Human beings have worn clothes for over 100,000 years (there is some evidence suggesting 600,000 years). Styles have changed over the last hundred thousand years. So let’s take a look at what people wore before there was fashion, and some of the fashionable things they have worn since then. In particular, I wish to look at some classical garb, and I shall even tell you how to make some of them. This will not only prove useful the next time you are invited to a toga party, but also provide you some laughs the next time you watch a movie with actors in “period” costume.
You may ask how we know that people have been wearing clothes for the last 100,000 years. The answer is simple: for the last million years, the only significant amount of hair on the human body has been the head. Genetic testing on the head louse and the body louse tells us that they had a common ancestor, approximately 107,000 years ago, but not more recently [see citation #1 below]. The head louse needs hair to live in. The body louse has evolved so that it can make do with clothing. Therefore, 107,000 years ago, there were people wearing clothing (or the body louse could not evolve), and once some people were wearing clothing, it was only a matter of time before the idea spread widely (7,000 years is more than enough). Thus, 100,000 years ago, clothing was widespread.
Clothes were initially made from furs or leather. There really were no other options. We did not start harvesting wool from domesticated animals until there were domesticated animals, thus no knitting 100,000 years ago. By the same token, natural (i.e., unprocessed) plant parts do not make good clothes, either. Anyone who has felt a fig leaf knows that the Book of Genesis needs to be interpreted symbolically, not literally: the harsh texture of a fig leaf would quickly rub skin raw. Grass is a possibility, but even it needs to be woven. In general, plant fibers need to be processed, and it takes time to develop the knowledge and skills needed to produce useful plant fiber materials. It is not surprising that the evidence of clothing produced from either animal fiber (harvested wool) or plant fiber is much more recent.
So how did we get from furs and leathers to having textiles to make clothes from? We can only guess the dates for the first clothes, but archaeology can tell us when the textiles became available. The earliest evidence of the use of plant fibers is some flax remnants, found in the Republic of Georgia . Between 30,000 – 36,000 years ago, the people of this region were spinning, dying, and knotting wild flax fibers. Knotted cloth is laborious, but people could have been making clothes out of it. The earliest domestic animal is the dog, at 30,000 to 15,000 years ago. Probably not a source of wool, however, so a more relevant animal is the sheep (the second earliest animal known to be domesticated). Sheep were domesticated 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. The use of wool for textiles undoubtedly dates from that time. Goats were domesticated “soon” (a millennium) after sheep. So by 7000 BC, someone making clothes could choose furs, leather, plant textiles, or wool. Basically all of the modern, natural materials (silk was still several thousand years in the future). But textiles required a lot of manual labor, and so they would not have been common, until it became easier to create textiles.
The “Iceman” Őtzi, found in the Alps, is a good example of what a well-dressed man would look like before textiles became common. He was warmly dressed in multiple layers of clothing: leggings, loincloth, jacket, and cape, plus hat and shoes. The leggings, loincloth, and jacket were all leather: deer and goat. The cape was made of a mixture of grass and fibers extracted from the bark of the linden tree. The hat was bearskin. His shoes had bearskin soles, goatskin uppers, and were padded with grass for warmth. Note that, other than his cape, he wore no textiles, despite living around 3200 BC, give or take a century.
The invention of the loom changed what we wore, by making textiles more widely accessible, but it did take some time to spread. The warp-weighted loom is a fairly simple device: a vertical frame with a bar to hold the top of the vertical warp threads, weights at the bottom of each warp thread to keep them taut, and some cross bars to make it easier to pass a shuttle cock with the weft thread back and forth. There is evidence of warp-weighted looms as far back as 4200 BC, and there were probably simpler predecessors earlier. With the invention of the loom, it was now possible to get big rectangular blocks of fabric: it just took someone passing the weft back and forth hundreds or thousands of times. Until the invention of the flying shuttle in 1733, and the invention of the power loom in 1784, that was the state of textiles for most people.
