Across vast swathes of the world, many of us — arguably too many of us — have grown accustomed to putting on little more than a T-shirt and jeans every morning, regardless of our status in society. We all know it wasn’t always this way, but we may not fully understand just how much it wasn’t always this way. Throughout most of civilized human history, dressing didn’t just reflect one’s way of life, it practically constituted a way of life in itself. Thanks to Youtube channel Crow’s Eye Productions, we here in the twenty-first century can enjoy detailed, even cinematic re-creations of the dressing process in various eras and places the West, from Roman Britain to Renaissance Florence to 1969 London.
You can watch all 35 of these dressing videos in chronological order with this playlist. Many of the dressers, including such august personages as Prince Albert and Queen Victoria (on Christmas Day, no less), occupy elevated social positions.
But the maids and gardeners of the Victorian era had to get dressed too, and though their clothing may be simpler than that worn by the royals — or even by the middle class — it’s no less revealing of history. One could no doubt tell an even richer story of technological, economic, and cultural change over the centuries through the clothing of “the masses” than through the clothing of the elites.
Even war, that most traditional historical subject of all, has its connections with dress. This playlist features three videos on the dressing routines of soldiers, nurses, and young women during the First World War, as well as one on the members of the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. Established in 1917, the WLA organized “Land Girls” to take over the agricultural work while the men who’d been doing it were out fighting on the front.
This was just the kind of effort necessitated by total war, as well as one that could only have been performed by women. It’s also, therefore, engagingly approachable by a series like this, with its primary focus on women’s dress — which, at least since the Great Male Renunciation, has had a pretty spectacular history of its own.
Mud everywhere…and where there wasn’t mud, there was fog, and in between was us, enjoying ourselves. – Berta Ruck
Berta Ruck and Frances ‘Effy’ Jones were teenagers in the 1890s, and while their recollections of their formative years in muddy old London are hardly a portrait of Jazz Age wildness, neither are they in keeping with modern notions of stuffy Victorian mores.
Interviewed for the BBC documentary series Yesterday’s Witness in 1970, these nonagenarians are formidable personages, sharper than proverbial tacks, and unlikely to elicit the sort of agist pity embodied in the lyrics of a popular ditty Ruck remembers the Cockneys singing in the gutter after the pubs had closed for the night.
“Do you think I might dare to sing [it] now?” Ruck, then 91, asks (rhetorically):
She may have known better days
When she was in her prime
She may have known better days
Once upon a time…
(Raise your hand if you suspect those lyrics are describing a washed up spinster in her late 20s or early 30s.)
The 94-year-old Jones reaches back more than 7 decades to tell about her first job, when she was paid 8 shillings a week to sit in a storefront window, demonstrating a new machine known as a typewriter.
Some of her earnings went toward the purchase a bicycle, which she rode back and forth to work and overnight holidays in Brighton, scandalously clad in bloomers, or as Jones and her friends referred to them, “rational dress”.
We do hope at least one of these features a heroine resentfully brushing a skirt muddied up to the knees by passing hansom cabs, an imposition Ruck refuses to sweeten with the nostalgia.
As the British Film Institute’s Patrick Russell writes in 100 British Documentaries, the Yesterday’s Witness series, and Jones and Ruck’s episode, in particular, popularized the oral history approach to documentary, in which the director-interviewer is an invisible presence, creating the impression that the subject is speaking directly to the audience, unprompted:
The series’ makers successfully resisted any temptations to patronize or editorialize, and aimed at sympathetic curiosity rather than nostalgia. The two women tell their stories fluently, humorously, intelligently – offering considered retrospective comment on their generation’s assumptions, neither simply accepting nor rejecting them…Unlike textbooks, and other types of documentary, films like Two Victorian Girls gave the youth access to the modern past as privately experienced.
