteer of Delphi. Fortuny produced these from his Venetian palazzo from 1910 until his death in 1949. They were worn by a group of progressive women, in defiance of the fashion of their time. Paris couturiers too, however, have famously reworked classical Greek drapery into the height of seasonal fashion, including Madeleine Vionnet, from about 1918 into the 1930s; Alix, also known as Madame Grés, through the 1930s and 1950s; and since the 1980s, John Galliano.

Maori Culture

The ethnographer Dorota Starzecka confirms that among the Maori of New Zealand, ideals of beauty, fashion, and glamour, and concern over creating a strong “visual impact” were traditionally embedded in the cultural practices of both men and women. “Even the most mundane dress or humble ornament was aesthetically pleasing or tasteful; the most successful fashion statement implied harmony of function, texture and design as well as glamour” (p. 45).

Starzecka, quoting Margaret Mead, notes that a Maori man “anxious to follow the fashion to its highest level would need to dress his hair into a top knot have greenstone pendants and white feathers hanging from his ears; have the rei puta [pendants carved from the teeth of sperm whales] suspended from his neck, have a dogskin cloak around his body” as well as “elaborate indelible tattoo designs over his face and forehead, and over his butoocks and thighs.” (p. 39).

Starzecka describes the moko, or tattoo, as a fashion, albeit with mythic origins, a sacred practice, which came to New Zealand “as part of the cultural template from Eastern Polynesia.… With this elaborate and tastefully designed array of jewelry and other ornaments, including the permanently inscribed indigo-black patterning of the moko, the Maori were acutely conscious of personal appearance” (pp. 39-40).


In Europe and America trousers were gendered as masculine until women very gradually, through progressive dress movements, encroached on this ownership little by little from the mid-nineteenth century. In China, however, trousers were worn by both sexes, especially among the rural peasantry. Made in blue cotton dyed with indigo and worn with simple matching jackets, this style can be seen in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century travelers’ drawings of the Chinese peasantry.

When Chairman Mao sought to represent sartorially a uniformed image of his evolution from the late 1940s, he selected the same indigo-dyed trousers and jackets for civilian use and the entire population had to wear versions of this work uniform (zhifu). Women’s patriotic trousered suits (aiguo ni), however, had “different styles of shirt and jacket to choose from, primarily distinguished by the detailing of the collar” and the shortness of the jackets (Roberts, p. 23). However, Claire Roberts notes that these differences were so slight that they “may have appeared the same to Western eyes” (p. 22). Despite the shift in political ideology and lifting of harsh dress regulations after Mao’s death in 1976, similar styles continued into the new millennium; in the early twenty-first century many ordinary women in China still wear plain trousers and jackets, though Chinese-made jeans often replace Communist-style trousers.

Clothing as a Powerful Container of National and Community Identity

Studies in clothing, as shown in Eileen Hooper-Greenhill’s discussion of the return of a Ghost Dance shirt from Glasgow to the Lakota Sioux, confirm that dress can carry a profound talismanic weight of sacred meaning, related to the specific religious practices of their community of origin. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, museums that contained such examples, either looted by conquering and occupying forces or collected by missionaries, anthropologists, or traders, found themselves at the center of demands for their return.

The clash here lies between old imperialist museum approaches and the determination of communities to be respected as living cultures on their own terms. Many such communities see their sacred artifacts as defiled through storage and display in museums. In 1993 the Wounded Knee Survivors Association started a campaign for the repatriation of a Ghost Dance shirt to the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, South Dakota. George Crager had collected this shirt after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, when nearly three hundred Lakota Sioux were killed by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry. Crager sold the shirt to Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1892. By then he was the Lakota interpreter on Cody’s Wild West Show, which visited the city that year. In an awful irony, among the cast were Short Bull and Kicking Bear, both survivors of the massacre.

In the 1880s, Ghost Dance shirts were the center of Sioux ceremonies and were seen as so deeply imbued with protective qualities that they offered protection to wearers against the white man’s bullets. As Eileen Hooper-Greenhill explains in her study Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, the Glasgow shirt, displayed since the 1950s, had been exposed in a large case with little explanation alongside mixed “Indian” items. Museum curators in Glasgow refused to return the shirt, suggesting that it was a fake. The Wounded Knee Survivors Association petitioned the city, arguing that, as a sacred symbol of their cultural heritage, the shirt’s return home would bring healing and dignity to a community plagued with despair, alcoholism, suicide, and loss of identity. The City Council voted in favor of the shirt’s return, and it was taken back to Pierre in 1999. Hooper-Greenhill comments that even if doubts over provenance remain, the sacred cultural weight of the shirt to the Lakota Sioux in the 1990s “merited serious consideration” (p. 156).

