The Evolution of the Dress
- By: Melissa Zalev
Evolution isn’t just about life forms going from single- to multiple-cell organisms, or a monkey’s uncle turning into your Uncle Bob after a few eons. Evolution is “a gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form," meaning that both living things and man’s inventions become more sophisticated over time. Can we apply a non-organic Theory of Evolution to the development of the dress? Certainly. Why not?
The dress, or something like it, has been an important feature in the wardrobe of women throughout all societies in recorded history. In addition to the obvious function of providing protection and warmth, dresses became a symbol of a woman’s beauty and feminine nature, too, as societies matured and the march of progress continued. Dresses have helped women shape their own individuality as well as aided them in communicating their identity to others.
In industrialized Western nations over the past 150 years or so, women have developed the confidence to work for better social standing and win their full rights. This same process is taking place in non-Western cultures today, as well, although at a slower rate and against the resistance of some male fundamentalists, particularly in Muslim countries. It is instructive to note how some religions and cultures use dress codes for women to control and restrict them.
Other roles for dresses
There were many functions for the dress originally and, as we have already seen, in certain cultures and religions they are still especially important for women. We may be able to predict, at least generally, women’s progress in the world’s remaining authoritarian cultures and societies by recalling their fashion evolution in Europe over the centuries.
Beauty and seduction were seen as vital attributes of the dress for women in Europe for hundreds of years. Even in the so called polite society of the 17th and 18th centuries the way a dress was made was of great importance in attracting the attentions of a significant other. The more outlandish and decorated the dress the better, although for the most part, the dresses were extremely uncomfortable and at times painful to wear. Women still wanted to look as attractive as possible even under those extreme circumstances. Bodices and corsets were considered painful, but hourglass figures “poured” into eye-catching fabrics were also considered quite beautiful. Ideals of beauty also were subject to change over time, even within the same culture(s).
Identification with a woman’s particular social class is clearly a very important purpose of dresses. The more expensive the gown, the more obvious it would be that a lady would have a place in high society. Conversely, a plain, worn or tattered dress would certainly ascribe to a woman a lower social standing. Through dresses a woman was able to establish herself at the level of society where she fit in by reason of her birth. Only the richest women had the best and most beautiful dresses.
Today in the West, it seems to be the same in most cases, but that may be a surface observation. Although not everyone can afford to wear Prada, Vera Wang or Gucci dresses, there are many high-quality “knock-offs” and quality, less-expensive brands that can still supply status to the wearer. The names are important, of course, but quality in construction and plain old “wearability” are also valued by women today.
Behind the fashion
Ceremony or ritual is another importance of dresses for a woman and is the real (but unstated) purpose for many occasions and special events. Wedding dresses help to signify a women’s transition from being single to becoming a wife. That’s an important evolution in itself. Other cultures that perform different rituals or ceremonies find the dress an important symbol of the woman because it is a reflection of being feminine and beautiful.
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