Men popularized the sexy little skirt. A chronicler around 1350 observed that “men, in particular noblemen and their squires, and a few bourgeois and their servants, took to wearing tunics so short and tight that they revealed what modesty bids us to hide.” Even then haters were hating! This shift to immodest, junk-flattering wear marked a significant moment in history. After this, clothing became a matter of constant change in European society. The rhythms have always been slow. Black gowns or lace collars or short colorful breeches remained in vogue for decades at a time. But even these slow shifts were radical when compared to how little clothing had changed in Europe before then or how stable traditional clothes remained outside of Europe. In these contexts, the garments people wore varied very little. Centuries went by without any fundamental alterations to clothing. And still centuries after men started strutting their stuff in revealing skirts, most of the peasantry in Europe continued to wear what they always had. Only aristocrats and the rising bourgeoisie took to wearing new and unusual garments.
These sartorial transformations illustrate something at the core of European society: It was far more willing to turn away from its traditions than other societies and this explains Europe’s later embrace of modernity and the radical transformations that it entailed. We could see the beginning of Europe’s evolving sense of fashion as an indicator of its dynamism or we could also see it as a prelude to the ravenous consumerism that would later define capitalist society. And these two observations are of course related and complementary.
While fashion did indeed change in Europe and that change reflects something about European culture, fashion does not change radically that often. For example, instead of booty skirts, robes, dresses, smocks, frocks, pantaloons, or tunics—garments historically worn by men—men have preferred either trousers or short pants almost exclusively for the last 100 years or so. In fact, when I see men in pedal pushers I feel an involuntary revulsion that speaks volumes about the norms regarding appropriate clothing that society has instilled in me.
We can say then that fashion may be slow to change but style in the modern era is not. Skirts, pants, and shirts may stay more or less the same but patterns, cuts, colors, and materials change season to season, year to year. The dynamism of capitalist society that was revealed in Europe’s move away from traditional clothing in the fourteenth century has been powerfully felt in the last two centuries as the consumerist impulse that the fashion industry creates and satisfies through novelty. Style is the visual language through which subtle changes in clothing are meant to signify truths about who we are and what we believe. And just as we imagine ourselves as ever-changing so too do we want our style to reflect those internal shifts.
A few short years ago, Taylor Swift sang to her imaginary love interest “She wears short skirts/I wear T-shirts” to demonstrate how down to earth she was. Here, Swift presents herself as everywoman, the salt of the earth that gets ignored by the fashionable and the flashy. These days she sings to another imaginary lover “You got that long hair, slicked back, and white T-shirt/and I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.” How things have changed! In this song, she is no longer the ignored, unwashed masses. Instead, she has become a kind of timeless signifier of fashion. So much so that she associates her love with the image on an unchanging style: “Cause we never go out of style/We never go out of style.” But style is exactly that part of fashion that changes often. We recognize it because things go in and out of style. While it is hard to imagine that short skirts will once again become something that fashionable men wear, it is best for all of us to not place too much stock in the permanence of style.