“Since clothing is inescapably a demonstration of identity, wearing clothes […] is inevitably a political act […].” (Ross 2008, 12)

Clothing is a socially driven practice as it displays hierarchy and power structures. Rules from various empires established dress codes to exert control over their subjects, order civilians and secure social immobility: “clothing has been used to indicate rank, and thus regulations are frequently adopted to ensure that those who are considered inferior do not behave in ways unbecoming to their status […]” (Ross 2008, 12-13). This could be observed in various cultures of the New World, from South America to Africa. Sartorial behaviours were “ethnic markers for the subordinate” (Ross 2008, 14), a way to reward loyalty, and through the use of colours and textiles, a means of identifying status and city/clan of origin.

In the Old World “dress was primarily used as a way of signalling political allegiance” or as a means of securing colonial power when dress codes were imposed by conquerors (Ross 2008, 15) (Indian, Arabic and European countries). Politically defined “what to wear” was particularly widespread in Western Europe and Japan in the early modern period. Clothes acted as “class legislation” (Ross 2008, 16) and laws “laid down that particular items of dress were forbidden to individuals who were not of suitable social class”. For example, under the Japanese Tokugawa period (1683), “at least seven laws restricted the clothing of townsmen and women” (Ross 2008, 17) in terms of material and decoration, and from the 15th century on, most Italian cities “issued edicts on the amount of décolletage allowed” (Ross 2008, 19).

Colonialism also strongly impacted the use of clothing as a means of securing conquests. Strategies included “taking on the clothes of another society in order to gain respect, and a hearing, within it”, an early manifestation of acculturation and assimilation. This was especially true for the English and Dutch who travelled to East-Asian countries and India for commerce. In the New World, acculturation opposed folklorization processes and changes in clothing with the arrival of colonizers demonstrated the fluctuating and permeable nature of sartorial traditions. Still, “clothing maintained its function as a marker of ethnic and regional identity” (Ross 2008, 45) and this was later promoted in the post-colonial “invention of local traditions”. Natural history frameworks defined the boundaries between traditional customs like clothing and outlined stereotypes in costumes/modes of dressing. Contact zones were also sites of “sartorial exchanges” ( Ross 2008, 46). Merging styles echoed the cultural interactions occurring on frontiers, though mostly in a one-directional manner, especially in North America where North Americans “attempted to look as much like Europe[ans] as possible” (Ross 2008, 47).

The Industrial Revolution catalyzed a shift in sartorial practices, as the Western world would now impose its dominance economically. This process of globalization was highly intertwined with the colonial relationship Westerners were harvesting worldwide. Thus, globalization of Western fashion “depended on economic organization, while to a large degree, it was that very economic organization which allowed Europe and the neo-Europe across the oceans to dominate the world” (Ross 2008, 53)

Productivity and technical innovations dictated new ways of dressing and spreading trends: “Development of clothing and European styles, and its dissemination across the globe, was not merely a consequence of the power Europeans had to impose their own dress, and the prestige which made it attractive for such dress to be worn” […] “It was made possible only because of the developments in techniques of production and distribution of clothing” (Ross 2008, 53).

The development of mechanized factories and the increased demand for manufactured goods took off in England by the 18th century. In France and England, these new modes of production displaced apparel toward a more democratized position. There was a “much faster circulation of fashion away from the courtly centres, a much wider social dissemination of what was in fashion and, at least for men, the introduction and spread of the styles which has come to dominate the world since then, at least in terms of formal wear” (Ross 2008, 29). This shift slowly paved the way for a homogenization of sartorial habits.

By the beginning of the 20th century, French designer Paul Poiret was the first couturier to introduce Oriental inspirations in Parisian womenswear. This initiative was echoing Western sartorial domination in two ways: Europe was both invading foreign fashion outside its boundaries but also incorporating and domesticating traditional costumes inside the Western (Parisian) fashion sphere.


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