The Beginnings of Fashion

Though the precise origins of fashion change in dress are still debated by costume historians, it is generally agreed that the phenomenon of a large number of people accepting a style for a relatively short period of time began during the Middle Ages. The aforementioned social and economic changes established the necessary conditions for fashion. Textile manufacturing advances provided the raw materials needed for increased production and consumption of clothing. The courts provided a stage for display of fashions. Social stratification was becoming less rigid, making it possible for one social class to imitate another. Increased trade and travel spread information about styles from one area to another.

Evidence of the international spread of information about style change can be found in developments in the arts. Architectural styles changed radically after circa 1150 when buildings in the Romanesque style gave way throughout Europe to the newer Gothic forms. Both used carvings as ornamentation and to tell biblical stories. These, along with the images portrayed in stained-glass windows, have served as a major source for information about dress. Manuscript illumination also began to show more lay figures dressed in contemporary costume.

These statues and drawings of the twelfth century show alterations in fit that clearly resulted from changes in the cut of clothes. Instead of being loose tunics, garments followed the lines of the body closely from shoulder to below the waist where a fuller skirt was sewn to the upper bodice. Sleeve styles varied. Some outer tunic sleeves were shorter in order to show more of the under tunic sleeve. Some were wide, and some were so elongated that they had to be knotted to keep from dragging on the ground.

French writers of the period called elaborate versions of these fitted styles bliauts. The garment is described as being made of expensive silk fabrics. Its appearance indicates that the fabric was probably manipulated using bias (diagonal pieces with greater stretch) insets to assure a close fit and that elaborate pleats were used in the skirt. Clearly advances were being made in clothing construction.

Chainse, another French term, seems to refer to a pleated garment that was probably made from lightweight linen and may have been worn alone as a sort of housedress by women (Goddard 1927). Some versions of these garments seem to have closed by lacing, which allowed a closer fit.

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