Kente Cloth

Dress exhibitions and debates also question the role of dress within concepts of national identity. National dress, as Lou Taylor confirms, “bears the weight of representation of an entire nation … stemming from an urban, knowing, intellectualised awareness of the concept of nationhood” (p. 213). The UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History exhibition and book, Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente Cloth and African American Identity (1998), edited by the museum’s director, Doran H. Ross, tracks the meanings placed on kente cloth from its “traditional” design, manufacture, and ritualized use in Ghana, including its use as national identity dress, to its consumption in the United States, where it has become a symbol of African-American identity. Ross explains that “the strength of kente [is] in the ideas that bind it to African American life and tie it to the Motherland” (p. 194). Research shows kente-inspired design has been used to mark out specific African-American identity through use in women’s fashions, by children to mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, for kente ornaments for the African-American Kwanza holiday, and to trim academic and church robes. Ross confirms that all of this anchors this cloth specifically within African-American culture, “enabling” increasing numbers of African-Americans to relate to and buy into their African heritage.

European Peasant Dress

Dress in rural communities historically carries highly specific visual forms of ethnic identity because it is deeply embedded in local sociocultural tradition and practice. The design of dress is specific to each community, and clothes are worn with pride, uniting the village into one cohesive social and spiritual identity.

Peasant dress was worn in the more isolated rural communities of Europe until World War II. In Hungary, for example, over 50 percent of the population lived in the countryside until 1940. In Poland the number was 80 percent. European peasant communities led a parallel existence alongside urban cities (Hofer and Fél, p. 56). Their land was usually owned by wealthy urban families, and their art was informed by urban style, though always on their own terms.

As well as identifying a community, the use of artifacts and festive clothing in seasonal, religious, and life-cycle ceremonies was so central to community belief systems that Tamás Hofer and Edit Fél state that they “represent intentions, emotions and they solemenize human relationships and sanctify them” (Csillery, Fél, and Hofer, p. 3). Every step of a villager’s life cycle (birth, courtship, marriage, and death) was celebrated by the entire community, following long-established rules that involved specific use of clothing, which represented their social and spiritual strength and unity.

Among the Matyó people of Mezokövesd, for example, if “a woman died young, her best clothes—followed her into the grave,” while “a man’s shroud was made from the loose sleeves of the shirt he had worn as a bridegroom” (Csillery, Fél, and Hofer, p. 23). Even though Mezokövesd was poor, interest in clothing was so strong that it was a “leading inspiration of peasant taste and style for surrounded area from the 1870s” (p. 50) because both men’s and women’s clothes were a riot of proudly flaunted decoration and color. Such clothes were central expressions of ethnic identity and reflected a community’s “struggle, sacrifice and joy” (p. 60).

Issues of European-American Fashion Development and Consumption

Paris became the provider of modern, elegant, and costly fashions for royal and aristocratic wear across Europe beginning in the late seventeenth century. Louis XIV established his personal image as le Roi Soleil (Sun King) by creating at his palace of Versailles a luxury world entirely devoted to his glorification. Key to this was the appearance of his court and especially the clothing of his courtiers. All encouragement was given to the development of a new silk-weaving industry in the city of Lyon to provide luxury fashion fabrics for the court. Thus, from the early eighteenth century Lyon became the center for the design and manufacture of the most desired fashion silks, which were worn at every European royal court. Paris itself became the center for the retailing of dress and fashion accessories. This successful Paris/Lyon commercial twinning led to the development of the Paris haute couture industry by the late nineteenth century. Through this, Paris held its place as the creator and arbiter of European-American fashion right through to the 1960s, a period of over 350 years. Paris remains the most famous center for the display of fashion, though its designers come from all over the world and are rivaled by those in New London, Milan, Tokyo, and London.

In the eighteenth century, court dressmakers and their urban and aristocratic clients were the orginators of new styles. Aileen Ribeiro emphasizes the centrality of the creative fashion role of the marchands des modes in Paris, who “supplied and arranged” all the fancy trimmings on women’s dress (p. 68). In 1745, Madame de Pompadour became mistress to Louis XV and, as Ribeiro shows in her study Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, “her fashion sense was dominant for the next decade; she summed up the elegance of the Rococo” (p. 136). Interestingly, Colin Jones (2002) confirms that Paris, rather than Versailles, set the fashions; Madame de Pompadour “shopped on the Rue St. Honoré and spurred the court to follow the city fashions, rather than rely on the city aping the court” (p. 153).


