I may look like I don’t put a lot of thought into what I wear but that’s only because I don’t put a lot of thought into what I wear. As much as I’d like to say my slovenliness, at least around the house, is the result of a carefully studied sartorial choice, an affectation of looking disaffected, the truth is it’s usually the result of fumbling through drawers in the dark and pulling out whatever shirt is available before I throw on yesterday’s jeans. Although I do sometimes dress up, sort of, preferring a button-down paisley shirt and I at least put on today’s jeans, and sometimes I put on my red shoes and dance the blues.
Something else I never thought much about is the idea that agriculture started because early humans needed food, but prehistorian Ian Gilligan came up with the idea that people might first have started cultivating plants they needed to make clothing. As they migrated toward colder regions, or as temperatures dropped because of changes in the climate, which happened around ice ages, simple animal furs and skins weren’t enough. He distinguishes between two types of clothes:
Simple clothes made from thick furs were probably sufficient when hominins began to occupy northern Europe during colder glacial stages from half a million years ago. Complex clothes are closely fitted around the body and can have cylinders attached to enclose the limbs properly; additionally, they can have up to four or five layers.
One of the problems with studying clothing is that even the sturdiest woven cloth is fragile compared to tools and pottery, and at least as far back as the 18th century, if not farther, clothes were recycled into paper for books, so if you ever find a first edition of Pride And Prejudice you just might be holding some of Mr. Darcy’s underwear, but that’s another story, and also means that clothes have a short shelf life. This makes early fashion hard to study, but archaeologists have found prehistoric sewing needles, and there’s more evidence in lice. Clothing lice would only have evolved with, well, clothes, and genome research traces them back to about a hundred thousand years ago.
It’s an interesting thing to think about even as the world of haute couture is collapsing, at least from the perspective of the sort of people who actually think it’s wrong to wear white after Labor Day. My own feeling, and this is just a thought, is that agriculture for food and clothing might have evolved together. Cultivating any crop, whether it’s cotton or wheat, means a lot of time in the sun and early farmers would have wanted protection from the sun while they were sowing and reaping. But now that I’m thinking about why we wear clothes maybe I’ll put a little more thought into what I wear.