Elton John is packing up his fabulous outfits and hitting stages for the last time, making a graceful exit from the road at age 75 with his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour. He will, of course, make a stop at Dodger Stadium, where he played one of his most famous concerts in 1975, striding onto the stage in a sequined Dodgers uniform, one of many shimmering costumes he would don during the 3-hour marathon set.
When John played Dodger stadium, his songs had been “hitting the airwaves with a sense of fantastical futurism,” writes Far Out, “all packaged in flamboyant costumes and dressed in number one albums. Loved by critics and adored by fans, he resembled something entirely different.” Different from what?
John answered that question in a 2020 interview with Vogue: “I wasn’t glam rock. I wasn’t David Bowie. I was me being a blokey guy wearing these clothes. I had to have humor in my costume.” Thus, his turns as Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, and the Statue of Liberty, all costumes “designed to complement the corresponding performance,” Janelle Okwodu writes at Vogue.
John may not have thought of himself as a glam rock superstar, but his legacy of sparkling, sequined outfits, platform boots, feather boas, and bluesy rock hits says otherwise. In the video above, see the retiring Rocketman break down his most iconic looks. “Let’s begin,” he says, “at the very beginning” — decades before designer Sean Dixon tailored 30 bespoke suits (at 90 hours each to make) for John’s 2018 Million Dollar Piano show.
In 1968, John donned bell bottoms, a three-button jacket, and a fedora for his first publicity shot. “That was probably all I could afford, and it shows,” he remarks. Not a single Swarovski crystal in sight. In the early 70s, it was denim, “and I absolutely loathe denim now.” In 1997, for his 50th birthday party, John appeared in glorious full drag ensemble made by Sandy Powell, but in his later years, he’s mostly dressed down…. which for Elton John means changing into an endless series of bespoke, bedazzled suits.
Now that he’s heading into retirement from performing, we may be entitled to wonder about his bathrobe collection….
Perhaps the 143 colors showcased in The Bayer Company’s early 20th-century sample book, Shades on Feathers, could be collected in the field, but it would involve a lot of travel and patience, and the stalking of several endangered if not downright extinct avian species.
Far easier, and much less expensive, for milliners, designers and decorators to dye plain white feathers exotic shades, following the instructions in the sample book.
Such artificially obtained rainbows owe a lot to William Henry Perkin, a teenage student of German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, who spent Easter vacation of 1856 experimenting with aniline, an organic base his teacher had earlier discovered in coal tar. Hoping to hit on a synthetic form of quinine, he accidentally hit on a solution that colored silk a lovely purple shade – an inadvertent eureka moment that ranks right up there with penicillin and the pretzel.
Perkin named the colour mauve and the dye mauveine. He decided to try to market his discovery instead of returning to college.
On 26 August 1856, the Patent Office granted Perkin a patent for ‘a new colouring matter for dyeing with a lilac or purple colour stuffs of silk, cotton, wool, or other materials’.
Perkin’s next step was to interest cloth dyers and printers in his discovery. He had no experience of the textile trade and little knowledge of large-scale chemical manufacture. He corresponded with Robert and John Pullar in Glasgow, who offered him support. Perkin’s luck changed towards the end of 1857 when the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, decided that mauve was the colour to wear. In January 1858, Queen Victoria followed suit, wearing mauve to her daughter’s wedding.
“The inhabitants of fifteenth-century Florence included Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Verrocchio, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo,” writes essayist and venture capitalist Paul Graham. “There are roughly a thousand times as many people alive in the U.S. right now as lived in Florence during the fifteenth century. A thousand Leonardos and a thousand Michelangelos walk among us.” But “to make Leonardo you need more than his innate ability. You also need Florence in 1450”: its community of artists, and indeed everyone of all classes who constituted its uncommonly fruitful society.
