A Short History of the Thing Called “Menswear”

One of the posts I liked best in a previous theme month was a history post (it was Anya’s stripes post!). I wanted to do a similar post for menswear but it has felt difficult for a couple of reasons:

  1. Menswear is not a very inclusive label for a particular style of garment and it’s a super broad domain!
  2. History is very often dominated by the rich and successful, so it’s always very hard to establish whether the records that survive bear any relation to the real everyday wear of people at the time.

These two elements dogged me in trying to put together this post. I have tried to be aware of those factors and to pick out pieces of the history of “menswear” that speak to a less rigid past (or that I just found interesting), though it’s by no means comprehensive nor is it intended to be. I hope that works for people!

Deep History

Estimates put the first clothing at around 170,000 years ago but to be honest, I found a bunch of different articles citing different dates and different findings, including studies of lice. Nice…

Our chronology for the origins of clothing is determined almost solely by archaeological finds. Very old finds of this sort are rare due to the nature of organic materials from which clothes are made, as they biodegrade easily. Interestingly, I had a strong preconceived notion that all very early clothing was likely to be functional (only) as opposed to anything decorative.

Image of very old pants or trousers.  They are laid out on a white cloth and are degraded and rotted in places.  They include panels of geometric designs on the legs and seat area.

These 3,000 year old pants from China include geometric designs on the legs and seat which serve only as decoration and which fully prove me wrong! The pants are made from wool and loomed to fit in three pieces – no cutting out involved! Speculation is that trousers developed some time earlier, perhaps around 4,000 years ago, in line with the domestication of horses.

Another super early menswear pioneer is Otzi the Iceman from the copper age (about 5,000 years ago). He was very well preserved in a glacier, and was wearing clothes mostly made of animal skins / hide, as well as some sort of woven grass mat. He doesn’t really wear pants as such, more like separate leggings. You can find out more about his clothing here http://www.iceman.it/en/clothing/.

Historically Unisex Approaches

Clothing has not always historically been separated into “men’s” and “women’s”. Classical Greek clothing was often made of simple rectangles, which were draped and shaped by pinning and buttons.

Young man wearing a chiton (tunic). Parian marble, copy after a Greek original of the 4th century BC. From the Horti Lamiani, 1874.
Capitoline Museum

The Chiton was a unisex garment made of a rectangle of fabric which was often belted and pulled over the belt to blouse out. There are some variations re how men and women wore the garment through the different periods of ancient Greek history, however the basic form was the same and in some of the periods they wore the same variation.

Similarly there are examples of Japanese pottery from the Jōmon period (over 5,000 years ago) that show no distinction between male and female clothing of the time, though it is as ever difficult to understand from our perspective whether these images are representative of daily life or even ceremonial / occasion wear.

Menswear as Power and Protest

There are numerous examples through history of women taking over what was at the time traditional menswear to exert authority or take a stand.

Image of Joan of Arc dressed in dark yellow tunic and pants, riding a horse with red livery.  French castle in the background.

Joan of Arc on horseback in an illustration from a 1505 manuscript. (Wikimedia Commons)

Most famously, Joan of Arc wore men’s clothing to allow her to take part in battles, however this small technical heresy was what allowed those judging her to eventually order her execution.

Some centuries later, there were opposing views in the UK suffragette movement of the early 20th century on how to use their clothing to best effect. The government of the time produced propaganda postcards depicting women demanding the vote as emasculating to men, by showing them dressed in suits and other “mannish” attire (See here for examples). While some in the movement responded with a focus on deliberately conventional and dainty dress (see here), others favoured at least a move towards aesthetic / rational dress, including more practical clothing for activities such as bicycle riding and the abandonment of the corset.

Later still, the rise of women working in traditionally male occupations in the 1920s and 1930s (linked at least in part to the need for factory work for women in wartime) made pants a much more common option for women in certain circumstances (see this article on the history of pants). However, it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the world of business felt women’s in trousers / pants were acceptable.

This lead to all sorts of tremendous opportunities, like the one shown above.

In Summary

I didn’t talk so much about menswear in this post, given it’s menswear month in February! But I thought it was important to illustrate via history how fleeting and recent our current conventions and fashions really are. It’s also interesting to reflect on the use of garments as part of power dynamics and how early they became at the very least decorative, and potentially a symbol of status.

I am not sure this will serve as an “inspiration” post for any makes in our theme month either, though I will find and fund prizes for anyone making a replica of any of the specific outfits (with the exception of the Chiton…) featured in this post!

Chloe is a Sewcialists Editor, who lives and sews in Australia. She blogs at deadlycraft.blogspot.com  and can be found on Instagram here