May 25, 2010

Some History | Fashion Timeline 1 (Prehistoric Clothing)

I came across this blog post by The Interrobangs - they're starting a Fashion Timeline and they begin, well, at the beginning with 'prehistoric' clothing. What I find interesting about this discussion is that it references Native attire, archaelogical sites, and beadwork. This is one of the few discussions that I've come across where they think of prehistoric Native clothing in terms of the beginning of fashion.

Roundtable: Fashion Timeline 1 (Prehistoric* Clothing)
May 24, 2010
Posted by The Interrobangs

So, in addition to the weekly link posts, we’re starting a round-table series too, since we’re a group blog. We’re starting off with a series looking at clothing through history, and seeing how we can relate history to the present, and putting the present in context. We’ll probably have off-series round-tables too, about subjects that may or may not be related to the main thread, but we’ll see how that goes.

First up, we start waaaay back with Neanderthals.

•100,000 BCE – Neanderthals – Wore animal skins
Early humans cut the hides into shapes they liked, making holes for the head and perhaps the arms, and draped the furs over their bodies. They may have used thin strips of hide to tie the furs about themselves, perhaps in the way that belts are used today. (“Prehistoric Clothing.” Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the Ages. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. Vol. 1: The Ancient World. Detroit: UXL, 2004. 5-8. Gale Virtual Reference Library.)

•38,000 BCE – Cro-Magnon wore loincloths made of animal skins
Sharp awls, or pointed tools, were used to punch small holes in animal skins, which were laced together. With a needle (made out of slivers of animal bone), Cro-Magnon man could sew carefully cut pieces of fur into better fitting garments. Evidence suggests that Cro-Magnon people developed close-fitting pants and shirts that would protect them from the cold, as well as shawls, hoods, and long boots. (“Prehistoric Life,” 2004, 1-8)

•7,000 BCE – Mesopotamians learned to spin wool to make clothing
Mesopotamians, (dwellers of present-day Iraq near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers), developed the ability to create pottery from clay, learned to gather and spin wool from the sheep and goats that they herded. It was in Mesopotamia and the other great early civilization, Egypt, where clothing other than animal skins first began to be made and worn. (“Prehistoric Life,” 2004, 1-4)

Chelsie: Clothing was initially a practical attire, to keep people warm during those cold Ice Ages. Today, our clothing is still designed to keep us warm – in the cool months anyway. Though there are other theories for why people started clothing themselves, namely lice.

We can definitely see how even early cavemen found a way to make their clothing look unique, I even read that Cro-Magnon’s were perhaps the first to create tattoos. I think this can be seen as form of expression and unique style. Presumably, the first tattoo’s were created by accident, when someone rubbed a wound with soot or ashes, producing a permanent mark when the wound was healed.

Millie: Yeah, tattooing definitely has a long and illustrious (and really interesting) history, though I’ve never really delved into it. I’m not tattooed myself, and have no burning desire to be, so it’d be a lot less personal to me than it would to some other people (note: Fashionable Academics is looking for tattooed academics to talk about their experiences with tattoos in academia, so if that’s you head over and throw your two cents in.)

I think the practical aspect of clothing’s not one that gets talked an awful lot about any more (though obviously clothing’s still practical). I put on clothes to swat bugs, let alone go hunting for dinner, though I suppose if you’re used to hunting dinner with no protection then it’s not as big a deal. We talk about practicality in terms of “this dress is airy, so it’s comfortable to wear in the hot summer,” say, but not so much the “I’m not going to get bugs landing on my butt while I cook” aspect of it. Because clothing’s ubiquitous (consider how alien naturalist communities can seem) and nearly universal, and have been for so long, it’s easy to forget the armor-like qualities of it. Or maybe it’s just the thing’s we’re defending against have shifted: we’re not running around trying to not get jabbed by bushes and things, but we’re trying to navigate a complex society where how we’re treated depends very, very strongly on how we appear. Perhaps that’s a side round-table discussion worth having? Clothing as armour?

Katie: One of my jobs is to help facilitate the interpretation of a prehistoric site (12,000-ish years old) whose artifacts include, amongst many other things, bone needles. When this site was excavated in the 1930s, the general idea of who prehistoric man (note the nomenclature of “man” there) and what he looked like was the dirty, dreadlocked, loincloth-wearing proto-human. But finding bone needles?!? That changes everything. These needles are as delicate as the steel ones we use today, so these were people who were sewing, making clothes. Clothes that were warm, that were waterproof. Minerals like ochre have been found at the sites – ochre helps waterproof, but it’s also a beautiful color. So were they decorating their clothing? I don’t think it would surprise anyone if they were.