Florence’s cultural flourishing lasted into the sixteenth century. Above, you can see a morning in the life of one Florentine of the 1500s recreated in a video by Crow’s Eye Productions. Previously featured here on Open Culture for their re-creations of the dressing processes of the fourteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, they show us this time how a woman would put herself together — or by the help, be put together — in turn-of-the-sixteenth-century Florence, which, “like many other Italian regions, had developed its own distinctive fashion style.” The camurra gown, the separate golden sleeves, the informal guarnello over-gown: all evoke this particular time and place.
As each garment and accessory is applied to the model, she may begin to look oddly familiar. “In 1503, a silk merchant from Florence, Francesco del Giocondo, commissioned a portrait of his young wife to adorn a wall in their new home, and perhaps to celebrate the safe arrival of their third child,” the video’s narrator tells us. “The artist commissioned was Leonardo da Vinci.” His portrait of Madonna Giacondo is “an intimate portrayal of a young married woman,” expensively but modestly dressed, wearing a smile “that seems intended for Francesco’s eyes only.” Yet until Leonardo’s death, the picture never left his own possession — perhaps because he sensed it had a destiny much greater than the wall of the del Giocondos’ bedchamber.
The flapper is the Roaring 20s’ enduring emblem – a liberated, young woman with bobbed hair, rolled down stockings, and a public thirst for cocktails.
(My grandmother longed to be one, and succeeded, as best one could in Cairo, Illinois, only to marry an older man at the age of 17, and give birth to my father a few months before the stock market crashed, bringing the frivolity of the decade to an abrupt halt.)
Our abiding affection for the flapper is stoked on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novella, The Great Gatsby, and its many stage and screen adaptations, with their depictions of wild parties featuring guests like Miss Baedecker (“When she’s had five or six cocktails she always starts screaming like that”) and Lucille (“I never care what I do, so I always have a good time.”)
The vintage fashion blog Glamour Daze’s newly colorized footage of a 1929 fashion show in Buffalo, New York, at the top of this post, presents a vastly more sedate image than Fitzgerald, or Ethel Hays, whose single-panel daily cartoon Flapper Fanny was wildly popular with both young women and men of the time.
The scene it presents seems more wholesome than one might have found in New York City, with what Fitzgerald dubbed its “wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world”. The models seem more eager amateurs than runway professionals, though lined up jauntily on a wall, all exhibit “nice stems.”
My young grandmother would have gone ga ga for the cloche hats, tea dresses, bathing suits, lounging pajamas, golf and tennis ensembles, and evening gowns, though the Deep Exemplar-based Video Colorization process seems to have stained some models’ skin and teeth by mistake.
Added sound brings the period to life with nary a mention of the Charleston or gin, though if you want a feel for 20s fashion, check out the collection’s non-silent Movietone clip devoted to the latest in 1929 swimwear – this is a modernistic beach ensemble of rayon jersey with diagonal stripes and a sun back cut…
It’s the cat’s pajamas. As is this playlist of hits from 1929.
Explore Glamour Daze’s guide to 1920s fashion history here.
Watch the original black and white footage of the Buffalo, New York fashion show here.
Admittedly jewelry is not one of our areas of expertise, but when we hear that a bracelet costs €10,000, we kind of expect it to have a smattering of diamonds.
Designers Lyske Gais and Lia Duinker are getting that amount for a wristlet comprised chiefly of five large paper sheets printed with high res images downloaded free from the Rijksmuseum‘s extensive digital archive of Rembrandt drawings and etchings.
Your average pawnbroker would probably consider its 18-karat gold clasp, or possibly the custom-made wooden box in which it can be stored when not in use the most precious thing about this ornament.
An ardent bibliophile or art lover is perhaps better equipped to see the book bracelet’s value.
Each gilt edged page – 1400 in all – features an image of a hand, sourced from 303 downloaded Rembrandt works.
An illustration on the designers’ Duinker and Dochters website details the painstaking process whereby the bookbracelet takes shape in 8-page sections, or signatures, cross stitched tightly alongside each other on a paper band. Put it on, and you can flip through Rembrandt hands, Rolodex-style. When you want to do the dishes or take a shower, just pack it flat into that custom box.
