ghana clothes

Anthropology: Cultural Significance of Clothing From Prehistory to Present Day

Clothing is a daily necessity and a need for human beings. It is impossible to imagine going out wearing no clothes. Today, nearly every community on the planet don some sort of clothing with the priority of keeping themselves covered and, secondly, to look picture-ready and fashionable.

When we think of fashion, we usually think about luxury brands, fashion shows in big cities, models, and social media influencers wearing trendy clothes. This understanding however is limited to a certain percentage of the population. We often tend to overlook the fact that fashion in fact, also refers to the clothes that the general population wears at a given point and the general population wears what is acceptable or normalized in their society.

fashion show
Models at a fashion show. Photo by Raden Prasetya on Unsplash

Since it is the people within that society who determine that, it is the culture followed by those people that would explain why a certain social norm is followed. That is because it is the culture that explains the differences between the way people in different parts of the world behave and perceive things.

Therefore, the clothes that we wear on a daily basis and, on special occasions, unintentionally provide a lot of information about the person donning them. This is why fashion is often used as a form of expression, to communicate one’s identity, interests, likes, dislikes and even mood.

Culture is constantly evolving, and with it, fashion is also evolving, often for similar reasons, namely economic, social, political, and environmental changes.

This post talks about the importance of clothing and the types of information it gives us and expands on the evolution of clothing from the time of our pre-human ancestors to the present day.

Significance of Clothing

We, humans, wear clothes for multiple reasons, but the main function of these fabrics is protection. Protection against harsh temperatures and climatic conditions. Protection against pollutants and toxic substances in the atmosphere and our surroundings. Protection against insects and harmful creatures, the more covered we keep ourselves, the less contact they would have with our skin. Finally, clothes also protect us against injury by reducing the impact of the injury upon contact with wild environments and rough surfaces.

protective gear
Construction worker wearing protective gear for protection against injuries. Photo by Jeriden Villegas on Unsplash

Apart from protection, we also wear clothes to maintain a certain social image based on our status and wealth. We dress to attend a certain event or go to a certain place. We dress for religious and cultural reasons and to be modest. And we dress to empower ourselves, to feel a certain way, to express ourselves and our identity. As such, the way we dress can indicate many things about the person.

What do clothes indicate?

Cultural Background

As mentioned earlier, clothing communicates the identity of a person. The identity of a person refers to their personality, beliefs, their way of living, health, appearance, nationality, and ethnic background, among other things. Basically, the culture that a person belongs to plays a huge role in recognizing one’s identity. As clothing is so closely related to culture, it communicates this identity to other people.

Traditional clothes, meaning clothes that are uniquely related to one’s culture, tell other people about the wearer’s origins, the resources; in terms of skills and natural resources, available in their place of origin; their values and philosophies. Making it a tangible object of national and cultural identity.

Wearing these clothes also expresses the extent to which a person is connected to their culture. Research has shown that the more connected people are to it, the more they will wear their traditional clothes.

This would explain why traditional clothes are worn for cultural events and ceremonies. The ceremonies are exclusive to the culture therefore, the attendees will wear clothes directly related to it. And, like mentioned earlier, clothes are the tangible object of national and cultural identity.

This would also explain why diplomats and world leaders wear outfits that are considered formal in their own cultures. More than their natural physical features like hair, skin colour and height, clothes provide the ultimate sense of national identity.

diplomat wearing ethnic clothes
The representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations wearing ethnic clothes at a diplomatic event. Image Credit: Afghanistan UN

For many, wearing traditional clothes is a way to stay in touch with their cultural heritage, express love for their ancestors and family members because of the value attached to the articles of clothing and what it represents.

Religion, which is another element of culture, is also expressed through clothing. Willingly wearing an article of clothing for religious reasons demonstrates piety and faithfulness. What differentiates general clothes from religious clothes, however, are the taboos and ritualistic rules and restrictions associated with them for producing or handling clothes.  For example, in some cases, either one of the genders is restricted from touching a loom. Or menstruating women aren’t allowed to touch the loom and, in others, they are required to maintain their chastity before weaving the fabric.

religious clothes
The Indian bridal attire is a type of religious garment. Photo by Alok Verma on Unsplash

The Social Context

The type of clothing worn indicates where the person is going and the nature of the relationship the person has at their destination.

There is no standardized way to determine this because even if the designs of clothing around the world have similar features, they could have different connotations and meanings in different parts of the world. For example, in South Korea, jeans are seen as a symbol of youth and signifies one’s participation in youth culture. Whereas, in the United States of America, it is seen as a symbol of American culture.

Photo by Mnz on Unsplash Unsplash

However, it can be deduced from the clothing, because generally, people dress according to the occasion and according to how they want others to perceive them. It has all got to do with the human characteristic of needing to feel accepted, the need to fit in and the need to maintain a respectable image in front of others.

