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The Oxford Companion to the Body

Colin Blakemore,

Sheila Jennett


In a fairly literal translation from its French and Latin origins, the word fashion describes the make or cut of an item, the forming of its shape. However, over the centuries, the word has acquired a specific association with the design, making, and wearing of clothing. Fashion now implies an awareness of and a desire to be at the forefront of changes in styles of dress and personal appearance. It can be used to suggest an extravagance and frivolity far removed from the mere functional need to clothe the body for reasons of modesty or to offer protection.


There is general agreement amongst costume historians that the origins of what we understand as fashion are to be found in the late fourteenth century. The flowing, unemphatic full-length lines which had characterized the dress of both sexes since late antiquity were gradually abandoned. Men's dress changed faster than women's, with the adoption of short tunics and closely-fitted garments. This coincided with the newly formed guilds of tailors developing skills in cutting and fitting fabric to the figure, thus allowing a much wider repertoire of stylistic effects to be achieved, with fabric and padding emphasizing or exaggerating the contours of the body. Better trading links with the Near and Middle East had introduced wider ranges of fabric, new techniques for their manufacture, and fresh ideas about colour and decoration. Inevitably, fashion, even in this early phase, was the prerogative of the wealthy who could afford the rich silks and fine linens which supplemented the staple Western European woollen fabrics. Over the next two centuries the emergence of a wealthy merchant class with international interests in trade and banking widened demand for luxurious possessions. Sumptuary laws were introduced, prohibiting the wearing of certain fabrics and colours, and meting out punishment to those who dared to presume that mere wealth could ensure equality of choice with the ruling class. This reinforcement of the notion that fashion was the prerogative of the few recurred throughout the succeeding centuries.

Fashion changed relatively slowly in the period c.1500 to 1700, and the finest clothing was a valuable commodity, finding its way into inventories and wills, being remade and, not infrequently, stolen. The limited terminology of dress began to expand from the late seventeenth century onwards, with a proliferation of new terms indicating an increased rate of change in fashionable dress. This acceleration was underpinned by a more sophisticated process of manufacture and further improved skills but, of course, the speed of change also maintained the status quo. To be dressed in the height of fashion meant being rich or heavily in debt.

Fashion was both national and international with, in succession, Burgundian, French, and Spanish styles in the ascendant with some Italian, German, Dutch, and English elements in the mix. Curiosity about the fashions of others found expression in the costume books which began appearing in the late sixteenth century and, by the late seventeenth century, when Europe began to be dominated by all aspects of French culture, the production of exquisite engravings — precursors of the fashion plate — depicted what the most stylish French courtiers were wearing. This French hegemony was supported by the production of superb silks, delicate lace, and an ingenious array of accessories, and by a centralized court at which all the fine and applied arts from painting to dress were accorded equal attention. It is hardly surprising that the first dressmaker of international renown was Rose Bertin, who made clothes for Marie Antoinette at the French court in the 1780s; she and other dressmakers despatched fashion dolls dressed in the latest styles throughout Europe to add miniature, three-dimensional verisimilitude to supplement the available fashion illustrations.

Design and production

By the late seventeenth century a division had occurred between the provision of male and female clothing. Tailors continued to produce men's tailored garments, but female dressmakers undertook the making of women's clothing, with the exception of riding habits and corsets. A limited democratization of fashion occurred in the eighteenth century as some ready-made and partly made clothing allowed the less wealthy to keep in step with the growing pace of changes in fashion. The principle of exclusivity was reasserted by the continued use of the finest tailors and dressmakers by those able to afford their services and the expensive fabrics they recommended. By the nineteenth century the rise of the couturier whose name and clientele implied the height of fashion reinforced such distinctions. The idea of men being equally as interested in fashion as women declined sharply in the nineteenth century. The beaus, macaronis, and dandies of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who were caricatured and ridiculed for their dedication to the more outré details of personal appearance, were replaced by dour, dark-suited men of business.

Fashion, from the period of the Englishman Charles Worth's rise to dominance over the design of women's dress, during the Second Empire in France (when he became the first great couturier as understood today), until the 1950s, was in the main, about women's clothing. The origins of the late twentieth century's multi-billion pound fashion industry can be traced back to Worth and his two sons. He created new designs to show to his clients rather than deferring to their ideas, a notable change from previous practice. These garments were displayed on human models for his clientele of royalties, aristocrats, and the rich bourgeoisie. His clothes were bought by foreign buyers, and became available in the capitals of Europe and the US, and he was treated like an artist rather than as a tradesman by his clients, although he always thought of himself as the latter. He also reinvented the idea that a man can understand and design for women as well, if not better, than another woman. This dichotomy has been preserved; there have been inventive, even great female couturiers — Chanel, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Grès — but the male dominance of female fashion in France, in Italy, in America, and in Great Britain has been a feature of the last 150 years.