So what did the ancients make from big rectangular pieces of cloth? There is not space to cover the whole world, let me focus on a few examples.
Archaeological evidence (e.g.: mummified bodies) indicates that prior to the introduction of the loom, the most common garment was a loin cloth or an underskirt, usually leather. The style did not change immediately with the introduction of cheaper cloth. For example, the Minoan culture of the Eastern Mediterranean still used a “shanti” (loincloth/underskirt). It simply switched from leather to cloth. What did change was the length: after 1750 BC, the long skirt became more popular than the short underskirt. In addition, the women started wearing an open blouse with an extremely low-necked bodice.
In Egypt, cloth made from flax became the standard. The rich and powerful also had papyrus. Animal fibers were considered unclean and could only be used for cloaks and coats outside of any buildings. So here too, initially the common garment was the schenti (a loincloth), and eventually tunics and robes were added. Eventually a light tunic or short sleeved shirt was introduced and became popular after approximately 1415 BC.
In Israel and Judea, once again, early on the ubiquitous garment was a leather apron (the ‘ezor or hagor [ חָגוֹ ]), and eventually flaxen cloth replaced leather. Once cotton cloth became available, the new underwear was the kuttoneth [ כֻּתֹּ֫נֶת ], a tight-fitting, cotton undergarment with loose sleeves and open at the breast. The Old Testament tells us that someone only dressed in a kuttoneth was considered naked: to be properly clothed a man should be wearing a simla (translated as “sackcloth” in some versions of the Bible), which was a large rectangle of heavy woolen cloth, stitched together so that the front was unstitched and two openings were left for arms. It was a clumsy garment, taken off when the wearer needed to work in the fields (or do other strenuous activity).
The Greeks had a number of interesting clothes. We shall look at the chlamys, peplos, chiton, and himation.
The Chlamys is the simplest, and has a lot in common with the Roman toga; however, it was secured with a brooch (or other pin), which would never be allowed with a toga. The Chlamys was typical garb for young Grecian men and often made from dark wool. A himation might be added on top for warmth.
To make a Chlamys:
- Take a large rectangle of cloth, wrap it around one side of your body (usually the left),
- Hold the two ends of the rectangle with one hand while you pin it above one shoulder (usually it is the right side which is open and clasped above the right shoulder).
Take note that to the Greeks, male underwear was optional. The Chlamys will show the man’s body to good effect.
The body-length peplos was the typical garb for Grecian women; a himation might be added on top for warmth. Initially made from wool, the fabric changed to linen, cotton, and silk, as they became available.
Making a Peplos:
- First, measure out the needed material:
Width: Stretch out your arms and measure elbow to elbow. Double it.
Height: Your height plus 18”
- Take a large rectangular piece of cloth: (twice your elbow to elbow) x (height plus 18”).
- Fold the top 18” down … this will be on the outside.
- Wrap the width around you, with the folded material out, holding the two edges with one hand. You might want to overlap the loose edges a little for decency.
- Fasten the top with brooches (or something similar, like safety pins) above the shoulders.
- Tie a rope around your waist (or belt).
- Pull extra skirt up through the rope (belt) until the skirt is only ankle-length, and drape the excess material over the belt, so that you do not trip.
The chiton was worn by men or women in Greece between 750 BC and 30 BC, and was made of linen or wool. Once again, a himation could be worn on top. Initially the chiton was body length, but eventually shortened to knee length.
Making a Chiton:
- First, measure the cloth. For a long chiton, the length of the material has to be the same as your height (for the later version, reduce the length by the distance between ankles and knees). For the width, measure out about 12′ depending on your arm length: when you fold it in half it should reach from finger-tip to finger-tip.
- Sew along the side seam from the bottom to your arm pit. (one arm goes through the top of the open side)
- Join the top edge at intervals with safety-pins or brooches, or by sewing. Don’t forget to leave holes for your head and other arm to go through.
- Slip it on over your head and one arm (the other arm goes through the top of the side).
- Tie a belt round your waist.
