During the 15th and 16th centuries, fashionable men sported a codpiece. Originally a garment designed to protect and support the proverbial “Willy” (especially when men wore tights), the codpiece morphed into something else–a sign of virility, “a bulging and absurd representation of masculinity itself.” The codpiece featured prominently in paintings by masters such as Titian, Giorgione, Bruegel and Holbein. Above, Evan Puschak (aka the Nerdwriter) introduces you to Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII, “the poster boy for codpieces.”
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We have, above, a pair of socks. You can tell that much by looking at them, of course, but what’s less obvious at a glance is their age: this pair dates back to 250-420 AD, and were excavated in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century. That information comes from the site of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where you can learn more about not just these Egyptian socks but the distinctive, now-vanished technique used to make socks in Egypt at the time: “nålbindning, sometimes called knotless netting or single needle knitting — a technique closer to sewing than knitting,” which, as we know it, wouldn’t emerge until the eleventh century in Islamic Egypt. The technique still remains in use today.
Time consuming and skill-intensive, nålbindning produced especially close-fitting garments, and “fit is of particular importance in a cold climate but also for protecting feet clothed in sandals only.” And yes, it seems that socks like these were indeed worn with sandals, a function indicated by their split-toe construction.
A few years ago, we featured archaeological research here on Open Culture pointing to the ancient Romans as the first sock-and-sandal wearers in human history. These particular socks were also made in the time of the Roman Empire, though they were unearthed at its far reaches, from “the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile.”
As Smithsonian.com’s Emily Spivack writes, “We don’t know for sure whether these socks were for everyday use, worn with a pair of sandals to do the ancient Egyptian equivalent of running errands or heading to work — or if they were used as ceremonial offerings to the dead (they were found by burial grounds, after all).” But the fact that their appearance is so striking to us today, at least sixteen centuries later, reminds us that we aren’t as familiar as we think with the world that produced them. And if, to our modern eyes, they even look a bit goofy — though less goofy than they would if worn properly, along with a pair of sandals — we should remember the painstaking method with which they must have been crafted, as well as the way they constitute a thread, as it were, through the history of western civilization.
Japan’s 19th-century kimonos blur the lines between art and fashion.
Meiji era customers could browse hinagata-bon, traditionally bound pattern books, on visits to drapers and fabric merchants. These colorful volumes offered a glamorous update of the Edo period’s black-and-white kimono pattern books.
Aspiring designers also studied hinagata-bon, as many of the designs featured within were the work of celebrated artists.
Each page featured a standard kimono outline in a back or side view, embellished with the proposed design. These range from traditional floral motifs to bold landscapes to striking geometric patterns, some arresting, some discreet.
As Hunter Dukes observes in the Public Domain Review, the Meiji era ushered in a period of technological advancement. Representatives of the Japanese textile industry ventured abroad, embracing and adapting dying processes they saw practiced in the United States and Europe. The ability to stencil pastes of chemical dye onto silk helped to industrialize the kimono-making process. People who previously couldn’t have afforded such a garment could now choose from a variety of designs.
The explosion in kimono production spurred demand for fresh designs. Publishers began to release hinagata–bon annually. Previous years’ pattern books were of little interest to sophisticated customers clamoring for the latest fashions.
Unlike today’s disposable fashion mags, however, the pattern books’ high aesthetic and production quality saved them from destruction.
In her 1924 book, Block Printing and Book Illustration in Japan, author Louise Norton Brown wrote that cast-off hinagata-bon could be “found in all the secondhand book shops of Japan … (where they were) comparatively inexpensive.”
In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the name of David Byrne’s band was Talking Heads — as the title of their 1982 live album perpetually reminds us. But their overall artistic project arguably had less to do with the head than the body, a proposition memorably underscored in Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme-directed concert film that came out two years later. “Music is very physical and often the body understands it before the head,” Byrne says in a bizarre contemporary self-interview previously featured here on Open Culture. To make that fact visible onstage, “I wanted my head to appear smaller, and the easiest way to do that was to make my body bigger.”