The Climate and Resources

Clothes would evidently show the climatic conditions of the place the garment was purchased or made. The materials and the weaving technique would indicate the temperature. For example, heavier materials such as wool or fur would obviously mean that a place experiences cold temperature whereas, thin and lighter materials such as cotton would stipulate warmer climates. The type of material and method of production would also show what kind of natural resources are available in the place and the mastery of craftsmanship of the local producers.

kashmiri kaftan
A woolen Kashmiri style kaftan. Image Credit: Pinterest


Social Status

The type of clothing and the quality and artwork on the garments can determine the social status of a person. Typically, wealthier people would be more capable of accessing clothes made of the best materials, while on the other hand, those with a lower income would have to resort to cheaper and poorer quality clothes to keep them warm and covered. Therefore, making it a symbol of status, wealth, and authority.

Iconic Barocco print of Versace, a luxury fashion company. Image Credit: Pinterest


Garments are specially designed for the different genders as social expectations govern how each gender should be dressed. On one hand, this differentiates the different genders and gives them their own identity, but on the other hand, these expectations generalize and in fact, form stereotypes for every gender and wearing something out of the ordinary often attract unsolicited comments, judgements and opinions from others, hindering confidence and self-esteem.

The comments often question the character of a person. In most cultures, women are expected to dress modestly to be perceived as ‘good people’, where ‘good’ refers to someone obedient and respectable. The expectations are seemingly more lenient for men but, frankly, there isn’t sufficient data concerning the social expectations for men regarding their attire.

Now that we know why clothes are important, let’s find out how they became important.

History and Evolution of Clothing



From 2.4 million years ago until 11,500 years ago, the Earth experienced different stages of the ice age where the temperatures would increase and decrease drastically around the world. The changes in these climatic conditions compelled the pre-human primates living in the Palaeolithic age to use their big brains and innovate something to keep them warm and cool when required.

The first evidence of this invention was by the Homo neanderthalensis, more commonly known as the Neanderthals. Between 200,000 BC to 30,000 BC, as the Earth’s temperatures are still fluctuating, certain parts such as northern Europe and some regions in Asia would experience extremely cold temperatures. These were the places where the Neanderthal populations were believed to have been concentrated. The pre-humans would begin making tools made of stone and would hunt and gather for food. It is believed that over time, they realized that the skins of the animals they hunted could keep them warm. Hence, they began using them as bedding and to cover themselves.

The model of a Neanderthal donning clothes made of animal fur and skin. Image Credit:

These ‘clothes’ were not limited to the skin. Bones, fur and even leaves would be used as articles of clothing in this era.

Limited anthropological and historical evidence show that the very first type of clothing was a tunic-like garment where two pieces of animals skin were sewn using bone, with a gap in the middle to place the head while the stitched part rested on the shoulder blades. The sides would be left open for the arms but it was secured at the waist with a belt, also made of skin. This is what eventually evolved into a shirt

There is very limited evidence from this era as the organic matter that clothes were made decayed over time. Suggesting that clothing probably existed even before the indicated years.


Over time, their tools have advanced to have more precise purposes. They were sharper than their ancestors had made.

This was also when the evolved humans,  or the Homo sapiens, developed the concept of layered clothing as it kept them warmer as they migrated to colder places.

It is also from this time period that archaeological evidence exists of the use of flax fibres, from approximately 34000 years ago.

As the humans started settling down and cultivating crops, they discovered that the plant fibres could be used for clothing. Flax would be used to produce linen.

Linen made from flax fibres. Image Credit: Textile School

The crop has been known to be grown since 8000 BC in modern-day Turkey. Animal clothing came much later in the civilizations as sheep wasn’t domesticated until 5000 BC.

The art of knitting dates back to 6500 BC and techniques similar to the ones since its creation are still used today. The origins of this human technology are unknown.

Photo by Ursula Castillo on Unsplash


2300 years ago, weaving was discovered based on humans’ prior knowledge of weaving baskets for storage. They’d prefer using plant-based fibres to weave rather than using animals’ skins.

Neolithic period discovered weaving based on their prior knowledge of making baskets. They preferred those over the animal skins.

In 5500 BC materials other than linen such as bark and hemp were discovered in Japan.

Around  5000 to 4000 BC, the Egyptians have developed cotton and begun using it as a material for clothing.

Silk was discovered in China between 5000 to 3000 BC, from the cocoon of the silkworms. The art of sericulture developed and soon the Chinese traded this rare fabric to the rest of the world via the ancient silk route. At the time they were the sole producers of the fabric, maintaining a monopoly. This was because the then Emperor had strict rules in places that forbade and punished those who smuggled silkworms out of China.

