Early Western travelers, whether to Persia, Turkey, India, or China frequently remark on the absence of changes in fashion there, and observers from these other cultures comment on the unseemly pace of Western fashion, which many felt suggested an instability and lack of order in Western culture. The Japanese Shogun’s secretary boasted (not completely accurately) to a Spanish visitor in 1609 that Japanese clothing had not changed in over a thousand years. However in Ming China, for example, there is considerable evidence for rapidly changing fashions in Chinese clothing. Changes in costume often took place at times of economic or social change (such as in ancient Rome and the medieval Caliphate), but then a long period without major changes followed. This occurred in Moorish Spain from the 8th century, when the famous musician Ziryab introduced sophisticated clothing-styles based on seasonal and daily fashion from his native Baghdad and his own inspiration to Córdoba in Al-Andalus. Similar changes in fashion occurred in the Middle East from the 11th century, following the arrival of the Turks, who introduced clothing styles from Central Asia and the Far East.
The beginnings of the habit in Europe of continual and increasingly rapid change in clothing styles can be fairly reliably dated to the middle of the 14th century, to which historians including James Laver and Fernand Braudel date the start of Western fashion in clothing. The most dramatic manifestation was a sudden drastic shortening and tightening of the male over-garment, from calf-length to barely covering the buttocks, sometimes accompanied with stuffing on the chest to look bigger. This created the distinctive Western male outline of a tailored top worn over leggings or trousers.
The pace of change accelerated considerably in the following century, and women and men’s fashion, especially in the dressing and adorning of the hair, became equally complex and changing. Art historians are therefore able to use fashion in dating images with increasing confidence and precision, often within five years in the case of 15th century images. Initially changes in fashion led to a fragmentation of what had previously been very similar styles of dressing across the upper classes of Europe, and the development of distinctive national styles. These remained very different until a counter-movement in the 17th to 18th centuries imposed similar styles once again, mostly originating from Ancien Régime France. Though the rich usually led fashion, the increasing affluence of early modern Europe led to the bourgeoisie and even peasants following trends at a distance sometimes uncomfortably close for the elites—a factor Braudel regards as one of the main motors of changing fashion.
Albrecht Dürer’s drawing contrasts a well turned out bourgeoise from Nuremberg (left) with her counterpart from Venice. The Venetian lady’s high chopines make her look taller.
Ten 16th century portraits of German or Italian gentlemen may show ten entirely different hats, and at this period national differences were at their most pronounced, as Albrecht Dürer recorded in his actual or composite contrast of Nuremberg and Venetian fashions at the close of the 15th century (illustration, right). The “Spanish style” of the end of the century began the move back to synchronicity among upper-class Europeans, and after a struggle in the mid 17th century, French styles decisively took over leadership, a process completed in the 18th century.
Though colors and patterns of textiles changed from year to year, the cut of a gentleman’s coat and the length of his waistcoat, or the pattern to which a lady’s dress was cut changed more slowly. Men’s fashions largely derived from military models, and changes in a European male silhouette are galvanized in theatres of European war, where gentleman officers had opportunities to make notes of foreign styles: an example is the “Steinkirk” cravat or necktie.
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