In Britain, nineteenth-century mourning dress can be seen as an example of the social control of women through etiquette, but also as an example of the development of a middle-class fashion market, through ready-to-wear manufacture, department store retailing, and advertising. Social pressures to enact every last detail of the three stages of mourning dress were so intense that between 1850 and 1900, no woman who sought any kind of public respectability and community approbation for her family dared defy the rules. Thus sales in dull black silk mourning crape, white widows’ caps, black woolen bombazine, and ready-made widows’ weeds flourished until the ghastly death toll of World War I eroded the pressures and etiquette regulations.

Globalization of Fashion

Since the 1980s and the growth of the global economy, there has been massive growth in what Joanne Eicher has termed “world fashion” (p. 300). At the start of the twenty-first century, the preferred garments of young people of both sexes from around the world tend to be jeans, sweatshirts, T-shirts, and sneakers. These clothes are also international icons of American culture. The global young wear the same clothing, a phenomenon made possible by the exploitative mechanisms of the globalization of clothing manufacture, distribution, and retailing and by new technologies, global commodity advertising of branded leisure clothing, and the cultural and political domination of the United States. The reasons for wearing such clothing vary, but these clothes signify youth, modernity, and an eagerness to belong to the newly globalized capitalist world.

Dress as the Image of the Cutting Edge

In the period from 1964 to 1970, styles of dress worn by young women in Britain were the most famous visible representation of the “teenage revolution” and of the cutting edge of cultural modernity. Miniskirts exposed thighs to public view for the first time in European-American fashion history. These changes were rooted in the major social and cultural upheavals of the late 1950s, generated, as Tony Bennett explains, by “a watershed around which a series of significant “before” and “after” contrasts can be drawn” (p. 7). Young, radical film-makers, painters, writers, photographers, and designers then successfully challenged the British establishment’s hold on cultural power. Many who came from working-class backgrounds were helped into university and art-school education by postwar state grants to cover fees and living costs.

The London couture trade ignored these developments, maintaining their prewar function of creating elegant clothing for the annual high society calendar. The fashionable age in 1955 was around thirty-five but could easily be fifty-five if a woman kept a slim figure. By 1965 the fashionable age was sixteen, a near twenty-year drop in ten years.

Countercultural Groups and Their Dress

This fashion shift was created by the young on their own terms. Angela Carter, a radical feminist writer and anti-Vietnam War activist, felt that “one was living on the edge of the unimaginable; there was a constant sense of fear and excitement” (p. 211). Young countercultural dressers from the late 1950s wore clothing appropriated from workers’ clothing and army-surplus store outlets. “Ban the Bomb” campaigners and art students (the women often with long loose hair and the men with beards) wore fishermen’s pullovers, road-menders’ jackets, and ex-Naval duffel coats, in an effort to defy existing barriers of gender, class, and occupation. At about the same time, the subcultural, androgynous Mods focused their attention on modern jazz and on acquiring motor scooters, drugs, and neat expensive suits and short smart hair cuts. It was a tidy “look,” originally male, but one that belied an “alternative” fascination with drugs and hard partying after the end of the working day.

It was a fusion of these styles and interests that by 1964-1965 evolved into the hard-edged bright “look” of London fashion and propelled the bold, colorful geometrics of Pop and Op art. By the late 1960s however a far more exotic, ethnic, and historical revival of styles, largely drawn from the hippie culture of the West Coast of the United States became commonplace in both alternative and mainstream fashion circles.

In Britain, state art colleges were the central catalyst for the blossoming of radical fashion, producing key designers such as Mary Quant, Ossie Clarke, and Barbara Hulanicki of Biba. As the most directional British style creator of the mid-1960s, Mary Quant’s work cannot be underestimated. Always more interested in creating a whole “look,” her innovative, simple clothes (with colored stockings and flat shoes appropriated from art-college, countercultural dress) were retailed at mid-market price levels. These designers threw out centuries of British upper-class clothing etiquette and nearly destroyed the London couture industry in the process.

The contrast with Paris could not be greater. There, the couture houses themselves produced a new generation of dynamic designers, such as Paco Rabanne, whose metal/plastic disc minidresses were not only more radical than London designs but also, crucially, helped keep Paris couture alive because of their direct appeal to the young.

