The introduction from Fashion That Changed the World, which publishes October 25, 2014.
Two people sitting in a café or restaurant, wittily speculating on the life stories of other patrons: it’s a cinematic trope that may or may not be a real people-watching game. But it certainly has its basis in real life—we constantly make assumptions about who people are, what they do,and where they’re from simply based on the way they dress. It’s nothing new, either. Four hundred years ago, society’s fashion biases prompted Shakespeare to include in Hamlet this piece of advice in Polonius’s famous speech to his son Laertes:
“Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy / But not expressed in fancy—rich, not gaudy / For the apparel oft proclaims the man.” In other words: dress well, because people are going to judge you for it.
Of course, fashion choices are dictated by more than just the desire to look good. Our wardrobes reflect a lot about us: what country we live in, how much money we make, what society expects from us. In this way, it’s easy to read history through fashion. As time passes, situations change: the world economy booms and busts, empires rise and fall, wars flare up, technology advances, culture becomes more or less conservative. All of these things affect the way people dress. Clothing becomes more or less ornate, uniforms turn into streetwear, trends spread at different speeds, hemlines rise and fall. Possibly more than any other cultural artifact, fashion is a sensitive measure of what’s going on in society at the time, and a widely inclusive one, too—unlike art, which is only pursued by a few, or even democratic voting, which captures a disappointing percentage of public sentiment, fashion is a system that everybody takes part in. Everyone, after all, wears clothes.
But fashion isn’t simply about blending in with the people around us; it’s also about self-identity, and it’s very much about choice. Beyond simply revealing who we are, fashion allows us to declare who we want to be. Through fashion, people rebel, challenge assumptions about their station in life, or traverse boundaries set by class, race, or gender, all by simply grabbing something different from the closet in the morning. Many fashion trends have sprung from individualistic or rebellious sartorial choices, and over time those trends have become the norm—giving future generations new ideals to either accept or reject.
Fashion That Changed the World digs into a multitude of social, economic, and cultural factors that
have pushed fashion this way and that over the last few hundred years. Mostly covering the era from
the Industrial Revolution onward, when the modern fashion industry took shape, this book considers a wide range of influences on fashion, including wars, sports, gender politics, media, culture, and entertainment. Over twenty concise chapters, it offers a historical snapshot of what we used to wear, and why we choose the clothes that we do today.
Excerpted from Fashion That Changed the World by Jennifer Croll, published by Prestel.