Dress Design: An Account of Costume for Artists and Dressmakers



The woman's attire would have been chiefly a shortish skirt or wrap of coarse linen, wool, or leather, gathered in front or folded at one hip; grass cloth may also have been in use in most primitive tribes. Probably the upper part of the body was kept bare, except for many ornaments and necklaces, but a bodice or jacket cut in the same simple form as the male shirt, with a heavy belt or girdle, would have been used, and certainly a large shawl, which could be wrapped over the head and round the figure during inclement hours. Dyed or painted patterns on the cloths might well have been also in use, their chief designs being stripes, circles or dots, zigzag lines, diamonds and plaid squares, rope patterns and plaited patterns. The hair would have been loose, plaited, or coiled on top, held by bone pins or circlets of bronze.


We have little description or illustration to certify the actual dress of the early inhabitants of Britain, but we can draw conclusions with pretty certain assurance, from the knowledge of their mode of living. From their attainments in artistic design and handiwork, it is clear they had arrived at a very high state of savage culture before the Roman invasion; and we have only to study the better types of savage life still in progress, to picture how our own primitive race would be likely to dress under the conditions of climate. The thousands of "finds," which accumulate evidence every year, give us a closer acquaintance with their customs and work. The rest we must imagine from our general knowledge of what they had to contend with in climate, forest, cave, and floods.

These early people, it is presumed from certain discoveries, had long known the art of coarsely weaving flax and wool, which must soon have been in general use, from its being healthier and cleaner than the garments of skin. And very probably a coarse linen, with simple dyes of red, blue, yellow, and brown, was in use here when the Romans came.

The head-dress consisted of a cap of fur or wool, probably decorated with a feather, over loose and most likely very unkempt hair falling to the shoulders. The Gauls cut their locks from the back of the head, often tying up the remainder in a tuft on the top; no doubt the hair was sometimes plaited or pinned up with wood, bone, or bronze ornaments. Bone pins, teeth, and boar tusks were carried in the ears, as well as studs of bone or stone in the underlip, and even the cheek may have been so decorated, as it was amongst the Esquimaux. The face and body were painted with red and white ochre and a blue stain. The neck was adorned with strings of teeth, stones, amber, jet, bronze, and probably beads of glass or baked clay coloured. Amulets and tokens, armlets and bracelets were all in use. Also the torque, a twisted rod of gold flattened or curled together at the ends, was a mark of dignity. A wristlet of wood, bone, or leather was worn when the bow and arrows were used. The arms were a spear of flint or bronze and a dagger of the same, a hatchet or heavy club, a mace studded with flint or bronze spikes, and the sling, which would have necessitated a leather wallet to carry the stones; fish spears and snags. Also the bolas for felling cattle seems to have been known; in fact nearly all the usual implements appertaining to savage life were in use.

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Plate II.

  • (a) Elizabethan Robe in Plush. 1585-1605.
  • (b) Elizabethan Robe in Silk Brocade. 1565-85.
  • (c) Elizabethan Male Robe in Velvet Brocade. 1580-1615.
  • (d) Back-piece of Elizabethan Doublet in Embroidered Linen. 1580-1605.
  • Measures, see p. 281.
  • Sleeve pattern of C, see p. 300.

The first item of male attire was of two skins fastened at the shoulders, and from this we get the early chasuble form (which may be so beautifully treated, even to the present time), girt with a leather thong or strap at the waist. One skin lapped the other, and hardly needed sewing together at the sides, while thus it was easier to throw off; it may also have been tied up between the legs. The fur was worn both inside and out, according to the weather; this large skin wrap would also be worn cross-ways with the right shoulder free, and the simple cloak of various lengths with a hole for the head to pass through was no doubt one of the first discoveries in costume.

A loin cloth or skin may have been worn alone, caught up through the legs and fastened at the back of the waist with a heavy belt and set well down the hips. This would hold a number of personal necessities, in the shape of a wallet and dagger. The legs would be wrapped with skins, tied up or crossed by leather or sinew thongs, or with hemp or grass rope. Skins were probably also used on the feet, gathered and tied above the instep and round the ankle.

The enumeration of these items will give a pretty definite idea of how the early race would appear in their more or less attired form. In fighting, they cleared for action (as it were) and discarded all clothing, their only protection being a shield of wicker or wood covered with leather; it may have been studded with bronze plates or painted with grotesque characters, as were their own bodies, in true savage style, to strike fear into their enemies; it is even possible feather decorations formed part of their "get up."

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