In modern societies, only the poorest wear clothes solely to get protection from elements. All other social groups treat clothes as a medium to send a message to others about one’s identity, social status and aspirations. People are free to wear what they want and they often use that power to engage, seduce or provoke. Governments regulate only what its agents wear although strict penalties apply to breaches of regulations on uniforms worn by the police and the army.
In Europe, the erotic element of dress can hardly be overestimated and clothes have always been worn as much to cover the body as to reveal it. Eroticism of costume is even present in religious art which provides evidence of Christianitas being close to humanitas. It is quite surprising to see so much nudity in pre-Reformation religious painting. What is being celebrated here, the divine or the human?
Joos van Cleve The Holy Family, about 1525
In traditional societies, strict rules apply to what one can wear in public. In such societies, costume is believed to have magical qualities. Individuals do not have discretion as to what to wear as the rules related to dress were supposedly declared once and for all by God. You are what you wear and no dissent is tolerated.
Traditional Judaism and Islam are iconoclastic and they have prescriptive and proscriptive rules on dressing of particular severity. As there is no divine sanction for colour, embellishments and patterns from nature, people often wear clothes covering almost all their bodies, and only white and black colours are acceptable.
Lucien Levy-Dhurmer Evening Promenade, 1930
In Europe, art bifurcated at Reformation and costume also reflects this phenomenon. Rococo, with its extravagant skirts and barely covered bosoms, is limited to Catholic countries. With the exception of the Calvinist Dutch Republic, Reformation – being iconoclastic – stifled artistic expression in visual arts. Pre-Raphaelites are no match for Impressionists.
Reformation introduced puritanism into people’s lives. Paradoxically, even today some paintings from several centuries ago would be considered too risqué even in our permissive times.
Jean Honore Fragonard Young Woman Playing with a Dog, between 1765 and 1772
In the second part of the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century, extravagance in costume reached absurd levels. In England, during the Restoration, women used the seductive power of costume to its full potential. James Robinson Planché writes in History of British costume that
Charles II’s beauties were the very reverse of their mothers in dress as in demeanour. The starched ruff, the steeple-crowned hat, the rigid stomacher, and the stately fardingale were banished with the gravity and morality of their wearers. A studied negligence, an elegant deshabille, is the prevailing character of the costume in which they are nearly all represented.
Puritanic sobriety and austerity gave way to ostentatious display and flamboyancy in shapes and colours but it all ended with the ascendance of the Prince of Orange, a Protestant, to the throne as William III in 1689.
In France, frivolous gaiety took many shapes, including elaborate pastoral simplicity of noble men and women pretending to be shepherds and shepherdesses. The French Revolution destroyed this world. It all started with Rousseau who initiated a new trend in culture and politics by claiming that civilisation has corrupting power. His ideas became reality during the French Revolution. Gone were fetes champetres and fetes galantes, replaced by republican austerity and simplicity. Napoleon chose to copy the Romans in costume, furniture and architecture. The end of feudalism marked the end of the world as theatrum mundi and people behaving as if acting in a play, with appropriate costumes.
Francois Boucher The Toilet
Nicolas Lancret La Camargo dancing
Revolution in politics was also a revolution in costume. King Louis XVI was executed wearing the simplest possible garment. He was stripped of all the vestiges of power and died as citizen Capet.
The standard simplicity of masculine costume worn today dates from the French Revolution, writes R. Turner Wilcox in The Mode in Costume.
The nineteenth century was a period of conservatism in costume and mores, particularly in England while the beginning of the twentieth century was also the beginning of a period of costume becoming simpler, more practical and more functional until almost everyone wore denim trousers. Jeans are nowadays worn by men and women, rich and poor, and young and old.
James Laver writes in The Concise History of Costume that a fundamental change occurred in the 1960:
[young men] no longer care about formality and are no longer concerned to “dress like a gentleman”. In other words, the idea of gentility which kept men’s clothes almost static for the last 150 years is no longer accepted; and this represents a real revolution in manners.
Costume plays a special role in art because it gives the artist an opportunity to show his craft. For that reason, the history of art is also the history of costume and this phenomenon can be illustrated by the following paintings and other art objects:
Woman of Willendorf, between 28,000 and 25,000 BC
Sumerian Statuette, from the Temple of Abu, Tel Asmar, c. 2700 – 2600 BC
Persian Archers, Susa, fifth- fourth BC
King Tut and his wife Ankhesenamun, c. 1332–1323 BC
The snake goddess, from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 BC
So-called Athena Pacifique, c. 130-90 BC
Girl from Verona, Italy. Roman copy of a Greek original, 1 century
Mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale, fourth century AD
Limbourg brothers The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry c. 1412 and 1416
Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434
Frans Hals , Cavalier soldier, 1624
Rembrandt Portrait of a Woman, 1632
Diego Velázquez Infanta Margarita Teresa in White Garb, 1656
Frans Hals Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse, 1664
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Young Lady in a Tricorn Hat, c. 1755/1760
Thomas Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750
Philipp Otto Runge, The Hülsenbeck Children, 1805-06
Carl Spitzweg, TheWidower, 1844
Dominique Ingres Mme Moitessier, 1856
James McNeill Whistler At the Piano, 1858–59
Pierre Auguste Renoir Mother Strolling with her Children, 1875
John Brack Men’s wear 1953