We also find beads there, and I think those are the most powerful artifacts on the site. This is before contact era, when Europeans were bring beads as trade goods. These are beads made out of bone, out of shell, drilled with amazingly delicate stone tools. And do you know what beads tell you about a culture more than projectile points, arrowheads, or hide scrapers? You don’t make beads if you’re starving. You don’t make beads if you’re cold and unprotected from the elements. You don’t make beads when you’re just surviving. You make beads when you’re thriving. In my opinion, finding those beads at that site told a richer story about who these people 12,000 years ago were than anything else that had been found. So in that regard, I do think fashion is somewhat of a luxury. It happens when you can afford the time and effort to make it happen.

Chelsie: I think when we look at prehistoric people we see them wearing clothing practically to keep warm against the elements, but we can also see that soon afterward people were trying to make their clothing and bodies unique. Would that be the beginning of fashion or style? If we think of more broadly of societal hierarchies we can see a long history the people at the top of the hierarchy dressing differently, and more ornately, than those deemed below.

Millie: Definitely, and I suspect that’s a theme that’ll come up a lot through this series. The idea that clothing at once sets us apart and identifies us as belonging to a certain group is as old as fashion has existed, but the question of when that came about? I have no idea. There’s so little information to go on when you’re going back thousands and thousands of years, and there’s no written or oral culture to inform us, so while I’d say that the birth of fashion was probably around the same time that we started wearing things for protection, I’ve no idea how accurate a statement that is. I’m no fashion historian, that’s for certain.

Katie: I’d be careful saying that there’s no oral culture to inform us about what was happening clothing-wise thousands and thousands of years ago. It’s perhaps a safer assumption to make for Europe and Asia where scholars have shown that the development of written languages altered the reliability of oral tradition, but in North America the oral tradition was (and still is) very strong. However, for reasons perhaps too heavy to get into here, Native oral tradition has been ignored, forgotten, forced out of people’s memories, and most often not recorded when it was still alive in people’s minds. I’m quite sure that there are tribes with individuals who can tell you what their ancestors wore thousands and thousands of years ago, and either no one’s asked those individuals that question yet, or they’re not inclined to answer.

But I do see your point in supposing that the birth of “fashion” coincided with the birth of clothing itself. I don’t think the two were simultaneous – you have to develop the basic idea before you can alter/embellish/build upon it. A non-fashion example to support my point: At the archaeological site I work on, an enormous amount of stone tools have been found. Many scholars who’ve looked at the tools have noticed that along with being functional, a surprising number of the tools are made from very beautiful stone. So beautiful, in fact, that it seems unlikely that the decision to shape a point out of that particular piece of quartz with the gorgeous vein of purple running through it was just a fluke. The supposition then becomes that people learned how to make the object for its function, but as that skill developed, then you get creative with your method and materials. Aesthetics is not a new phenomenon – as much as we prefer something to be beautiful, why wouldn’t individuals thousands upon thousands of years ago have, too?

I also want to tag onto Millie’s comment that “clothing at once sets us apart and identifies us as belonging to a certain group.” I’ve worked with an amazing Native woman who has a very strong background in beadwork, especially that of the Plains Indian tribes. One thing I’ve heard her say more than once is that, historically, pattern and color were incredibly important to people, because it declared who you were. Is there a rider cresting that ridge over there? Does the beadwork on his clothing have a strong chevron design? He’s that tribe. Is there a lot of blue in the pattern? He’s that other tribe. Color and pattern help declare who you are. And today when beads are found at an archaeological site, knowledge from oral traditions of the patterns, colors, etc. used in different tribal beadwork can help identify who was there. There’s also a very interesting history on the differences between the beading styles used for ceremony, and the beading styles used for trade once Europeans arrived. But that’s a topic for another day (and much further along in the timeline than we are now).

*Not to get all museum-y on y’all, but just a note that “prehistoric” is commonly used to define the time period that leads up to the emergence of a written record for an area or people. In North America, the term “pre-contact” is also used, as many tribes did not have a written language until the arrival of Europeans. However, that is not to imply that these peoples did not have a rich, detailed, and incredibly accurate oral record of their history.