Today's fashions aren't as binding as those of the past

CREATURE COMFORTS

December 27, 1990|By Natalie Weinstein | Natalie Weinstein,Chicago Tribune

Prior to the 20th century, comfort was not an important element in the design of most clothing. Instead, people saw restriction of movement as a symbol of wealth and status. If they didn't have to work or move around a great deal, men and women felt little need for clothing that allowed it. Happily, the 20th century has seen a revolution in the ways people dress. Unlike in past periods, today's fashion experts are likely to criticize clothing that restricts movement or causes discomfort.

THE BEST INNOVATIONS

1. Levi's. Distinctly American garb, blue jeans were created in the 1850s by Levi Strauss, an immigrant panning for gold in California. Last year, San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. reported worldwide sales of $3.6 billion, demonstrating that while there may be little gold left in the mountains and streams of the Old West, there's plenty in denim.

2. Pants for women. Although not widely accepted in the United States until the late 1960s and early '70s, an earlier version of pants was introduced to America in the 1850s. In an attempt to design women's clothing that was less complicated and easier to move around in, social reformer Amelia Jenks Bloomer of Seneca Falls, N.Y., popularized long, loose pantaloons gathered at the ankles.

3. T-shirts. Until the late 1950s and early '60s, T-shirts were considered men's underwear. Their introduction into mainstream American life is due to the influence of the youth culture, as well as to the 20th century trend of underwear becoming outerwear.

4. The trench coat. First worn by British soldiers on the battlefields of World War I, this highly functional coat is now considered a classic for both sexes.

5. The chemise. This simple, straight, one-piece dress with an unfitted waistline offers women ease of movement as well as style. First seen in ancient Greece and Rome, the chemise has gone in and out of fashion for a thousand years.

6. Conveniences. Once, we wrapped ourselves in animal skins. Today, our wardrobes are more varied, thanks to such helpful little things as the buttonhole, which originated in Europe in the 13th century; pockets, introduced in the Middles Ages; the zipper, invented by American Whitcomb L. Judson in 1893; and Velcro, the nylon adhesive material developed by French engineer George de Mestral in the late 1940s.

7. Synthetic fibers. These new fabrics, developed in research laboratories, made clothing easy to care for. Rayon was invented in the 1890s. Nylon, Orlon and Dacron followed early in the 20th century. And then, of course, in the 1960s and '70s came polyester, guaranteeing that at least some men's suits would survive, wrinkle-free, any nuclear attack on the United States.

8. Anything Chanel. Because of the simple, classic, unrestrictive clothing she created, 20th century French designer Coco Chanel is considered the dominant influence on how women dress today.

9. Gym shoes. Since World War II, they've jumped from purely functional athletic gear to exceptionally comfortable fashion statements.

10. The sweater. Worn only by fishermen until the late 19th century, this article of clothing is now a staple in the wardrobes of men and women of most classes throughout the world.

THE WORST INNOVATIONS

1. Foot-binding. A practice followed in China from the 10th century until the revolution that brought an end to the Manchu Dynasty in 1911. The feet of young girls were tightly wrapped with long strips of cloth to prevent them from growing to their normal size. The deformed feet that resulted effectively crippled many women.

2. Hennin headdress. Worn by European women in the late 14th and 15th centuries, this conical spire could rise to 2 or 3 feet. To enhance the effect of this fashion innovation, women plucked their hairlines back to the rims of the headgear. The awkward and uncomfortable hennin, reminiscent of the dunce cap of later years, was worn without straps and kept on the head with a tight cloth inside the cone.

3. Chastity belts. Made of metal and kept in place with locks, these devices were probably first used in the later Middle Ages. Although it's a myth that European Crusaders employed them in the 12th and 13th centuries to ensure their wives' faithfulness while they were away, chastity belts did symbolize at the time the widespread view of wives as property.

4. High heels.

5. Farthingales. These frameworks for extending women's skirts, popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, were followed by panniers in the 1700s and crinolines and hoop skirts in the 1800s. These stiff, usually bell-shaped underskirts, stretched over iron, wood or bone, vastly exaggerated women's hips and made movement slow and difficult.

6. Bustles. A late 19th century women's fashion made of whalebone or wire that exaggerated the sizes of women's buttocks.

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