A few years ago, when I was an educator at a private institution, we went on a day trip to the Science Museum. A particularly precarious student gawked at the naked mannequins of early humans and exclaimed in the loudest possible voice, “Teacher, why can’t we walk around naked, too?”
It was an excellent question.
While I could have explained the sheer illegality of walking around nude, I don’t believe it would have satisfactorily answered my student’s innocuous question. My students’ ceaseless stream of questions had a way of becoming my own questions.
I would not–and could not–rest till I had answered their burning questions satisfactorily with a side serving of humour.
Experience had also taught me that my students simply would not leave me alone if I did not answer their burning questions satisfactorily. They would ask and repeat the same question over and over again like a tape recorder that came with neither a mute or stop button.
So I did what I did whenever I found myself stumped with a question I could not answer. I read. I read a lot. I educated myself so I could educate them.
The story begins as it always does. A long long time ago, in the Paleolithic Era…
The two technological advances that our long lost ancestors made during the Paleolithic Era were clothing and shelter. We don’t have an exact date as to when these technologies were invented and adopted, but what we do know is that they were vital to humanity’s progress.
Initially, these inventions were ‘basic’, but as time went on–they grew increasingly more complex as we improved and built upon the details.
So why did we choose to take cover–and in the process make the decision to cover ourselves for all eternity?
To Cover Thyself
Before there was clothing, there was cloth, and before there was cloth, there was fur.
In the early days, we used the fur and hides of hunted animals to cover ourselves. This allowed us to expand into colder regions; beginning our migration out of Africa and into Eurasia. Clothing insulates us against cold or hot conditions, providing a hygienic barrier that keeps infectious and toxic materials away from the body as well as provides a shield against ultraviolet radiation and other environmental factors such as: rough surfaces, rash-causing plants, insect bites, splinters, thorns and prickles.
In addition to the fur and hides of animals, humans also utilised plant-based items such as leaves or grass which were draped, wrapped, or tied around the body. Finding ‘evidence’ about these items is limited due to the biodegradable quality of these materials–especially when compared to stone, bone, shell and metal artefacts.
The verdict was startlingly clear. We created clothes to protect ourselves and this in turn allowed us to venture forth into new territories and terrains.
Free Size and Made to Order
At some point in our history, ‘something’ changed; and wearing clothes became a social norm; connoting modesty, status and even solidarity. While walking around naked ‘back in the day’ was acceptable and commonplace; as time went on, being deprived of clothing in front of others morphed into an embarrassing, if not, indecent form of exposure. What we were wearing also began to express our individual, communal and national identity as well as spoke volumes about our background, financial standing and even personal preferences.
Over time, different cultures evolved various ways of creating clothes out of cloth. One approach involved draping. Many people wore–and still wear–rectangular-shaped garments that they wrap around themselves to cover their bodies. As the cloth remains uncut, people of various shapes and sizes can use the garment indiscriminately. In the Indian subcontinent, for instance, men wore dhotis and the women wore saris; while the Scottish had their kilt and the Javanese their sarong. These large cloths may simply be tied up or pins and/or belts can be used to hold the garments in place.
Another approach to clothing involved measuring, cutting, and stitching the cloth by hand or with a sewing machine. Clothing was created from a template and a tailor made adjustments based on the wearer’s measurements.
If the fabric was expensive, tailors and seamstresses would make full use of every bit of the cloth to create the ensemble; perhaps cutting triangular pieces from one corner of the cloth and adding them elsewhere as gussets. Traditional European designs for men’s shirts and women’s chemises utilised this approach; with the remnants used to create patchwork on hats, vests and skirts.
We modern consumers take the production of clothing for granted, but in the early days, making fabric by hand was a tedious and labour-intensive process that involved fibre-making, spinning, and weaving. During the industrial revolution, the textile industry was the very first to be mechanised courtesy of the powered loom.
Modern manufacturers and luxury brands, however, treat clothing much less conservatively; cutting in a way that leaves and wastes various odd-shaped cloth remnants. Industrial sewing operations may sell, recycle or discard these; while home sewers may turn them into quilts.
The technology of clothing has come a long way since we first made use of leaves and hides to cover ourselves. In the thousands of years that humans have been using and making clothing; we have created an astonishing array of styles, many of which have been reconstructed and revitalised from surviving garments, photos, paintings, mosaics as well as from written descriptions. Costume history has inspired generations of fashion designers, as well as costumiers for plays, films, television and historical reenactments.
The potential and power of clothing, like all forms of technology, revolutionised our lives and created ‘new normals’ that did not necessarily change the world, but rather; expanded our consciousness to new realities that would not have been possible without the human imagination.
“Teacher,” my student asks cheekily as we make our way through the Science Museum, “Why can’t we walk around naked?”
I smile and say, “Because in winter, we will freeze to death and in summer the mosquitos will eat us for lunch.”
My student swallows hard and raises her eyebrows. Legal considerations aside, I have a sneaking suspicion that neither she nor I will be attempting to walk around naked anytime soon.