- Without pulling up the skirt cinched by the belt, pull up the extra skirt up through the rope (belt) until the skirt is only ankle-length, and drape the excess material over the belt, so that you do not trip. The result should be three layers of cloth between belt and body, and two layers draped over the belt.
The himation is simply a rectangular piece of cloth. It is usually draped over the left shoulder and across the waist, held in position by the left arm. Women would wear the himation over the chiton or peplos. Men would wear it over a chlamys or by itself. In Greece, male undergarments were optional.
Like the toga, the himation was worn without pins, clasps, or sewing. It was simply draped across the body and held with a hand. Among other things, this proclaimed that the wearer was a person of leisure: they could afford to have a slave carry anything they might need.
Everybody knows that in Rome, you wore a toga, correct? Well … maybe not.
There were many kinds of togas, but their use was limited. It was a status symbol. Slaves could not wear togas: they were limited to tunics. Most women could not wear a toga: prostitutes were the exception — they wore the women’s toga (toga muliebris). But most women, like slaves, wore tunics. To which, a woman would add a stola as an outergarment. Children likewise wore tunics. Moreover, by law after 44 BC, foreigners were not allowed to use togas: only free citizens were permitted to use the toga.
The toga was made from a single rectangular piece of heavy wool, approximately 20′ long, usually with one edge dyed (colors depended on the type of toga and who could wear it). The Roman citizen did not stitch or clasp the cloth, which meant that it was the clothing of peace. Doing something strenuous would leave one tangled in the toga at his feet (and initially, Romans did not wear undergarments; although, after 200 BC, they started using a light tunic under the toga). Thus warriors headed to battle would not wear a toga, but simply a heavy clasped cloak (sagum) and armor.
Assuming you have a 20′ long piece of cloth, and you want to wear it as a toga, here is how you put it on:
- Hold the midpoint of the cloth under the right arm, with half of the cloth in front of you, and half of the cloth behind you.
- Drape the half behind you over the left shoulder and down your front. I find it actually works best to wrap it completely around you, clockwise, once to form a skirt, and then grab it with the right hand.
- Then drape the half that was in front of you over the left shoulder and down your back. Pass it counterclockwise to the right hand.
- Keep a grip on both ends, so that it does not slide off. Have your slave carry anything you might need.
How simple is that? No stitching.
A Roman woman would wear a tunic as an undergarment, a stola, and (if she was headed out) might add a palla. The woman’s stola is a little more complicated than the toga. It takes two pieces of cloth and two ribbons. For the cloth width, measure your widest circumference, divide by two, add 5 inches for hems, and add some inches for pleats. The ribbons are pieces of cloth about an inch wide in a contrasting color. All four pieces should be about 4′ long. Here is how you make a stola from those materials:
- Fold 2.5″ on the right and left edges of each rectangle of cloth, to provide interior hems.
- Sew the sides of the two rectangles of cloth at the fold mark to each other, from the bottom to the armpits, forming a 4′ long cylinder with the top unsewn for arm holes.
- Form 2 or 3 pleats, front and back, down the length of the cylinder.
- Sew the top above the shoulders, adding one ribbon on each shoulder (same distance from the midpoint) sewn into the shoulder seam and draped down the front. Be sure to leave a hole for head/neck.
- Slide the garment on: arms through the arm holes, head through the neck hole.
- Cross the ribbons in the front, wrap them around the back, and back to the front, where you tie them.
The palla is simply another rectangle of heavy woolen cloth, used as a wrap or scarf, depending on size. It might be clasped or pinned at the shoulders, or simply held.
That takes us up to the dark ages in Europe. We shall leave mediaeval fashions for another post! I hope you enjoyed the classical garb above.
Evolution of Extensively Fragmented Mitochondrial Genomes in the Lice of Humans.
Renfu Shao, Xing-Quan Zhu, Stephen C. Barker, and Kate Herd.
Journal of Genome Biology and Evolution (October, 2012), pages 1088-1101.