Sunday, September 9, 2012

History of Fashion Series - Fashion From Prehistoric Times

Fashion has been a great part of our history as humans even from prehistoric times. Besides being a way to protect our bodies from the environment, it has also been a method that influenced how people were seen in society, either a way to attract potential mates or scare their enemies. 

The Homo sapiens sapiens began to appear around forty thousand years ago in various parts of the world. At the early history of Homo sapiens sapiens, he was similar to the Neanderthal man when it came to the use of tools, hunting, gathering and even creation of clothing. But there were physical differences like a larger brain, the fully upright pose, and a different skeletal structure which helped the later developments in their history.

Their population was low as they had to travel from region to region and due the fact that the Earth’s climate was colder they had to find ways to keep warm and dry so they used animal skins. These were the first forms of clothing and footwear. They used different tools made from rock and bones to cut the flesh from animals and create clothing. Later, there was some development in the visual department as they managed to decorate their bodies with various body paints and tattoos.


The evidence we have for prehistoric clothing is mostly indirect, either from cave paintings or from the tools that archeologists discovered. At first, they used big pieces of skin and created holes for the head and arms but later they managed to improve their method by using thin strips of hide to tie the furs about themselves, just like belts are used today.
With the discovery of fire soon came the development of finer and more efficient tools. Sharper tools were used to make small holes in animal skin and then laced together. The first type of clothing was a sort of tunic, which was made from two pieces of rectangular animal hide that were bound together on a side with a hole for the head. This was placed over the head and stitched on the shoulders. The garment was closed either with a belt or more ties.

Development of Tools

What made things even better was the invention of the needles. The needle was made from sharpened animal bone. With the help of the needle, the prehistoric man managed to create shawls, hoods and even longer boots to protect him from cold. It seems that the clothes were very stiff at first because the leather was not tanned, but with repetitive wearing it became softer. It seems that some authors and historians believe that their clothes were similar to those of the modern Eskimos.
The body of a man who died 5,300 years ago in the mountains of Austria helped archeologists discover what seemed to be a complex outfit. It seemed that the iceman had leggings that were sewn, some sort of loincloth over his genitals, a long sleeved fur coat on his body that extended to his knees made from many pieces of fur that extended on the outside and was held with a sort of belt. The boots he wore were stitched and stuffed with grass and on his head he wore a cap of fur. Although the man came from an later period, it sketched a good image on how earlier clothes were made.


When it came to hair it seems that the different hair types were as variable as they are today but people wore their hair long as there were no tools for cutting hair. Caps of fur were worn to keep the head warm, and some jewelry that was intended to hold long hair. Men obviously wore their facial hair long and when hair was cut it was probably done with the same tools they used to chop wood or cut animals.

Body Decorations

There is some evidence of body decorations on Neanderthal humans from 75,000 B.C.E. so it seems that humans had a need for fashion even from the earliest times. They draw red designs on the body which was either trying to attract the opposite sex or frighten their enemies. Indirect evidence of the human body decorations comes from rock paintings of the Sahara desert. It seems that the oldest date from 7000 B.C.E while the earliest are from 1500 B.C.E. Paintings found in Algeria show a woman with parallel rows of dots running down her legs, arms and torso. The figurines from Ain Ghazal, Jordan, dating back to 8000 B.C.E. feature indented patterns around the buttocks and belly. There are also figurines from 5000 B.C.E. Mesopotamia and 3000 B.C.E. Romania that show evidence of similar markings on legs, arms and breasts. These markings were meant to make women more appealing to the opposite sex as they signified fertility. It was sort of a way to draw attention to the women’s qualities and probably the primary function of fashion throughout history.
Body decorations were used by men as camouflage while hunting or for different ritual or social occasions. They also used tattooing or scarification but besides these methods the Neanderthals also like wearing decorative items. They had various bracelets and necklaces that consisted of animal hide, beads, shells, teeth, bones or other small objects.


When it came to footwear the archeologists found the oldest shoes 10,000 years old, but the existence of 20,000 years old clothing suggests that footwear may be older than we know.
Once the first settlements appeared(Mesopotamia, centered in present-day Iraq near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers), around 7000 B.C.E., people started to domesticate animals, grow their own food and completely change their appearance. In Mesopotamia was where clothing began to be made from something else than animal skin.

It seems that people placed their feet on the animal skin just after they killed it, while the skin was still subtle and fresh they made cuts that would have fitted their feet shape. Anasazi shoes were made from Yucca plant as it was quite a durable material. There were 8000 year old shoes discovered in Missouri made from a plant called rattlesnake master.

Whether their clothes and shoes were made of fibers or animal skin, one thing is for sure, it had to withstand a lot of work as people did a lot of hard labor. 

Further Reading and Sources:
History of Footwear in Norway, Sweden and Finland: Prehistory to 1950 Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Scribner Library of Daily Life) (3 Volumes Set)

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