The phrase ‘women’s fashion’ conjures up images of women browsing in fashion shops and choosing exactly how they want to dress. While this is gradually becoming true, the reality is that for the past 6,000-odd years what women could and could not wear was entirely—and often punitively—dictated by the patriarchal cultures they lived in. Women’s fashion charts the rise and fall of patriarchy over the past six millennia.
Women’s fashion can therefore be seen as a barometer of the waxing and waning of patriarchal power over recent millennia. What this barometer clearly indicates is that patriarchy has run its course in developed cultures and that a new era of freedom and empowerment around the right to display one’s body beckons.
This trend has accelerated in recent years with public protests like ‘slut walks’ and the #freethenipple and #underboob Twitter campaigns.
Let’s start by going back to some of the earliest artworks—a time when the technology to even create clothes was very limited.
Female fertility features highly in the earliest known artworks—figurines and cave paintings. This artwork therefore emphasised female sexuality and depicted it unashamedly. The figure below is the Willendorf Venus from central Europe, while the cave painting (which may be even older) comes from Kakadu in northern Australia. The anatomically explicit artwork shows that these are pre-patriarchal cultures.
c. 22,000 BC — Venus figurine at Willendorf (Europe)
c. 22,000 BC — Cave painting at Kakadu (Australia)
Sexually unrestricted societies existed for thousands of years. This cave painting from Tassili N’ajjer in Algeria unabashedly demonstrates the doggy position, though it is noticeably less detailed than the Kakadu example. This loss of detail is a subtle sign of coming changes.
c. 7000 BC — Tassili N’ajjer (Algeria)
Around 4000 BC a change came over the Middle East with the rise of the first patriarchal societies as a response to climate change that turned the Sahara and Arabian Peninsula into deserts. As documented in A brief history of shame, these societies were anti-women, anti-child and anti-sex. This naturally resulted in the shaming of nudity and the gradual covering up of the body, as seen in this Egyptian fresco.
c. 3000 BC — Egypt
Patriarchy attacks sexuality from multiple angles. Not only does it create anti-sex institutions and laws, it programs both men and women to uphold them and to feel ashamed of any desires that violate them. This is why, in patriarchies, it is not just men but often women who censor those whose dress is considered unacceptable.
In the following millennia, patriarchal influences gradually radiated out of their heartland in the Middle East. The style of dress in the Minoan civilization reflects a mixture of the older, shame-free paradigm and the encroaching effects of patriarchy. The exposed breasts are believed to signal fertility.
c. 2000 BC — Minoa (Crete)
The following cave painting, from coastal Libya, clearly indicates the growing power of the patriarchy. The presence of the horse and chariot dates the painting to the Late Bronze Age, around 1500-1200 BC. The figures in the upper-right corner are probably armed warriors wearing the short Egyptian-style skirt. The bottom left corner may show an encampment, possibly with women and children. Compared with the earlier cave paintings, weapons now dominate and the figures have become distinctly angular. As well as a massive reverse in emotional and sexual openness, patriarchy brought a decline in artistic style and ability.
c. 1500 BC — North Africa
By biblical times, the lightly but fully clothed fashion seen in the earlier Egyptian fresco had migrated across the Mediterranean and been adopted by the Greeks and, later, the Romans. This fashion remained in vogue for another millennia. The off the shoulder, breast exposed style modelled by one of the figures below is perhaps a hangover from earlier, pro-feminine times, or simply artistic license.
c. 500 BC-500 AD — Ancient Greece and Rome
Homa Hoodfar (The Muslim Veil in North America, 2003) asserts that the veil came into use around this time in the Middle East. It is first mentioned in an Assyrian text dated 13 BC. Only upper-class women were permitted to use it. This makes complete sense in patriarchal terms. These women belonged to a superior bloodline whose genetic purity had to be maintained at all costs; veiling them signalled they were sexually off-limits to the hoi polloi.
Over the next thousand years, women’s dress changed little from Roman times. Towards the Late Middle Ages, however, the clothes gradually became more ornate. During this time the church grew in power, placing enormous emphasis on the sinful nature of the body.
c. 500-1400 — the Middle Ages
The standards of the day banned not only female nudity but also its artistic representation.
But there was a work-around: nudity in art had to represent the ‘higher’ qualities of womanhood—purity; beauty; virtue—rather than lustful desire. Botticelli’s masterpiece has been interpreted as representing the Neoplatonic ideal of divine love. This is, however, a subversive image: the scallop shell is a traditional symbol of fertility. Both this and Botticelli’s even more subversive ‘Venus and Mars’ suggest that the artist was fully aware that feminine power—and with it sexual openness—would one day return.
c. 1486 — ‘The Birth of Venus’ (Sandro Botticelli)
While the male population was almost entirely deprived of the sight of the female body, the church actively promoted the persecution of perceived sexual sins through the Inquisition. The scene was set for the witch-hunting mania of the 15th to 18th Centuries.
Although supposedly about witchcraft, this mania was entirely about sex and nudity. In one of the key documents of the Inquisition, the Malleus Maleficarum (1487), Heinrich Kramer wrote: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust.” Religious support for witch-hunting provided social legitimacy for thousands of women to be denounced as witches. Satisfying the public’s desire to ogle, witches were frequently stripped naked in public. Sham trials led to torture and death. It is no coincidence that the torture devices of the period targeted women’s sexual parts. The push-pull dynamic of sexual shame—a simultaneous fascination with and repulsion by sexuality—is clearly at work in the emotional mechanics of the witch-hunting era.
c. 1450-1750 — witch-hunting
By the 17th Century, the trend towards ornateness seen in the Late Middle Ages was in full bloom. Women’s clothes became heavier and more fulsome. Arms, legs and necks vanished under swathes of cloth, leaving only the face visible.
17th Century — Elizabethan era and Safavid dynasty
At the same time that European dress became more concealing, the same happened in the Middle East during the rule of the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722). They established an empire stretching across all of modern Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as parts of Turkey, Syria and Pakistan. During this period the veil became a symbol of social status. Over the following centuries its use spread to all levels of Muslim society. Franco Pagetti’s recent photograph from Kabul, Afghanistan, (below) could have been taken under Safavid rule.
But, unlike the Muslim world, in Europe change was stirring…
Part II will examine shifts in women’s fashion—and the underlying trend they reflected—from the 18th Century to the present day, completing this journey through the rise and fall of patriarchy.