The History of Women’s Fashion through the Prism of Class

Since the dawn of organized society or the civilization, all cultures coming from the Stone Age to the current day have had some method of clothing themselves. As cultures matured to the level of city-states and then even further, the idea of dressing in a certain manner became more widespread, but also more complex. The selection of materials and potential designs began to grow as the industrial and artistic fields grew and developed. Here, the technology of creating clothes, as well as standards of aesthetics all played a part in the development of a pre-fashion or proto-fashion method of creating and wearing clothes. But, aside from these factors, there was one more important one which deeply impacted the way clothes were made and used: class. In fact, the history of fashion is in many ways the history of class position and dispersion which took place all over the world in the last several millennia and equally importantly, it continues unabated to this very day.

The Class Divide

Ever culture, even the most basic tribal societies that have not changed in 10,000 or even 20,000 in years, possess some classification of different classes. These groups inside of a society represent groups of people who have different means and abilities, while they all inhabit the same geographical spaces. Lower classes usually have low amounts of possession, money, power or influence, while the upper ones have all of these in a much greater quantity. The same idea divides societies into several “layers”, all of whom spend time and socialize mostly inside of their class. This is important because in the context of classes, women fashion was used, as much as men’s fashion, to make these divides clearly visible to everyone.

The History of Dressing Differently

The divide that was mentioned was evident in every major civilization. The Chinese nation used silk to show off wealth and class affiliation. The Maya, Inca, and Aztec nations took jewelry and rare bird feathers to their garments to show that their women belonged to a certain class. The ancient Greeks, as well as the Romans and Byzantines, utilized color that was applied to the clothes to show that their owners had money and power if they can wear these. Women, as the part of the population with less power than men throughout most of the history, were especially prominent actors in this divide, mostly unwillingly. The same trend is seen in the period that comes after the Dark Ages when the world slowly but surely began to become a more coherent place. Here, elaborate dresses were worn on European courts, while ordinary citizens dressed in the most practical outfits they could find. But, for the upper classes, money was not an issue.

Globalized World

This trend of class segregation and division began to change after the WW2 and when the entire specter of social element started reshuffling itself. With the power to choose, many women in all classes decided that they desire to look how they felt, not how their social status demanded. This exploded in the 1960’s with many social changes and upheavals, where people all across the world demanded more freedom, including the way they dressed.

Through turbulence, they did exactly this and won their freedom to a certain extent. Today, class still broadly dictates fashion for some, but for many others, it is something they never think about because they simply feel free from its influence. But, the process will continue in the future and there is little doubt that somehow, in some way, fashion and class will always be connected to each other.

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