But what about that special art loving bibliophile who already has everything, including a Rembrandts Hands and a Lions Paw boekarmband?
Maybe you could get them Collier van hondjes, Gais and Duinker’s follow up to the book bracelet, a rubber choker with an attached 112-page book pendant showcasing Rembrandt dogs sourced from various museum’s digital collections.
What does it take to wear an ancient Roman toga with dignity and grace?
Judging from the above demonstration by Dr Mary Harlow, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Leicester, a couple of helpers, who, in the first century CE, would have invariably been enslaved, and thus ineligible for togas of their own.
The iconic outer garments, traditionally made of wool, begin as single, 12-16m lengths of fabric.
Extra hands were needed to keep the cloth from dragging on the dirty floor while the wearer was being wrapped, to secure the garment with additional pleats and tucks, and to create the pouch-like umbo at chest level, in a manner as aesthetically pleasing as every other fold and drape was expected to be.
As formal citizen’s garb, the toga was suitable for virtually every public occasion, as well as an audience with the emperor.
In addition to slaves, the toga was off-limits to foreigners, freedmen, and, with the notable exception of adulteresses and prostitutes, women.
Wealthier individuals flaunted their status by accenting their outfit with stripes of Tyrian Purple.
The BBC reports that dying even a single small swatch of fabric this shade “took tens of thousands of desiccated hypobranchial glands wrenched from the calcified coils of spiny murex sea snails” and that thus dyed, the fibers “retained the stench of the invertebrate’s marine excretions.”
Achieving that Tyrian Purple hue was “a very smelly process,” Dr. Harlow confirms, “but if you could retain a little bit of that fishy smell in your final garment, it would show your colleagues that you could afford the best.”
The students also share how toga-clad Romans dealt with stairs, and introduce viewers to 5 forms of toga:
Toga Virilis – the toga of manhood
Toga Praetexta – the pre-toga of manhood toga
Toga Pulla – a dark mourning toga
Toga Candida– a chalk whitened toga sported by those running for office
Toga Picta– to be worn by generals, praetors celebrating games and consuls. The emperor’s toga picta was dyed purple. Uh-oh.
Their youthful enthusiasm for antiquity is rousing, though Quintilian, the first century CE educator and expert in rhetoric might have had some thoughts on their clownish antics.
He certainly had a lot of thoughts about togas, which he shared in his instructive masterwork, Institutio Oratoria:
The toga itself should, in my opinion, be round, and cut to fit, otherwise there are a number of ways in which it may be unshapely. Its front edge should by preference reach to the middle of the shin, while the back should be higher in proportion as the girdle is higher
behind than in front. The fold is most becoming, if it fall to a point a little above the lower edge of the tunic, and should certainly never fall below it. The other fold which passes obliquely like a belt under the right shoulder and over the left, should neither be too tight nor too loose. The portion of the toga which is last to be arranged should fall rather low, since it will sit better thus and be kept in its place. A portion of the tunic also should be drawn back in order that it may not fall over the arm when we are pleading, and the fold should be thrown over the shoulder, while it will not be unbecoming if the edge be turned back. On the other hand, we should not cover the shoulder and the whole of the throat, otherwise our dress will be unduly narrowed and will lose the impressive effect produced by breadth at the chest. The left arm should only be raised so far as to form a right angle at the elbow, while the edge of the toga should fall in equal lengths on either side.
Quintillian was willing to let some of his high standards slide if the wearer’s toga had been untidied by the heat of rousing oration:
When, however, our speech draws near its close, more especially if fortune shows herself kind, practically everything is becoming; we may stream with sweat, show signs of fatigue, and let our dress fall in careless disorder and the toga slip loose from us on every side…On the other hand, if the toga falls down at the beginning of our speech, or when we have only proceeded but a little way, the failure to replace it is a sign of indifference, or sloth, or sheer ignorance of the way in which clothes should be worn.
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