From Loincloths to Lingerie: 10 Unique Styles of Clothing from Ancient History
Fashion trends have changed drastically just in the last several years, so imagine how much they’ve changed since early history! Throughout history, there have been various types of clothing worn by the masses. Many of these pieces were based on local cultures and communities, but some were common across many different regions. Below are some of the most interesting clothes worn by humans throughout history.
Loincloths are one of the earliest recorded forms of clothing in human history. The origins of the loincloth can be traced back as early as 3000 BC in Egypt. Simple yet effective, the loincloth is made from a piece of cloth tied around the hips to cover your genitals. They brought a sense of dignity to ancient communities and helped protect such delicate parts from injury or infection. Loincloths were also simple to produce, so they were easily attained.
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The loincloth can be dated back to at least 3000 BC in Egypt. This mural from the tomb of Nebamun (circa 1350 BC) depicts servants offering hares and other items (Jan van der Crabben / CC BY NC SA 4.0)
Men in ancient Greece used to sometimes wear chlamys, outer garments resembling short capes. These small cloaks were worn around the neck and would fall over the wearer’s shoulders and down their backs. If they didn’t want it swinging around their back, they could bring the bottom back up around their other shoulder and fasten it to their neck to make it shorter. Typically, chlamys were worn by servants, soldiers, or messengers to signify their position in society.
The chlamys was a short cloak worn by men in ancient Greece (ArchaiOptix / CC BY SA 4.0)
Ancient Greeks had a few different essential types of clothing, and one of these was the strophion. Strophions were essentially early bras made of a simple cloth band that stretched around the breasts. They were often made of either wool or linen and could be tied around the back between the shoulder blades, similar to corsets in later years.
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Detail of the “bikini girls” mosaic, found by archaeological excavation of the ancient Roman Villa del Casale near Piazza Armerina in Sicily. The strophion was a type of early bra worn by women in Greece. (Clemensfranz / CC BY SA 3.0)
In the 15th and 16th centuries, codpieces were a common form of fashion among men. Typically, the hose that men wore on their legs were open at the crotch, but this was kept covered by long tunics. As fashion trends shifted, tunics became shorter, which left men… exposed. Cue the codpiece, which was essentially a rounded pocket sewn into the hose to cover men’s crotches. As codpieces became more commonplace, some started making them bigger than before so they could also be used as pockets for snacks, money, or spare handkerchiefs. It wasn’t exactly sanitary, but it was practical.
This is probably the effigy of Sir Anthony Leger, who died in 1539. What snacks was he packing in his generously-sized codpiece? (Kevin Gordon / CC BY SA 2.0)
Surcoats originated in the 13th century and were worn by men and women alike. This long outer garment had a variety of types but was traditionally viewed as a long cloak used to spruce up other outfits. Men traditionally wore surcoats over their armor, but women often used them for fashion purposes. As they evolved, they became more exposed so outfits underneath the surcoats could be seen more easily.
Marie de Brabant wore a sideless surcoat to her wedding to French King Philippe III, drawing circa 1300 (Public Domain)
No, we don’t mean the toilet! Before its connotation with the restroom, the term commode was used to refer to a solid hairpiece worn by women in the 15th and 16th centuries. Commodes were made from wire, ribbon, and lace and were often intertwined with women’s hair to make a tower on their heads. They were most popular in France, where they were nicknamed the “fontange.”
How did women get their hair piled so high? By using a wire framework called a commode. 1688 portrait of Queen Mary II of England (Public Domain)
Of all the clothing items on this list, you’re likely the most familiar with this one! Although they still exist today, corsets were certainly used much more frequently in ancient times. Their history can be traced back to the Bronze Age in the Minoan civilization, but they didn’t become mainstream until the 15th century.
Corsets were made of cloth and boning and designed to be tightened up the back to form an hourglass waist shape on women. In the 18th century, whalebones were preferred to make the boning for the piece, as they were sturdy but able to remain somewhat flexible during tightening. Corsets were often considered a necessary undergarment under dresses, especially for the upper class. Nowadays, you can find a variety of corsets for special occasions or cosplay events.
Group of five corsets, late 19th and early 20th century. (Peloponnesian Folklore Association / CC BY SA 4.0)
You may have seen tippets in your favorite medieval TV show. Tippets are long streamers of cloth attached to an armband worn just above the elbow. These long streamers were most common in the late 14th century, but some high-class individuals still wore them into the 15th century. Typically, tippets were long enough to reach at least the knee, if not the ground, so they would flow gracefully alongside you. It was probably easy for them to get caught on your surroundings, but they sure did look cool!
Tippets, or hanging sleeves became popular during medieval times for both men and women. Drawing of Eleanor of Woodstock and Reinald II of Guelders kneeling in prayer (British Library / CC BY)
People in the 18th century took their hats very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they wore accessories called cockades on them. Cockades were giant bows made of ribbon that would be attached to large hats and worn out during the day. While it first started as an ordinary fashion trend, it soon evolved into a symbol of recognition for various groups or military units.
Scottish Prince Charles Edward Stuart wearing a hat with a white (Jacobite) cockade (Public Domain)
Women already had a lot going on between dresses and corsets, but they eventually had to use bustles too. Bustles were common in the 19th century and were essentially giant padding added under the back of skirts to give women an exaggerated derriere. As they evolved, they soon came to be made of wire and mesh for extra-large bustles, or fabric stuffed with straw or horsehair for a softer, more natural-looking bustle.
19th century bustles were cumbersome wire frameworks to shape the heavy materials and provide a shapely visage. A bustle from the 1870s (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain)
Modern Day Dress is Easy
Though some of these sound interesting enough to bring back, others are likely best left in the past. The next time you throw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, be grateful you don’t have to spend the next hour tying up a corset or trying to sit in a bustle!
Top image: Clothing from history helps us learn more about the cultures and people who wore them. Source: Fernando Cortés / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
Ancient Greek Dress. October 2003. Metmuseum.org. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grdr/hd_grdr.htm#:~:text=Clothing%20for%20both%20women%20and,would%20reach%20to%20the%20waist
Bustle. December 27, 2017. Fashion History Timeline. Available at: https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/bustle/
Eldridge, A. n.d. 10 articles of clothing that deserve a comeback. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/list/10-articles-of-clothing-that-deserve-a-comeback
Mark, J. J. July 13, 2021. Ancient Greek clothing. World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/article/20/ancient-greek-clothing/
Piepenbring, D. May 23, 2020. A brief history of the codpiece, the personal protection for Renaissance equipment. The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-brief-history-of-the-codpiece-the-personal-protection-for-renaissance-equipment
Top most famous ancient Greek clothes. n.d. topancienthistory. Available at: https://topancienthistory.com/top-most-famous-ancient-greek-clothes/history/