During this period there were important technical changes which influenced the creation and marketing of fashionable clothing. The introduction of the sewing machine in the 1840s, of aniline dyes in the 1860s, and of artificial fibres from the 1890s onwards offered important improvements to the process of production. Fashion also benefited from the growing sophistication of the media: specialist magazines, dedicated newspaper articles, photographic images, and the advertising opportunities offered by film, radio, and television all contributed to an international awareness, at many levels in society, of the latest fashion trends and ideas. Increased demand for novelty in all matters to do with dress caused misery amongst the employees of many dressmakers; cramped conditions, long hours, and pitiful pay combined to create sweat shops. Unfortunately, despite legislation, this problem is still found today, and not just in the so-called Third World.

Fashion designers, especially in the period from the 1920s onwards, diversified into ranges of ready-to-wear garments, scent, and cosmetics. Specialist suppliers of accessories became equally aware of the possibilities inherent in designer footwear, jewellery, luggage, and much more. Ultimately, as both compliment and curse, talented copyists ignored patent law to produce cheap facsimiles of the most luxurious labels, and, within the law, chain stores ‘imitated’ the latest suit, dress, shoe, or scarf, to offer affordable fashion to mass markets.

Even in the area of alternative fashion in the post 1945 period, the world of Teddy boys, mods and rockers, hippies, punks, new Romantics, and so on, the driving force has been a masculine one. And, to a degree, alternative fashion is about men reasserting their right to attention through the adoption of unusual, exotic, or bizarre forms of dress. Ironically, these so-called street fashions have in turn, influenced the expensive, handmade creations of the powerful fashion designers.

Today, so we are led to believe, we can create our own fashion statements by buying across the spectrum from charity shops to couture houses. Fashion is fun, it is adventurous, it defines us and our approach to life. In fact, the majority prefer to conform to the dress codes of their social group, accepting or rejecting the dictates of fashion according to their circumstances and means.

Theories about dress

No overview of fashion, however basic, can ignore the corpus of criticism and theoretical analysis that has surrounded it across the centuries. The Judaeo-Christian tradition laid considerable emphasis on modesty and simplicity in all matters concerning personal adornment. As a consequence both clerical and secular moralists felt able to criticize fashion on the grounds of the supposed morality or immorality of clothing and personal adornment. Any excessive display could be construed as the sin of pride and any unnecessary revealing or emphasizing of the body could be deemed a provocation to immoral behaviour. Women's fashions were a favourite target for such moral condemnation; undoubtedly this criticism expressed real or imagined concerns about loss of chastity or adultery.

Caricature and ridicule had also partnered the vagaries and absurdities of fashionable dress throughout the centuries. Artists disapproved of fashions that distorted and unbalanced their portrayal of sitters and, from the seventeenth century onwards, a number used so-called ‘timeless’ draperies to replace the fashions they disliked. In the nineteenth century, medical opinion was enlisted in order to question the effects on health that distorting the anatomy in quest of a fashionable silhouette might provoke. More idealistically, there was an interesting conjunction between groups of artists, doctors, and political thinkers which produced theories about aesthetic dress, dress reform, and universal suffrage which, if followed, would release women from their slavery to fashion.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century criticism was overtaken by a more analytical approach to fashion. Exponents of this approach were interested in applying their knowledge of anthropology, economic and social theory, sociology, and psychology to the reasons for the creation and popularity of certain fashions. A detailed consideration of these theories can be found in Valerie Steele's Fashion and eroticism (OUP, 1985). A few influential examples will indicate the range of their analysis. For instance, the American economist Thorstein Veblen, in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, criticized fashionable dress as a symbol of conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, and conspicuous waste. In contrast, the German historian of dress and manners, Max von Boehn, promoted the appealingly simple idea that fashion is ‘a visible manifestation of the Zeitgeist’ in his book Modespiegel (1919). The sexual significance of dress was discussed by the psychologist J. C. Flügel in The Psychology of Clothes (1930), a work which popularized the theory of ‘shifting erogenous zones’; an idea he had extracted from the earlier work of Havelock Ellis. Flügel suggested that all clothing is charged with sexual symbolism. This was not a wholly new approach, for Richard von Krafft–Ebing had discussed ‘erotic fetishism’ and its place in the interpretation of dress in the Psychopathia Sexualis, published in 1886.

There have been many subsequent studies, some descriptive, some analytical, all of them drawing upon a wide range of source material. A recently launched quarterly publication — Fashion Theory; The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture — has chosen to begin its examination of fashion from the viewpoint that it is ‘the cultural construction of the embodied identity’. This offers a late-twentieth-century, multi-disciplinary approach to the subject by broadening and democratizing the term across the boundaries of gender, multi-culturalism, and sexual preference. This merging of body decoration, clothing, and fashion into one subject area for critical analysis suggests that the ephemeral nature of clothing the human form will continue to be debated for the indefinite future.

Valerie Cumming


Newton, S. M. (1974). Health, art and reason: dress reformers of the nineteenth century. John Murray, London.Find this resource:

    Ribeiro, A. and Cumming, V. (1989). The visual history of costume. Batsford, London.Find this resource:

      Ribeiro, A. (1986). Dress and Morality. Batsford, London.Find this resource:

        See also clothes; modelling, fashion.