Stay with me, now. I'm going somewhere with this.
Haekel observed pharyngeal arches in the necks of human embryos. He posited that human go through the same developmental stages in the womb as the species did as it evolved. Pharyngeal arches represented our "fish stage" when we had gill slits.
In reality, this is complete bunk. Pharyngeal arches are nothing like gill slits in placement or function. Recapitulation theory was considered "mythical biology" by the early 20th century.
It is a testament to the quality of my Catholic school education that I was forced to memorize this theory as fact in the 1980s. But I digress.
This is not an article on biology, but one on the evolution of clothing.
When I first started studying the history of clothing, it struck me that every culture I studied went through similar stages of development in regard to what they wore. First, people wrapped furs or whole pieces of cloth around themselves to protect themselves from the elements. This clothing encompassed cultures as disparate as India and Scotland.
Then poncho-type clothing came into being where a hole was cut so the cloth could be put on over the head. We see this development in Native America and Japan and everywhere in between where we have extant clothing evidence.
Later, the fur or cloth was sewn to make it easier for the person to move. Simple tunics turn up in dry Egyptian graves and wet Danish bogs. Always the same construction: a tube of cloth with a hole for the head and smaller tubes sewn on for sleeves.
Later still, square gussets and triangular gores are set in to the tube tunic providing more freedom of movement without wasting any cloth. Tubes were also sewn as leg coverings and, later still, square gussets joined them together.
These simple shapes form the basis of early clothing. You can still find elements of these construction techniques in clothing today. As they say, if it ain't broke...
The basis of these ideas can be found in Dorothy Burnham excellent 1973 work Cut My Cote. It's a short work. Really it's not more than a pamphlet.
But it's an easy read that packs in a lot of interesting clothing facts. I recommend it highly.
That's when I had an epiphany.
When I was a child, I used to play with Barbies. The main appeal of these toys was that I could dress them up and make up stories about them. Not having much money, I didn't have a wealth of Barbie clothing to use. But I did have a mother who brought home scrap fabric from her job at the garment factory.
I remember the first piece of "clothing" I made. I had a brilliant green bit of polyester taffeta lining. Green having been my favourite colour even back then, I thought it was the most beautiful bit of cloth in the world. But at age 6, I didn't want to cut it for fear I'd ruin it. And I wasn't allowed to use my mother's sewing machine. So I tied the top corners of the rectangle around my Barbie's neck and she had a wonderful cape. I even named her Tania Green Cape and I told myself many adventures about her.
As my manual dexterity increased, I made new clothes for my Barbies. I learned to wrap cloth and pin it so that it looked attractive. Of course my Barbies didn't have to walk or otherwise move their legs, so even a tight wrap worked and the pins didn't fall out. I thought it made them look like the starlets in the black and white movies on WPIX that I watched every Sunday, so I loved the effect. (Little did I know then that I was building a love for 1930s fashion that would persist to this day.)
Further down my personal timeline, I learned to sew and crochet. Eventually I made a pair of slacks for my Barbie by crocheting the hip bit, reducing my stitches and crocheting one leg, then casting back on at the hip area and crocheting the other leg. I decorated the bottoms with popcorn stitch that made my slacks look just like the bell-bottoms that were so popular when I was 11 years old.
So there I was in the late 1990s, reading Burnham's Cut My Cote and studying extant garments at the National Museum of Ireland, and it occurred to me that my own personal evolution of clothing-making journey mirrored nearly exactly the timeline of clothing development experienced by cultures all over the world.
"Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"?
It's not true for biological evolution. But in the evolution of clothing construction, it just might be.
© 2017 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History. All rights reserved.