The shapes of our clothes and their details are echoes of our historical dress and have their own fascinating stories to tell. Sometimes sexist, sometimes political and sometimes violent …
Take the handy pocket, where would we be without it? It is unimaginable to think that clothes were once without them, but it is true. The name pocket comes from an old French word ‘poque’[i] meaning bag, which is what a pocket would have essentially been throughout the 19th century. Originally, these bags would carry all essential items and be tied around the waist or hung from a belt. During the 17th century thieves and ‘cut-purses’ meant people had to rethink them being on display and so began to cut slits into their clothes in order to hide their pockets in. It was around this time they began to be called pockets[ii]. As fashions changed and men’s garments became more slim-fitting it was necessary for the pockets to become attached for the slim shape to be maintained. From hereon pockets began to proliferate in menswear with them being added for many different uses such as pocket watches and even tickets. Women’s dress continued the use of separate pocket bags through the 1800s as they could be attached within their skirts. However, these proved to be easy targets for pickpockets until women then began carrying small drawstring bags or ‘reticules’[iii] instead. Thereby, the ladies handbag was created and continued to be the mainstay for women’s fashion onwards. Especially as the slim-line shapes of the 20th century did not work with bulky pockets, the handbag continued its dominance over the humble pocket largely unchallenged.
Another common garment constituent part that has a curious history is the hood. The hood has a long history, which at different times has held varied connotations. The word comes from the old English ‘hod’[iv] meaning covering. From ancient times they were seen as a symbol of piety or ceremony: as worn by romans during prayer, cloistered monks and even now by advanced degree graduates[v]. In medieval Europe hoods with short capes were very common and women would often wear a structured gable hood. Chainmail hoods were also a necessity for a knight and as in Inuit dress to protect the wearer from the elements. However, as the nature of the hood can enable the wearer to hide their identity it later become synonymous with roguery. During the 12th century, London was besieged by rioting hooded apprentice boys and so began the hood’s less than saintly symbolism. Young women also used hoods during the 17th century to disguise themselves as they went to romantic assignations. The hoods of the Ku Klux Klan and the hoods of sentenced prisoners add further sinister elements to the hoods history. Therefore, the modern day association with ‘hoodies’[vi] being hooligans is not new idea, but its usefulness will no doubt outlive it’s bad reputation.
Another fashion detail with tales to tell is the collar. These were said to appear around 1300 as a piece of linen built into a shirt neck and worn mainly by nobles[vii]. The discovery of starch in the 16th century led to the first real collar of note; the ‘ruff’, which was worn by men, women and children alike. The ruff was a detachable collar made from many yards of fabric, sometimes with up to 600 pleats[viii] and was most famously worn by Queen Elizabeth I. During this time they became high fashion and a symbol of the wearer’s wealth and status. This style fell out of fashion in the mid-17th century due to their high cost of maintenance and impracticality.
The detachable collar, similar to the one we know today was created in the 1830s enabling their removal for washing and starching separate to the shirt itself. It wasn’t until the late 1920’s that collars became attached and were the same colour as the shirt. Stylistic changes in shirt collars at this time were seen to be indicative of social status and give us the terms, blue and white collar workers. A white collar worker being an office worker whose collar would not get dirty and a blue collar worker was a manual labourer whose collar would need to hide a dirtier occupation. The band collar is also said to have originated around this time as workers not wearing ties that would get stuck in machinery had no need for a formal starched collar[ix]. This style was later made popular by the Indian Prime Minister, Jawalharlal Nehru in the 1950s and is often named after him.
What garment detail do you desire most in your clothes? Are pockets a necessity in your dress, or does a comfy hood or crisp collar appeal to you more?
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