A Concise History of Clothing in Britain and Beyond
With such stunning weather, it is not surprising that the ancient Egyptians wore light clothing, mainly made of linen or cotton which were the common dress materials of the time, and tended to be shaven headed, particularly children to avoid lice.
While men tended to wear loincloths and a kind of skirt, women wore shoulder hanging dresses, and children tended not to wear any clothes at all! Most Egyptians were bare footed, although some wore sandals made of papyrus (a kind of paper made from reeds), and almost everyone wore jewellery – both men and women!
It was only in later Egyptian times that the clothing became more elaborate and more ornate, often adorned in ceremonial outfits with gold and other precious materials.
The Greeks were more modest despite a comparable climate to the Egyptians, and ordinary Greeks wore clothes of wool or linen, with the richest affording cotton and silk.
Greek women tended to wear the most modest clothing that covered most of their bodies called a “peplos”, a rectanglular piece of woollen cloth with holes for the arms and head and tied at the waist. Later, some Greek women wore cloaks called “himations” and a kind of long linen tunic called a “chiton” and tended to wear jewellery like necklaces, bracelets and ankle bracelets, with the richest carrying parasols for shade. Their hair tended to be very long, as they didn’t tend to cut their hair unless they were mourning.
Greek men wore woollen tunics which were tied at the waist, himation cloaks and (if they were travelling) wide rimmed hats.
Roman clothing was classically made of wool or linen with the richest affording cotton and silk, and their togas and tunics were held up with pins and brooches, many of which survive to this day.
As a rule, men wore tunics, with “Citizens” wearing a semi-circular piece of cloth called a toga, which was worn over one shoulder, and “Senators” wearing a toga with a purple stripe to denote their status.
Roman women were often seen wearing a “stola”, a long style of dress, and a “palla”, a type of long shawl.
The Saxons were not renowned for elaborate clothing. They tended to wear a simple shirt and tunic, with breeches (simple trousers) extending to the knee or ankle. Men sometimes wore leggings held up with a garter, and cloaks held up with brooches. Saxon women wore a long linen under-garment with a long tunic over the top. Both men and women wore “mantles” which were a hooded cloak covering the head and shoulders.
British Clothes in the Middle Ages
Clothing in the middle ages was quite simple and often made of wool. Women in the middle ages wore a long linen under-garment with a “gown” (tunic) over the top held together with a waist belt. Men wore shorts and tunics, with both sexes wearing tights or stockings.
Later in the 1400s clothes became much more elaborate with clothes which would be recognisable today. Clothing for the rich changed beyond recognition with fashion changing frequently, with women wearing elaborate hats and men wearing long shoes, with poor people wearing clogs (wooden shoes) in wet weather.
All Tudors wore wool (of varying quality), with the rich affording cotton and silk, and adorning their clothes with silk, gold or silver thread. Poor clothing was hard-wearing and practical while rich clothing was fashion driven and ornate. Most Tudors wore shirts and underwear made of cotton or silk, with women wearing stockings.
British Clothing in the 1500s
In the 1500s men started to wear breeches and a “doublet” (a tight fitting coat), with a “jerkin” worn over the doublet. Rich men wore a gown over the top, or later on a cloak or cape. The poor tended to wear a loose tunic instead as it was easier to work in. Some working men wore a “buff-jerkin” made of leather. Men also wore stockings or woollen socks, which were called hose, and neither sex would be seen dead without a hat of some kind.
Women wore a “smock”, “shift” or “chemise” (a kind of petticoat) made of linen or wool with a woollen dress worn over the top made of a bodice (corset) and a skirt. Separate sleeves were tied on with lace. Working women often wore a linen apron for practicality.
In the late 1500s many women wore a “farthingale” which was a frame made of wood or bone. Instead of this, poor women wore a padded roll around their waist called a “bum roll”.
British Clothes in the 1600s
At the beginning of the 1600s men wore ruffs (stiff collars), with women still wearing farthingales, although these soon made way for a large lace ruff.
Women wore a shift, a bodice and a skirt with some also wearing an under-skirt. From about 1650 onwards, many women wore black shapes on their faces such as stars or moons.
Men tended to wear knee length breeches, stockings and boots, with a shirt, doublet and cape on top along with long hair and a beard. Later on, the waistcoat replaced the doublet and men wore a “frock coat” over the top which made it look similar to a modern three-piece suit and were clean shaven with a wig.
British Clothes in the 1700s
Men wore breeches, stockings, and a linen shirt with a waistcoats and frock coat with buckled shoes, with a wig and for many, a three-cornered hat.
Women wore stays (a bodice), a petticoat under a dress with a wig and a folding fan. For the poor clothes hardly changed at all.
British Clothes in the 1800s
Men wore trousers, waistcoats and coats with a cotton shirt. Women’s fashion changed many times during the 1800s with framed skirts, light dresses, puffed sleeves and corsets being extremely popular at different times. It was during the 1800s that women started to wear underwear called “knickers” (which evolved from drawers and then knickerbockers).
Hats were very popular during the 1800s with top hats for the wealthy, bowler hats for the middle classes and cloth caps for the working classes.
20th Century Clothing
Clothing in the early part of the 20th century was very austere, with women wearing long dresses, and men wearing three piece suits. It was only during the two world wars that clothing broke loose of its moral restrictions with various inventions, such as the bra in 1913, and fashion breakthroughs such as the mini-skirt in 1965.
This happened to such an extent that modern clothing is so varied and personal that it would be impossible to list each and every variety, from the bra to the t-shirt and hooded sweatshirt!