The History of Clothing

How Did Specific Items of Clothing Develop?

Yacht sunbathing
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It is not certain when people first started wearing clothes, however, anthropologists give estimates that range between 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. The first clothes were made from natural elements: animal skin and furs, grasses and leaves, and bones and shells. Clothing was often draped or tied; however, simple needles made out of animal bone provide evidence of sewn leather and fur garments from at least 30,000 years ago.

When settled neolithic cultures discovered the advantages of woven fibers over animal hides, the making of cloth, drawing on basketry techniques, emerged as one of humankind's fundamental technologies. Hand and hand with the history of clothing goes the history of textiles. Humans had to invent weaving, spinning and other techniques and the machines needed to be able to make the fabrics used for clothing.

Ready-Made Clothing

Before sewing machines, nearly all clothing was local and hand-sewn, there were tailors and seamstresses in most towns that could make individual items of clothing for customers. After the sewing machine was invented, the ready-made clothing industry took off.

The Many Functions of Clothes

Clothing serves many purposes: it can help protect us from various types of weather, and can improve safety during hazardous activities such as hiking and cooking. It protects the wearer from rough surfaces, rash-causing plants, insect bites, splinters, thorns and prickles by providing a barrier between the skin and the environment.

Clothes can insulate against cold or heat. They can also provide a hygienic barrier, keeping infectious and toxic materials away from the body. Clothing also provides protection from harmful UV radiation. The most obvious function of clothing is to improve the comfort of the wearer, by protecting the wearer from the elements.

In hot climates, clothing provides protection from sunburn or wind damage, while in cold climates its thermal insulation properties are generally more important. Shelter usually reduces the functional need for clothing. For example, coats, hats, gloves, and other superficial layers are normally removed when entering a warm home, particularly if one is residing or sleeping there. Similarly, clothing has seasonal and regional aspects, so that thinner materials and fewer layers of clothing are generally worn in warmer seasons and regions than in colder ones.

Clothing performs a range of social and cultural functions, such as individual, occupational and sexual differentiation, and social status. In many societies, norms about clothing reflect standards of modesty, religion, gender, and social status. Clothing may also function as a form of adornment and an expression of personal taste or style.

Some clothing protects from specific environmental hazards, such as insects, noxious chemicals, weather, weapons, and contact with abrasive substances. Conversely, clothing may protect the environment from the clothing wearer, as with doctors wearing medical scrubs.

Specific Items of Clothing