One of the coolest things about history, for me, is the way the shapes and patterns of the past emerge full-blown before you, if you know where to look. Take clothes. What people wore tells us an awful lot about the society of the time.
Take stockings, which were the height of gentlemen’s attire right up until the end of the eighteenth century. Men? Sure. One of the main pitfalls of history is applying today’s values to yesterday’s world. It’s years since I made the mistake of watching Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood send-up, ‘Men In Tights’ (1993). It wasn’t his best work. The schtik – that Robin and his Merry Men were effeminate because they wore tights – missed the point of medieval and early modern fashion.
Back then, men wore silk stockings as a sign of wealth and virility. Prominent leg muscles attracted women. There’s a story that Henry VIII, when he was a young buck in the early 1500s, even engaged in ‘calf-muscle bulging’ contests (you can imagine him talking in a kind of Brian Blessed voice: “nobody has bulgier calf-muscles than me, your monarch. Do they? DO THEY?”).
And that’s without even mentioning the ruffs – wide collars that had no particular function other than making the wearer look as if they’d swallowed a dinner plate sideways.
The social framework around which all this was wrapped was reversed in the nineteenth century, when stockings became women’s attire and men wore trousers. What happened? Did men suddenly give up on the amorous attentions of women across the ball-room? Not a bit of it. But doing that by calf-muscle bulging had become SO sixteenth century.
The pivot point, largely, was the industrial revolution which drove whirlwind change across Europe on many levels – stylistically, social, technically, economically and politically. It also came in part from the French revolution, where the revolutionaries labelled themselves ‘sans culottes’ – taking pride in wearing trousers (which were always around, but considered ‘workers’ clothing) and so showing they were not part of the discredited old order and their stockings (‘culottes’).
Part of the reason why clothing styles changed was because the industrial revolution pivoted on mechanised cloth manufacture. Until then, cloth production had been artisanal, but now it flowed in great bolts from steam-driven looms – looms that still demanded the attention of low-paid workers. By the 1850s, aniline dyes – chemical by-products of the coal industry, via coal tar – allowed that cloth to explode in a riot of bright colour, unavailable at low cost in earlier ages. The first of them – mauvine – was a lurid shade of purple, and that was merely the beginning.
The principle isn’t limited to clothes, and it seems to me that the two-way relationship between the things we create, and the nature of the society in which they have been created, is one of the coolest things to think about historically.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017