The origin of clothes: from pure function to fashion must-haves

It started off as purely functional – to protect and keep us warm – but it became an object of desire and a symbol of status. Andy Martin on the evolution of clothing

Monday 26 July 2021 00:01
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<p>Expensive taste: our clothes say a lot about us</p>

Expensive taste: our clothes say a lot about us

It only took us 1 million years to work out how to make clothes. That’s the time between when we began to shed our body hair and become naked apes and when we first started to wrap up warm in animal skins. Archaeologically, the evidence is fairly clear. Not, of course, that you are going to find too many remnants of Paleolithic party dresses and fur coats. We have a 3,000 year-old pair of woollen trousers, with woven leg decorations (worn by the nomadic horsemen of Central Asia). The oldest rags we now possess – a few twisted flax threads – date from around 34,000 years ago.

But you can find older evidence of the equipment that was used to produce clothing. Artefacts such as awls and needles, of the kind that would have been needed to sew animal skins into wearable garments, have been discovered dating back around 50,000 years (notably in the Denisova cave in Siberia). Even allowing for a generous margin and for cruder scraping implements, proto-clothing goes back only to the origin of homo sapiens, one or 200,000 years ago (the origin of the body louse, which lives in clothing, may go back as far as 170,000 years ago). So it is clear that for at least a million years our hominid precursors were running around stark naked.

Both the climate (in Africa) and the running (either away from or after an animal) ensured we stayed fairly warm. In fact the concept of nakedness is strictly anachronistic: how could we even know we were naked until we had the option of not being naked? It wasn’t until we invented clothing that we realised that we had been naked before. The “nude” – ie someone devoid of clothing – was born. Finally, around the same time as cave paintings, the very possibility of pornography was established. The Bible has it back to front: the use of fig leaves is what causes us to feel naked when fig-free.

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