Silkworms and their cocoon. Image Credit: Azer News

Evidence from clay tablets suggests that in 4000 BC wool was used as a clothing material by the Egyptians, and historians speculate that handlooms were also created at the same time.

Finally, 3500 BC the use of cotton was recorded in the Indian subcontinent, more specifically in modern-day Pakistan.

Over time, craftsmen and weavers in these ancient civilizations would produce clothes depending on their climatic requirements, religion and popular trends in their respective regions.

Ancient History

Between 1000 BC and 1 AD, the ancient Greek and Roman men would wear long pieces of fabric that were neither cut nor stitched and, they’d wrap it around their bodies. It would be attached with decorative pins at the shoulder and be tightened at the waist with sashes made of fabric. These were called a chiton.

A Greek chiton. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Women wore robes called peplos that were secured with a belt at the waist and the top half of the cloth would be folded over the belt.

These clothes would be made of either linen or wool.

A Greek Peplos. Image Credit: Britannica

An ankle-length belted Himation was worn over the peplos or chiton as a cloak and it was made of heavier fabric.

Himation. Image Credit: FITNYC

In Rome, the free men would drape togas over their chiton. While the women wore the woollen Stola, a piece of clothing worn over a tunic. It was similar to the Greek himation and the toga as the cloth would be secured at the shoulder.

toga and stola
Illustrations depicting the toga and the stola. Image Credit: Head Covering Movement

In north-western Europe between 1200 to 500 BC, women wore woollen robes or skirts secured at their waist with belts made of leather and metallic pins. While the men wore trousers called breeches, with leg warmers. They would also wear shawls made of animal pelts.

Breeches. Image Credit: Pinterest

In 300 BC the art of Chinese sericulture reached Japan after the Japanese managed to smuggle Chinese silkworms and 4 Chinese girls to teach them the technique.

During this time, the Egyptians were wearing clothes made of linen as sufficient flax was cultivated in their lands. The material was durable and tough yet flexible and breathable making it the fabric of choice in their warm climate.

Medieval Period

Clothing during the middle ages especially in the Roman empire would be distinguished between them and their intruders. Their intruders wore shorter tunics, belts and trousers or leggings.

In the  6th century, the Byzantine emperor had sent a few monks to Central Asia. On their way back, they had smuggled a couple of silkworm eggs. Since then silk had begun production in Europe however, initially, the fabric was only produced by the monks exclusively for the Emperor.

silk art
Byzantine Silk. Image Credit: Pinterest

During the Crusades, the art of sericulture had propagated across western Europe satisfying the demands of the rich and powerful for luxurious and rare fabrics. By the 14th century, Italy was producing and exporting silk all over Europe. That is also when fashion as we know it, began in Europe.

With skills such as dyeing, embroidery and weaving mastered, productivity and supply of the clothes improved. This resulted in a rapid change in fashion across the continent and soon the long-draped cloth transformed into the cut, stitched and fitted clothing with lacing and buttons.

Seeing the increase in fashion consumption, laws were put in place by the governing authorities to control person expenditure to stop them from over-indulging in their desires. They did this by placing laws that would limit the donning of certain clothing for certain members of society based on their religion, gender or social status.

Pre-Modern Era

Other European nations such as France joined in the Italian silk production initiatives and the silk trade in Europe flourished between the 15th and 17th century.

In the 17th century, the 3-piece suit was created for men. The attire comprised of a coat, a waistcoat and breeches all made of the same material.

17th century suit
17th-century style 3 piece suit. Image Credit: V&A

Wool was the preferred fabric at that point. However, lighter materials such as linen and hemp were also used.

Advancements were made in production techniques and advanced production and were made available to the wealthy before anyone else. Their clothes would be made of rare fabrics and contain intricate embroidery work and sophisticated patterns. The middle class and lower-income strata would follow their fashion and would try to imitate them. However, their clothes were made of inferior quality materials and designed using block prints.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution that began in the 1760s, mechanized the production methods of fabrics and textiles. This allowed the manufacturers to produce a variety of quality textiles in large volumes and in less time at a lower cost. That meant superior quality garments would now be affordable to everyone and production was no longer limited to specialized artisans.

Machines in factories during the industrial revolution. Image Credit: Schools History

Moreover, the invention of new materials in the early 20th century further reduced the prices of clothes. Synthetic materials such as rayon and nylon were cheaper alternatives to silk and, they were able to be combined with natural materials as well. This further revolutionized fashion and everyday clothing.

All of these factors lead to the mass production of products, advancements in technology and eventually, globalization.

The World Wars

During the wars, men went out to fight on the battlefield while women took the initiative to stabilize the economy. After centuries of being homemakers, they were finally getting the chance to contribute something to society, with most of them being employed in factories. Their fashion changed into wearing blouses, women’s trousers or overalls, scarves and shorter skirts.

wartime fashion
Women’s wartime fashion. Image Credit: Pinterest

These types of outfits were definitely more functional than long skirts, dresses and corsets.

