The origin of clothes

23 June 2011 | By Michael

Clothes are an integral part of human life. You might imagine that we first began using clothes for utilitarian purposes. Picture a caveman in winter skinning a very put-out deer and curling up snugly near the campfire wearing the sorry creature’s still-quivering hide to keep warm, and you get the idea.

The problem is that human culture emerged not in boy-it’s-cold Europe but in man-it’s-hot Africa sometime around 100,000 years ago, when we didn’t really need clothes to retain heat. Anthropologists understand culture to mean that whole suite of behaviours and thought patterns that characterise human beings as a whole, from language and religion to advanced technological capacities and art. Clothing very much falls into this category. In fact, whereas primates use tools, ants cooperate extensively, bees symbolically communicate with one another and dolphins understand that other dolphins have a mind distinct from their own – all abilities once thought to be exclusively human – only we humans make and use clothing; so it’s very much part of the fabric of humanity.

The reason for the emergence of clothes in prehistory was almost certainly about a new desire to articulate symbolic identity: to communicate both solidarity (with in-group members wearing the same kind of funky outfit) and difference (from outsiders, who, let’s face it, usually just look embarrassing).

Now of course it’s impossible to wear anything without ‘communicating’ something about yourself. As symbolic beings, when we observe something, we search for meaning in it even where it barely exists. So good luck cultivating that pared-down, straight-laced, strictly-functional Steve Jobs look: as far as people who look at you are concerned, you are really just saying that you are not the sort of person that likes to say much about yourself with clothes. Which is its own kind of fashion statement.

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