Hence costume designer Gail Blacker’s creation of what Talking Heads fans have long referred to as the “big suit.” Byrne has always been willing discuss its origins, which he traces back to a trip to Japan. There, as he put it to Entertainment Weekly in 2012, he’d “seen a lot of traditional Japanese theater, and I realized that yes, that kind of front-facing outline, a suit, a businessman’s suit, looked like one of those things, a rectangle with just a head on top.”
A friend of his, the fashion designer Jurgen Lehl, said that “everything is bigger on stage.” “He was referring to, I think, gestures and the way you walk and what not,” Byrne told David Letterman in 1984. But he took it literally, thinking, “Well, that solves my costume problem right there.”
Though Byrne only wore the big suit for one number, “Girlfriend Is Better” (from whose lyrics Stop Making Sense takes its title), it became the acclaimed film’s single most iconic element, referenced even in children’s cartoons. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called it “a perfect psychological fit,” remarking that “when he dances, it isn’t as if he were moving the suit — the suit seems to move him.” The association hasn’t been without its frustrations; he once speculated that his tombstone would be inscribed with the phrase “Here lies David Byrne. Why the big suit?” But now that Stop Making Sense is returning to theaters in a new 4K restoration, nearly 40 years after its first release, he’s accepted that the time has finally come to pick it up from the cleaner’s. Unsurprisingly, it still fits.
Was Robespierre the first modern dictator, icily fanatical, an obsessive who used his political power to try to impose his rigid ideal of a land of Spartan ‘virtue’? Or was he a principled, self-abnegating visionary, the great revolutionary martyr who, with his Jacobin allies, succeeded in leading the French Revolution and the Republic to safety in the face of overwhelming military odds?
Cheng believes an animator’s first job is to understand any given character’s role in the larger story, and her research suggests that “there is never just one story.”
In the end, animators make choices based on the narrative they wish to push, enlisting palettes and styles that will support their favored approach.
Cheng went into this assignment perceiving Robespierre to be “a prime example of situational irony, a fanatical dictator who had sent hundreds of people to the guillotine only to be guillotined himself in the end.”
This, she readily admits, is a two-dimensional understanding.
Though he only lived to thirty-six, the man evolved. Robespierre, the symbol of the Reign of Terror, is distinct from Robespierre the individual citizen.
This duality led her to concoct a range of Robespierres – evil, good, and neutral.
All three animated characters are garbed in the neoclassical fashion typical of a progressive gentleman of the period – shirt, breeches, stockings, waistcoat, coat, a lacy cravat, and a curled wig.
Cheng, in consultation with fellow Cal Arts animator Janelle Feng, equipped the “evil” version with an ominous, figure-concealing black cloak lined in blood red. Angles and points are emphasized, the face draws on his opponents’ sinister descriptions of his habitual expressions, and subtle nods to punk and Goth cater to modern sensibilities.
The “good” version employs rosy Rococo hues to lean into the Robespierre his friends and family knew – a poet who loved his pet pigeons.
History prevents Cheng from ditching his signature wig entirely, but she granted herself some leeway, softening it for a more natural look.
“This is suggested by cut marks on the metatarsal and phalanx of a cave bear discovered at the Lower Paleolithic site of Schöningen in Lower Saxony, Germany,” says the University of Tübingen’s site. The location of such marks indicate that the bear was not simply butchered but carefully skinned.
A cave bear’s winter coat “consists of both long outer hairs that form an airy protective layer and short, dense hairs that provide particularly good insulation” — making it a fine winter coat for a prehistoric human being as well. Such a use of bear skins “is likely a key adaptation of early humans to the climate in the north,” where winters would be difficult indeed without warm clothing.
Though some residents of Bedrock did wear furs (made from the prized pelts of the minkasaurus), they seemed not to be essential to survival in that Stone Age equivalent of California. Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear proved much more realistic about this sort of thing, though its characters live and die between 28,000 and 25,000 BC, the relatively recent past compared to the Lower Paleolithic from which this particular cave bear dates. It was also in Schöningen that “the world’s oldest spears were discovered,” making it a prime location from which to understand more clearly the ways of humans from that distant period. If a foot-powered Stone Age car were one day to be unearthed, it would surely be unearthed there.
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.
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