We Wore What, Why? Centuries Of Fashion As A System Of Power

Kristina Akhrarova

Throughout the course of history, fashion has played an influential role in shaping the way humans present themselves. It is widely known that there exist a set of regulations, both written and unwritten, that govern what people put on their bodies. As an interested reader, may I humbly ask you for your honest perspective on: "What does fashion mean to you?"

Credit cards, 1970s.Photo byAdobe Stock

It's intriguing to think that the origin of fashion could be linked to Adam and Eve's decision to wear clothing after their initial state of nudity. Driven by sin and guilt, they found salvation in fashion.

And the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons (Genesis 3:7).

Historians have long engaged in an ongoing discussion surrounding the origins of "fashion." Some propose that its roots can be traced back to ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks and Romans, as they had an extensive vocabulary related to dress. In Herodotus' journey to the Middle East in the 5th century BCE, he documented the attire significance of the Persians who believed that their chosen garments bestowed upon them a sense of spiritual protection against the forces of God and nature.

However, the remoteness of this era makes it difficult to fully grasp the moment. Fashion historians instead focus on the late medieval or Early Renaissance periods, when cultural production increased alongside the rise of the merchant class. Before this time, only the feudal system dictated social status solely based on birth. Feudal lords held power mainly through land and real property ownership, while serfs worked the lands and shared in the harvests and livestock.

In the 15th century, the rise of trade system, commerce and banking challenged their dominance. The untitled banking families, like the Medicis, accumulated great fortunes and, as a result, gained political influence. The newly formed merchant class, without the right to bear a noble coat of arms wanted to publicly display their strength and prestige. This is believed to be the roots of origin of the modern fashion system. This moment was important for the introduction of clothing sharply differentiated according to gender: short and fitted for men, long and constructive for women.

The new social class demonstrated its newly acquired freedom by flexing its purchasing muscle. They distinguished themselves by symbolically appropriating goods and disposing of them, replacing them at the whim of fashion, regardless of their inherent, lingering usefulness – is to this day one of the defining characteristics of the fashion system.

Fashion is nothing if not the devoted mistress of capitalism in the Western democratic model, constantly cannibalizing itself and calling for a rapid infusion of the new.

During the millennia that followed the elusive origins of myth and history, fashion emerged in the Western world as a seductive sorceress who gradually 'aestheticized and individualized human vanity' and 'succeeded in turning the superficial into an instrument of salvation, a goal of existence'.

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Dress is a fundamental element of social evolution. It comprises one of the most basic building blocks of inequality. Fashion, likewise, is neither frivolous nor trivial. It matters, has consequences. Dress and fashion have a significant impact on the way people live, define themselves, and operate within their own habitats. It is a game of differentiation, the means by which one ethnic group distinguishes itself from another, one social status and religious affiliation from another. Dress and fashion help identify the foreign, the minority, and the marginal, and can emerge as an influential means by which people challenge their status and reshape their identity within their own societies or on the global stage. In order to understand the complexities of what people wear and why, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, semiologists, linguists and many others input their immense expertise. The study of modern civilization fashion along with mass production can derive no assistance from world history before comparatively modern times. In human history fashion is new and its future path is unknown.

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