Fashion Follies and Flops

Envy the lucky caveman; he had it made when it came to clothing. If he wore anything at all, it was an animal skin for warmth, held on with a bone or a stick piercing a couple of holes. His morning routine was simple; roll off the pile of leaves and boughs in the corner of the cave, make a quick run out behind the nearest bush and he was ready to face the day.

No dawdling in front of the closet, trying to match an outfit or find something that would impress the boss, just get up and go. If his garment was getting a little too raggedy after a year or two, too many lice for comfort, he’d pick out a sharp rock, find a likely looking critter, bring it down and peel off a new suit. He might smell a little ripe for a while, but so did everyone else.

Fabrics as we know them, spun or felted, probably didn’t appear until the late Stone Age, as early as 100,000 years ago. Makes you wonder how we know these things, doesn’t it?  Well, we’re told that anthropologists have studied the differences between head lice and body lice. That’s right about where my research stopped. I ask you, who really cares besides a few anthropologists and possibly the lice. I don’t think the caveman cared and I certainly don’t. One louse is the same as another louse to me. And that applies to a few men I’ve known, too.

Anyway, back to fashions and their accessories. How many millennia did it take for the caveman to learn to cut strips of hides, punch a series of holes and create lacings?

Needles have been found in France dating back 40,000 years. At last there was an easy way to fasten those mismatched furs together! Traces of weaving and dyes were discovered in Czechoslovakia, going back 36,000 years. Weavings were identified by images pressed into clay, left to harden down  through the millennia. There were probably traces of the ever present lice embedded right along with the weavings.

Some of the tiny carved stone  “Venus”  fertility figures discovered around southern Europe, going back about 26,000 years, showed traces of carved basket-like hats and cloth-like bands worn across the upper torsos and the distended abdomens. No indication of carved images of lice, though. The first shreds of actual woven fabric were found in what used to be Anatolia, dating from 6500 BC.

So what finally replaced those stinky, itchy, lice-ridden furs, once fabrics were created? Robes!  All kinds of robes.  Everybody wore robes, floor length, knee length, wrap-around, pull-on, belted, loose; Moses, Ghengis Khan and his warriors, the Druids, Charlton Heston, royalty, peasants, men and women alike, all flapping around in robes through the centuries; usually 2 or 3 being worn at once. We call it “layering” today. Jewelry, belts and other ornaments were added as time went on, and robes slowly evolved into shaped clothing as needs and fashions changed. And, Oh yes, fabrics were just as good as furs as far as the lice were concerned. They loved them all.

When the ancient Persian warriors began riding horses at about 6000 BC, they finally caught on to splitting the skirts of their long flowing robes loosely into two sections. Soon other central Asians copied them, women too, but the Greeks called these new fashions “ridiculous” and the Romans saw them as “barbaric.” Eventually the need for convenience and warmth won out and pants slowly became more common. When Peter the Great decreed in the early 1700s that his armies would wear pants, they were finally accepted for men. As we know, women didn’t adapt to the custom until as recently as our own girlhood and it took a few movie stars like Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, plus a new American icon called  “Rosie the Riveter”  to popularize them. Shoulder pads were devised to complete the masculinized look.

Back to the 9th century AD, those innovative Persian warriors invented another custom that caught on much more quickly than pants had. High heels proved to be just what those fierce fighters needed to steady themselves in the saddle as they rode around shooting arrows at all and sundry. (They were good for stomping on lice, too.)

We all know where the high heel fad led us. Men still wear a rider’s heel, now known as a cowboy boot, and where would a hot flamenco dancer or a tango artist be without the tight pants and the Cuban heel? As far as ladies’ heels are concerned, it seems the sky is the limit, 6 or 7 inches and climbing. We never learn.

Along about 1400, corset stays became popular with women and that fashion fiasco lasted almost 600 years, destroying the dispositions of generations of women, not to mention a few marriages. Why were we so foolish? Stiff skirts were worn also, although the clergy of the  time complained that it was difficult to see a woman’s hips so a man could tell whether she was suited for childbirth or not!!  I don’t make this stuff up! My imagination could never come up with a statement like that!

By about 1500, one of fashion’s most ridiculous fads came into being, worn by men and women alike, hanging around their necks for a good hundred years. This would be the RUFF, that huge starched white collar featured so prominently in portraits of Henry VIII, his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I,  Sir Walter Raleigh and countless other figures of the time.

Some ruffs were reportedly the size of a carriage wheel. How could you possibly feed yourself? You’d need a spoon a foot long. The thing would rival my grandfather’s off-white mustache for a record of what had been eaten that day.

“Well, I see you’ve been at the wine already. Poached eggs for breakfast? And who’s this peeking out from behind the breadcrumbs? Why, it’s our little friends, the head lice, or is it the body lice? No matter, from the sly looks on their faces, the species isn’t going to die out right away.”  What really gets me, though, is who ironed those huge, starchy things?

Hoops and crinolines, wasp waists, panniers and farthingales, veils, anything to emphasize certain areas of the body and give the impression that a lady so attired didn’t have to work. As if! Who could do a day’s work decked out like that? That’s what all those drab little women in the basement were for. No frills or furbelows for them, fashion was for the prosperous.

Bustles, hobble skirts and oversized hats came and went, then along came the 1920s with the Flapper look, designed to camouflage any curves a healthy woman might have. In that same theme, The Japanese OBI, or sash, big and bulky, was tied in a huge bow so the waist line disappeared completely; the list of fads and flops goes on and on.

And men weren’t exempt from fashion follies either, from gaudy satins and colors, and tight, well, tight tights and over-sized codpieces, through celluloid collars, boaters and spats right up to today’s downright barbaric neckties, they’ve had their day as peacocks too. And they still wear kilts.

Other oddities went along with changes in clothing. Various cultures felt obliged to make changes to the human body in order to conform with their ideas of beauty. Think of the tattooing from the South Seas, unfortunately back with us today as a fashion fad.

The Mayans bound the heads of their infants to give them the flat forehead considered desirable, the Burmese piled on neck rings to press the collarbones down for an elongated neck, and the Ethiopians and other African cultures inserted discs into ears and lips.

Think of the poor little high-born Chinese ladies with their bound feet. There have been several reasons presented for that cruel custom, the most outrageous being that they were being tested to see if they could tolerate childbirth. I must say, if your feet are constantly killing you, delivering a baby now and then might be a pleasant diversion.

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. We don’t have to tell that to a pair of lice, head or body, they already know it; they see one another as beautiful and that’s why they’re still around today, biting, gnawing, and driving us crazy.


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