Their working conditions in the factories were, however, terrible and at the time they’d even cause dangerous accidents. Such as, their long hairs getting stuck in the machines. As such, they began wearing headscarves to avoid these preventable injuries.


Over time the nature of fashion changed, and many new inventions were made in this sector. For example, the bikini was invented in the 50s, pantsuits and bell-bottoms in the 70s. Most of the western style outfits available these days have been derived from military uniforms from the time of the war, such as jackets, jeans, etc. which prove to be functional, easy to carry and do not directly have any religious connotations to them.

field jackets
Military-inspired field jackets. Image Credit: Pinterest


Ethical Issues

With these changes also came changes in the way they’re made. With globalization, the advancement of technologies in every domain on the planet, and the collaboration and dependency of global economies, cultures and people across borders where the world has access to information from anywhere in the world and is able to communicate with the world at the tip of their fingers, fashion is rapidly changing because of it and the change can be sustained, also because of globalization. Giant corporations usually based in developed countries began outsourcing to get them manufactured in developing countries where they are made at a lower cost deeming profitable to the company and generating employment opportunities in those countries.

However, the problem that comes to question is the working conditions, unrealistic schedules, and the low wages that the workers in those countries are provided with.

factory workers
A garment factory in Bangladesh. Image Credit: The Guardian

Thus, violating their human rights. Unfortunately, laws regarding these matters are lenient. Therefore, these exploitative practices continue to occur. However, fortunately, more people are being made conscious of the matter and many are opting to purchase clothing that is ethically sourced.

Plus, international organizations such as the World Fair Trade Organizations and other local and international NGOs are working to fight against those who still engage in these practices.

Declining Role of Traditional Clothes

In today’s world, western-style clothes are given more attention and are appropriated by people all around the world. So much so that people now prefer wearing these clothes over their traditional apparel.

First of all, western clothing is extremely hyped up in the media. It is everywhere! In entertainment, social media, news, advertisements, etc. Therefore, naturally, viewers would believe that it is the only type of socially appropriate clothing available to wear.

However, the reality is contrasting in the real world. Different societies have different perceptions of outfits. Nevertheless, it has its advantages too. A  study reveals that western-style dresses are being adopted in countries where the norm is to wear traditional dresses as it is easier to carry, more comfortable and more liberating.

Western clothing is often associated with being modern, as it reached places that were home to ancient civilizations much later, either through trade or colonization. Furthermore, western countries are also perceived to be more developed, so for more traditional or ‘eastern cultures’, adopting their customs and dressing sense instils the sentiment of taking a step towards modernization. As such, many people regularly follow the trends in the west and try to appropriate them. More recently, fashion designers have begun fusing western and traditional elements of clothing to create new designs and, to preserve cultural dresses.

COVID-19 Pandemic

Fashion changed along with the spread of coronavirus across the world. The pandemic has athleisure and casual wear as people are staying inside their homes most of the time and, want to feel comfortable as they carry out their daily tasks. Pyjamas, sweatpants, tank tops, shorts are just some of the clothing items that have gained popularity in this time.

work from home
Working from home in casual clothing has become the new norm. Image Credit: The Simple Dollar

On a more serious note, the pandemic did bring losses to many, including the manufacturers of apparel.

As consumers refrain from going out, they no longer have the need to purchase clothes as frequently as they used to. This means that there is a low demand for clothes, meaning the stock available in stores will not be sold. At the same time, manufacturers continue to purchase materials and put in their time and effort in producing garments for which their buyers will pay.

However, as the stores aren’t selling the clothes, the buyer no longer has money to pay for the newly manufactured clothes. As such, they have to cancel new orders and let some of their employees go, resulting in the loss of daily income, loss of livelihood and the inability to cope with the cost of living, thus ultimately resulting in poverty.

Many NGOs and organizations are working towards their welfare and ask for the public to support them by making donations and by requesting companies to act instead of leaving them to suffer.

Significance in Anthropology

This post discussed the importance of clothing and culture, the evolution of clothing from prehistoric times to the present day and it even evoked some of the ongoing issues with clothing and the fashion industry. The scope of this topic is massive. Therefore, this post also opens up the opportunities to discuss cultural fashion in regions across the globe. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on traditional clothing around the world.

Works Cited

Hansen, K. T., 2004. THE WORLD IN DRESS: Anthropological Perspectives on Clothing, Fashion, and Culture. Annual Review Anthropology, 33(1), pp. 369-392.

Muller, K. & Park, M.-R., 2011. A Cross-cultural Design Framework for Apparel Design. Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, 4(6), pp. 57-64.

Schneider, J., 1987. The Anthropology of Cloth. Annual Review Anthropology, 16(1), pp. 409-48.

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