icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


A Brief History of an Obsession: Fashion from Pre-Human to the Rental Box

We’ve apparently been at it for 60,000 years, this fashion thing, this daily obsession with clothing. I’ve always thought of it as a feminist issue: we get paid 80 cents on the dollar and then spend a foolish portion of that on clothing, accessories and make-up, unlike men. Not to mention the Pink Tax that reportedly costs women an extra $1,350 per year because of discriminatory pricing. And it’s always been ‘women’s work’ to create both the fabric and the clothing.

Early Clothing


Surprisingly enough, there’s evidence that we were making clothing before we became modern humans (!)


“The oldest example is 60,000 years ago, a needle point (missing stem and eye) found in Sibudu Cave, South Africa. “Sewing needles have been dated to at least 50,000 years ago (Denisova Cave, Siberia) – and uniquely associated with a human species other than modern humans, i.e. H. Denisova/H. Altai. Other early examples of needles dating from 41,000-15,000 years ago are found in multiple locations, e.g. Slovenia, Russia, China, Spain and France. The earliest dyed flax fibers have been found in a prehistoric cave in the Georgia and date back to 36,000.” By 5,000 BC (nearly two millennia before writing) we had become fairly sophisticated at making fabric: “Archaeologists have discovered net gauges, spindle needles and weaving sticks” from that era.

And decorative work is ancient as well: needlework on clothing found from the early Bronze Age (1500 – 500 BC), embroidery in Europe in the Iron Age (500 – 100 BC), and evidence of a technique called couching have been found on a “fragment of wool of the first century BC.”

Hard Work/Women’s Work: Viking Weavers

These days we have rental services that will deliver a box of ‘personalized’ clothing to wear and return , saving us from even the drudgery of a trip to the store or laundry. So it’s easy to forget just how laborious fabric work was – and that women had to make the thread, then the fabric, then the clothing. Long and slow: “in 1271 for an altar-frontal for the high altar in Westminster Abbey four women worked for 3 ¾ years” to complete it. The merchant’s Guild of Florence in 1466 commissioned a set of embroideries that reportedly took 23 years to complete!

Here are a few mind-blowing facts from The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, by Nancy Marie Brown, Harcourt, 2007 :

• With large looms the weaver had to walk from right to left with the weft and the heddle shafts. According to one calculation, “a hard-working weaver walked 23 miles every day.”
• “For just two Viking Age outfits, one male and one female, we had to produce 40,000 meters of thread. For one sail for a ship, around 100 m² in size, we had to produce over 300,000 meters of thread. It’s endless meters of thread.”
• A “1000 ft.² sail, requiring almost 1 million feet of thread, took two women four and half years to make. It used the wool of more than 200 sheep, each sheep the size of a large dog and yielding 2 to 4 pounds of wool.”
• “The average Viking housewife needed to clean, sort, and spin the wool of 100 sheep a year to provide clothing for her husband and children and their servants and hired hands (who were paid in food and clothing).”
• Cloth making was not just mindless drudgery. “You need to have a good head for mathematics to work textiles, just to calculate how much thread you need and to lay out the patterns.”

Textile Work in the Middle Ages

There are few scenes more iconic of women in the Middle Ages than a noblewoman and her ladies engaged in embroidery. While that depiction is accurate – embroidery and needlework were some of the only trades deemed appropriate for noblewoman – they certainly could not account for all of the quilts, tapestries and embroideries that warmed the stone walls of castles and manor homes and decorated all the clothing. So who were the embroiderers and how did they ply their craft?

Women dominated the embroidery trade until the late Middle Ages and monopolized the making of silk and gold threads, silk and linen braids, cords and ribbons. In the 14th and 15th century “the names of male embroiderers tend to dominate later documents, misleading writers into thinking that women disappeared from the craft, but the records of the Royal household in the 14th century revealed a great many working…in the embroidery [industry] that they had come to share with men, earning a lesser wage,” according to Kay Staniland in the fascinating and out-of-print collection Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers published by the University of Toronto Press/British Museum Press, in 1991.

And unlike other trades that were forming guilds and confraternities (1250-1350), the embroiders, “silkwomen and braid weavers banded together informally to protest when their trades were threatened but do not appear to have belonged to a formal association.”

The Good News

The good news is that these days, we spend far less on clothing than we have done in the past (though the statistics I could find didn’t account for the falling wages of workers in clothing manufacturing i.e. sweatshops.)

“For example, in 1961, Americans spent an average of $4,157 on clothing in today’s dollars. That’s down to $1,803 now. Americans spent nearly $10,000 on food in 1961. That’s $7,203 now.”

And 70% of Millennial shoppers said they would be willing to pay more for a brand that is socially responsible or involved in a cause which is always a good thing.

Of course, some would continue to question the need for all this: “The dollar figures are of little significance since it accounts for just 3.5 percent of a family's expenses, on average. What is significant is whether that money is spent on need or waste. The answer is, largely, waste. In 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, that figure is 30 outfits -- one for every day of the month.

So what are we spending our money on? Healthcare costs (up 39%!), and housing (up 50% in inflation-adjusted costs.) As I live in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country , especially for housing…don’t get me started!


“Asian women face the smallest wage gap — they earn 87% of what white men earn, resulting in a pay gap of 13%. White women earn 79% of what white men do, while black women earn 63% and Hispanic women earn 54%.”https://www.businessinsider.com/gender-wage-pay-gap-charts-2017-3
Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers published by the University of Toronto Press/British Museum Press, in 1991
Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers, op. cit
The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, by Nancy Marie Brown, Harcourt, 2007, pg. 229, 234
Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers op.cit.
Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers op. cit., pg. 13


Be the first to comment