Fashion, style and trends have always been a hugely important part of women’s lives, being a major creative outlet for women throughout the ages. But these trends are much more than just picking out something to wear each day from a cupboard of clothes: fashion is a way of expressing the role of women in society and how important and independent they are, and although style changes appear to be rapid and trivial, there is a lot of thought that goes into what women are going to wear next and how it is going to reflect their individual status as a woman in a her own era.
To illustrate this, I have looked at two particular periods in history: Ancient Egypt and World War One, to see how women’s fashion was determined by circumstances and by women’s role in society.
In ancient Egypt, the main intentions of women’s clothing were practical ones: keeping the wearer cool and comfortable in the hot climate. The women of ancient Egypt are usually depicted as wearing a straight caftan/shift, which was fundamentally a simple rectangular piece of material folded once and sewn down the edge to make a tube dress. This was most commonly worn just below the breasts, with thick straps that covered the breast in most cases (although in ancient Egyptian times an exposed breast was not at all considered immodest, and there were periods of style that had the dresses with thinner straps, revealing the breasts). The length of the dress was a mark of a woman’s social class, and the longer the dress, the higher up in society you were, as you could afford the extra material. As the styles evolved, another dress was created, made out of two pieces of cloth tied together leaving a small gap for the head. The bottom corners of this new robe were knotted at the front of the dress. Men could also wear this robe; however it would be tied differently to a woman’s. Many women also wore a pleated cape or a long, coloured sash tied around their waist to hold the folds of material together. Dresses throughout the Egyptian period were decorated with colourful beads and feathers (although these were usually for women of prestige and queens).
To the Egyptians, a wig was by far the most important accessory. Wigs were a much more practical option than real hair, as they gave much better protection from the sun and against various insects such as lice. Wigs were the height of fashion, and a sign of status, and so even the most expensive wigs, made of human hair, were so elaborate so as not to be confused with real hair, which would imply that a woman was too poor to afford a wig.
Cosmetics were also a very important factor in an Egyptian woman’s life, although for health reasons just as much as for vanity. Heavy eye make-up was applied to provide protection against the sun’s glare and also from disease-carrying insects. Rouge and red lipstick were also used, much like in modern times, but to protect women from sunburn as well.
Of course, one of the most influential women in Egypt was the renowned queen Cleopatra VII. It is famously told that to seduce Mark Antony, Cleopatra dressed as Venus, and this has become the most well-known depiction of her, most famously portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film “Cleopatra”. Style and elegance like Cleopatra’s is timeless, as has been recently demonstrated by TopShop Unique’s 2012 spring/summer collection, publicised in London Fashion Week. The majority of the collection is based on a Cleopatra meets 90s sports wear style, and although it was slated by the critics, it has been hugely successful with customers, as celebrities including singer Rihanna, actress Lindsay Lohan and singer Nicola Roberts helped to promote the clothes by wearing them publicly. This shows that even now women can still recognise what an influential and celebrated woman Cleopatra was, and wish to be like her.
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