Reading: / Table Completion / Part 5


In all societies the body is   dressed, and everywhere dress and adornment play symbolic and aesthetic roles. The colour of clothing often has special meaning: a white wedding dress symbolising purity; or black clothing indicating remembrance for a dead relative. Uniforms symbolise association with a particular profession. For many centuries purple, the colour representing royalty was to be worn by no one else. And of course, dress has always been used to emphasise the wearer's beauty, although beauty has taken many different forms in different societies. In the 16th century in Europe, for example, Flemish painters celebrated women with bony shoulders, protruding stomachs and long faces, while women shaved or plucked their hairlines to obtain the fashionable egg-domed forehead. These traits are considered ugly by today's fashion.

The earliest forms of "clothing" seem to have been adornments such as body painting, ornaments, scarifications (scarring), tattooing, masks and often constricting neck and waist bands. Many of these deformed, reformed or otherwise modified the body. The bodies of men and of children, not just those of women, were altered—there seems to be a widespread human desire to transcend the body's limitations, to make it what it is, by nature, not.

Dress in general seems then to fulfill a number of social functions. This is true of modern as of ancient dress. What is added to dress as we ourselves know it in the west is fashion, of which the key feature is rapid and continual changing of styles. The growth of the European city in the 14th century saw the birth of fashionable dress. Previously, Loose robes had been worn by both sexes, and styles were simple and unchanging. Dress distinguished rich from poor, rulers from ruled, only in that working people wore more wool and no silk, rougher materials and less ornamentation than their masters.

However, by the 14th century, with the expansion in trade, the growth of city Life, and the increasing sophistication of the royal and aristocratic courts, rapidly changing styles appeared in Western Europe. These were associated with developments in tailored and fitted clothing; once clothing became fitted, it was possible to change the styling of garments almost endlessly. By the 15th and 16th centuries it began to seem shameful to wear outdated clothes, and those who could afford to do so discarded clothing simply because it had gone out of style. Cloth, which was enormously expensive, was literally, and symbolized, wealth in medieval society.

In modern western societies no form of clothing does not feel the impact of fashion: fashion sets the terms of all dress behaviour-even uniforms have been designed by Paris dressmakers; even nuns have shortened their skirts; even the poor seldom go in rags-they wear cheap versions of the fashions that went out a few years ago and are therefore to be found in second-hand shops and jumble sales.

Even the determinedly unfashionable wear clothes that represent a reaction against what is in fashion. To be unfashionable is not to ignore fashion, it is rather to protest against the social values of the fashionable. The hippies of the 1960s created a unique appearance out of an assortment of secondhand clothes, craft work and army surplus, as a protest against the wastefulness of the consumer society. They rejected the way mass production ignored individuality, and also the wastefulness of luxury.

Looked at in historical perspective the styles of fashion display a crazy relativism. At one time the rich wear cloth of gold embroidered with pearls, at another beige cashmere and grey suiting. In one epoch men parade in elaborately curled hair, high heels and rouge, at another to do so is to court outcast status and physical abuse. It is in some sense inherently ironic that a new fashion starts from rejection of the old and often an eager embracing of what was previously considered ugly. Up to the early 20th century, the tan had always been the sign of a worker, and therefore avoided by those with pretensions to refinement, who were wealthy enough not to have to work in the sun. However, in the 1920s the tan became the visible sign of those who could afford foreign travel. A tan symbolised health as well as wealth in the 1930s. Recently its carcinogenic dangers have become known, and in any case it is no longer truly chic because many more people than in earlier decades can afford holidays in the sun.

Despite its apparent irrationality, fashion cements social solidarity and imposes group norms. It forces us to recognise that the human body is not only a biological entity, but an organism in culture. To dress the way that others do is to signal that we share many of their morals and values. Conversely, deviations in dress are usually considered shocking and disturbing. In western countries a man wearing a pink suit to a job interview would not be considered for a position at a bank. He would be thought too frivolous for the job. Likewise, even in these "liberated" times, a man in a skirt in many western cultures causes considerable anxiety, hostility or laughter.

However, while fashion in every age is normative, there is still room for clothing to express individual taste. In any period, within the range of stylish clothing, there is some choice of colour, fabric and style. This is even more true last century, because in the 20th century, fashion, without losing its obsession with the new and the different, was mass produced. Originally, fashion was largely for the rich, but since the industrial period the mass-production of fashionably styled clothes has made possible the use of fashion as a means of self-enhancement and self-expression for the majority.


Questions 1-5

Complete the following table on the early history of fashion, using words and phrases from the box below. Write the appropriate letter A-J in boxes 1-5 on answer sheet.

A        unfashionable clothes thrown away

B        loose robes

C        fitted clothing

D        rapidly changing styles appeared

E        up to the 14th century

F        brightly coloured clothing

G        simple decorations worn

H        styles began to change slowly

I          15th and 16th centuries

J        growth of cities




Clothing Behaviour

Types of Clothing Worn

earliest times


scars and marks


simple, unchanging styles


14th century