Yoruba Fashion, Nigeria

Through the 1990s the academic study of fashionable dress began to reject its Eurocentric focus and a long-held view, as Joanne Eicher comments, that “dress outside the boundaries of western civilization has experienced little change and is therefore traditional” (p. 4). Acknowledgement has finally been made that the term fashion applies as equally to dress designed, manufactured, and consumed, for example, in Lagos, Dakar, Rajasthan, and Chiang Mai as in Paris, London, and Milan.

One of the most useful texts is Cloth, Dress, and Art Patronage in Africa (1999), by Judith Perani and Norma H. Wolff. This details the design, manufacture, and consumption of contemporary Yoruba strip-weave aso-oke cloth, which forms the basis of fashionable women’s Yoruba dress in Nigeria. Made up into wrapper, blouse, and head tie, a competitive fashion in the late twentieth century was “shine-shine” lace cloth woven from specially imported Japanese, synthetic, gold, filament yarn.

Perani and Wolff explain that “shine-shine” cloth, made on narrow, traditional Yoruba strip-weave looms by male weavers, “has been adopted by wealthy urbanites as a visible symbol of prosperity, status and pride in ethnic heritage.” They show that the weavers “have their fingers on the pulse of fashion through on-going interaction with their elite consumer-patrons” (pp. 171-172). Because of the flexibility of these craft processes, the weavers can alter the design of these fabrics rapidly, in keeping with fashion shifts. As Perani and Wolff make clear, none of this bears any relationship whatsoever to elite levels of European-American “designer” dress, except through the same constant search for design modernity and newness.

Designer Fashion In the Twenty-First Century

The world of couture has always responded to the zeitgeist of its times, as much in the twenty-first century as in Madame de Pompadour’s day. In the twenty-first century’s fascination with brand labels as symbols of modernity and “cool,” the top designer fashion trade now serves as the glamorous front for the billion-dollar global marketing of designer-branded products of every kind. This mass retailing of branded fashion accessories, cosmetics, and perfume is built on near-mystical, magical designer images of beauty and celebrity, seen in glossy advertisements, on catwalks at the Academy Awards, and in much-reported fashion shows. With only a few thousand clients personally buying couture, designers are given free reign to create. All involved—particularly the two major fashion conglomerates, of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (also known as the LVMH group, which owns the salons of Givenchy, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs International, Kenzo, Christian Lacroix) and Pierre Bergé, owner of Yves St. Laurent, and of Gucci (which in the early 2000s owned majority holdings in the companies of Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney)—recognize the central need for brand images to be “individual,” seductive, and at the cutting edge of modernity. John Galliano’s London sense of extreme, romantic, youthful modernity has, for example, been successfully appropriated in Paris, transforming the international image and bank balance of the house of Dior.

Weaving in and around this world are the conceptual designers, such as Martin Margiela, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, and Hussein Chalayan. Defined as designers who are more interested in the ideas behind their designs than in commercial viability, all of these produce both commercial and conceptual collections. Some, such as Alexander McQueen, fuse both approaches successfully into one. Caroline Evans in her seminal study Fashion at the Edge (2003), argues that from the 1990s avant-garde fashion design has reflected “the dark and deathly side” of consumer capitalism (p. 37). She notes the deliberate creation of “spoiled work that reflects a spoiled world” (p. 307), spoiled by deconstruction, remaking, cutting, slashing, damaging, even despoiling with mould and bacteria as in Margeila’s exhibition work in the Netherlands in 1997. She describes these clothes as “apocalyptic visions” typified by notions of trauma, deathliness and haunting (p. 4). Evans sees these clothes as contemporary representations of cutting edge modernity, through their sartorial articulation of the political, cultural, social, and technological instabilities of the turn of the twenty-first century.

Evans shows how the work of Alexander McQueen illustrates many of these themes. She highlights his “What a Merry-Go-Round,” autumn-winter 2001-2002 collection, based on a circus theme, with models made up as white clowns “to produce a mournful and alienated image—rather than celebrating circus performance” (p. 102). Evans notes that this show stressed “the frightening and strange elements of the circus—and thus the darker side of modernity” (p. 102).


The wide range of past and present approaches to the study of clothing and fashion outlined here were well established by the early 2000s, as confirmed by their use within museum exhibitions and a full range of dress publications dealing with historical, ethnographical, and fashion analysis. As Ann Smart Martin clearly states, all of this reflects, finally, “the shifts in intellectual feelings about the core relationships between humans, goods and society” (p. 143).