When tasked to postulate on the roots of fabric, or the “first fabric,” I imagine some neolithic person noodling around with twigs and grass and raw animal hide in the brush, passing time and feeling clever. This is well and good, and his and her exploration has demonstrative utilitarian functions (shelter, swaddling babies, providing warmth), my answer to this question is an examination of why clothing became a necessity in early civilizations.
Photo: Wet felted raw sheep’s wool
Many fashion designers have discovered, much to their chagrin, that copyrights do not protect their concepts. That is because in U.S. copyright law, clothing falls under the definition of “useful article,” stating that any article of clothing is ostensibly “an object that has an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information.” For example, the concept of Diane Von Furstenburg’s iconic wrap dress is considered “too utilitarian” to be legally protected by U.S. copyright law. Clothing is not a necessity in the sense that a person can go on about their lives without donning a single garment. Anthropologically speaking, despite the frills and trim of fashion, clothing is ontologically human, servicing human needs. For whatever reason, clothing is demonstrably a societal lubricant without which society cannot go on.
How did we arrive here, where a bare breast in public is so taboo, so unacceptable, it illicits $550,000 fines when it occurs at a popular sporting event?
Biblical and Indian folklore share a of shame-based narrative that ties the concealment of genitals with social modesty, making nudity synonymous with sexual engagement, thereby creating a climate where woman’s various stages of undress are implicitly read as consent. Pervasive use of clothing then becomes a kind of pre-emptive maneuver to deaden the sexual desire, but effectively did not–merely creating a new dialectic of eroticism in its stead.
Roland Barthes says it better than me: ““Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no “erogenous zones” (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance. ”
The function of a sexual strictures in society is to codify social mores and organize how time is managed. Taboos are placed to serve the interest of those who control the narrative. Time and time again, that narrative irrationally and unfairly places the burden of culpability on women. Chthonic, or dark earth elements were associated with women, their biological processes, and hidden forces of the unconscious.
Rather than a means of constriction, women have re-appropriated clothing as medium of personal expression and communication of their own competing narratives. To me, style has always been a triumph of woman’s inextinguishable ability to communicate their stories and ingenuity.