Fashion And Society: A Historical Perspective – IELTS Academic Reading Passage

In all societies the body is ‘dressed’, and everywhere dress and adornment play symbolic and aesthetic roles. The colour of clothing often has special meaning: a white wedding dress symbolising purity; or black clothing indicating remembrance for a dead relative. Uniforms symbolise association with a particular profession. For many centuries purple, the colour representing royalty, was to be worn by no one else. And of course, dress has always been used to emphasise the wearer’s beauty, although beauty has taken many different forms in different societies. In the 16th century in Europe, for example, Flemish painters celebrated women with bony shoulders, protruding stomachs and long faces, while women shaved or plucked their hairlines to obtain the fashionable egg-domed forehead. These traits are considered ugly by today’s fashion.

The earliest forms of ‘clothing’ seem to have been adornments such as body painting, ornaments, scarifications (scarring), tattooing, masks and often constricting neck and waist bands. Many of these deformed, reformed or otherwise modified the body. The bodies of men and of children, not just those of women, were altered: there seems to be a widespread human desire to transcend the body’s limitations, to make it what it is, by nature, not.

Dress in general seems then to fulfil a number of social functions. This is true of modern as of ancient dress. What is added to dress as we ourselves know it in the west is fashion, of which the key feature is rapid and continual changing of styles. The growth of the European city in the 14th century saw the birth of fashion. Previously, loose robes had been worn by both sexes, and styles were simple and unchanging. Dress distinguished rich from poor, rulers from ruled, only in that working people wore more wool and no silk, rougher materials and less ornamentation than their masters.

However, by the 14th century, with the expansion in trade, the growth of city life, and the increasing sophistication of the royal and aristocratic courts, rapidly changing styles appeared in western Europe. These were associated with developments in tailored and fitted clothing; once clothing became fitted, it was possible to change the styling of garments almost endlessly. By the 15th and 16th centuries it began to seem shameful to wear outdated clothing. So those who could afford to do so began discarding unfashionable clothing simply because it was not in style. Cloth, which was enormously expensive, was literally, and symbolised, wealth in medieval society.

In modern western societies there is no form of clothing which has not felt the impact of fashion: fashion sets the terms of all dress behaviour. Even uniforms have been designed by some of the top fashion houses; even the dress code in the workplace has shifted from formal, business attire to the more relaxed, smart casual look; even the less affluent enjoy haute couture – they wear cheaper versions of the top designs and top labels.

Even the unfashionable wear clothes that represent a reaction against what is in fashion. To be unfashionable is not to ignore fashion; it is rather to protest against the social values of the fashionable. Last century the hippies of the 1960s created a unique appearance out of an assortment of second hand clothes, craft work and army surplus, as a protest against the wastefulness of the consumer society. They rejected the way mass production ignored individuality, and also the wastefulness of luxury.

Looked at in historical perspective, the styles of fashion display a mad relativism. At one time the rich wear cloth of gold embroidered with pearls, at another beige cashmere and grey suiting. In one epoch men parade in elaborately curled hair, high heels and rouge, at another to do so is to court outcast status and physical abuse. It is in some sense inherently ironic that a new fashion starts from rejection of the old and often an eager embracing of what was previously considered ugly. A case in point is the outlandish, fashion statement made by the non-conforming, rebellious youth of today who have tattoos, metal studs and body piercings. They defied mainstream fashion only to see their defiance become the fashion of the day in the broader community. Moreover, having once defined style in centuries past, these adornments have now come full circle.

Despite its apparent irrationality, fashion cements social solidarity and imposes group norms. It forces us to recognise that the human body is not only a biological entity, but an organism in culture. To dress the way that others do is to signal that we share many of their morals and values. Conversely, deviations in dress are usually considered shocking and disturbing. In western countries a man wearing a pink suit to a job interview would not be considered for a position at a bank. He would not be taken seriously. Likewise, even in these ‘liberated’ times, a man in a skirt in many western cultures causes considerable anxiety, hostility or laughter.

However, while fashion in every age is normative, there is still room for clothing to express individual taste. In any period, within the range of stylish clothing, there is some choice of colour, fabric and style. This was even more true last century, because in the 20th century, fashion, without losing its obsession with the new and the different, was mass produced. Originally, fashion was largely for the rich, but since the industrial period the mass production of fashionably styled clothes has made possible the use of fashion as a means of self-enhancement and self-expression for the majority.

Questions 14-19
Complete the table below. Use NO MORE THAN THREE WORDS AND/OR A NUMBER from the passage for each answer.

PeriodClothing behaviorTypes of clothing
Earliest timeswearing (14)…………………body painting, tattooing, masks
Pre- (15)………………simple, unchanging styles(16)……………….
14th century(17)…………………….(18)…………………
15th-16th century(19)……………………use of cloth

Questions 20-23
Complete each sentence with the appropriate ending, A-J, below.

20. The styling of apparel
21. Wearing outdated clothing
22. The impact of fashion
23. Mass production of fashionable clothing

A allowed the less affluent to buy styled clothes.
B was fell by top designers seeing fake, less expensive designer clothing on the market.
C was made possible with the development of tailored and fitted clothing.
D gave the individual a means of self-expression.
E caused anxiety and hostility in western cultures.
F was made possible with the increase in sophistication of the royal courts.
G was seen as something shameful in earlier times.
H had little effect on nonconforming youth.
I distinguished the rich from the poor in earlier times.
J was felt in the workforce with the change to informal wear.

Questions 24-26
Answer the questions below. Choose NO MORE THAN ONE WORDS from the passage for each answer. Write your answers in boxes 24-26 on your answer sheet.

24. A kind of adornment worn by defiant young people these days besides body piercings and metal studs
25. What was a symbol of wealth in medieval times?
26. Name ONE group of people who protested against the social values of the fashionable.