Clothing (also called clothes, accoutrements, accouterments, or habiliments) protects the human body from extreme weather and other features of the environment. It is worn for safety, comfort, modesty and to reflect religious, cultural and social meaning.
The practical function of clothing is to protect the human body from dangers in the environment: weather (strong sunlight, extreme heat or cold, and precipitation, for example), insects, noxious chemicals, weapons, and contact with abrasive substances, and other hazards. Clothing can protect against many things that might injure the naked human body. In some cases clothing protects the environment from the clothing wearer as well (example: medical scrubs).
Humans have shown extreme inventiveness in devising clothing solutions to practical problems and the distinction between clothing and other protective equipment is not always clear-cut; examples include space suit, air conditioned clothing, armor, diving suit, swimsuit, bee-keeper's costume, motorcycle leathers, high-visibility clothing, and protective clothing.
People also decorate their bodies with makeup or cosmetics, scented perfume, and other ornamentation; they also cut, dye, and arrange the hair on their heads, faces, and bodies (see hairstyle), and sometimes also mark their skin (by tattoos, scarifications, and piercings). All these decorations contribute to the overall effect and message of clothing, but do not constitute clothing.
Articles carried rather than worn (such as purses, canes, and umbrellas) are normally counted as fashion accessories rather than as clothing, but hats and small dress sweaters can be called clothing or accessories. Jewelry and eyeglasses are usually counted as accessories as well, even though in common speech these particular items are described as being worn rather than carried.
In history there have been many societies where it was considered socially acceptable to be naked. In the modern world most cultures find it socially unacceptable to walk around in public without clothes.
According to archaeologists and anthropologists, the earliest clothing probably consisted of fur, leather, leaves or grass, draped, wrapped or tied about the body for protection from the elements. Knowledge of such clothing remains inferential, since clothing materials deteriorate quickly compared to stone, bone, shell and metal artifacts. Archeologists have identified very early sewing needles of bone and ivory from about 30,000 BC, found near Kostenki, Russia in 1988.
Ralf Kittler, Manfred Kayser and Mark Stoneking, anthropologists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, have conducted a genetic analysis of human body lice that indicates that they originated about 107,000 years ago. Since most humans have very sparse body hair, body lice require clothing to survive, so this suggests a surprisingly recent date for the invention of clothing. Its invention may have coincided with the spread of modern Homo sapiens from the warm climate of Africa, thought to have begun between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. However, a second group of researchers used similar genetic methods to estimate that body lice originated about 540,000 years ago (Reed et al. 2004. PLoS Biology 2(11): e340). For now, the date of the origin of clothing remains unresolved.
Some human cultures, such as the various peoples of the Arctic Circle, until recently made their clothing entirely of furs and skins, cutting clothing to fit and decorating lavishly.
Other cultures have supplemented or replaced leather and skins with cloth: woven, knitted, or twined from various animal and vegetable fibers.
Although modern consumers take clothing for granted, making the fabrics that go into clothing is not easy. One sign of this is that the textile industry was the first to be mechanized during the Industrial Revolution; before the invention of the powered loom, textile production was a tedious and labor-intensive process. Therefore, methods were developed for making most efficient use of textiles.
One approach simply involves draping the cloth. Many peoples wore, and still wear, garments consisting of rectangles of cloth wrapped to fit — for example, the dhoti for men and the saree for women in the Indian subcontinent, the Scottish kilt or the Javanese sarong. The clothes may simply be tied up, as is the case of the first two garments; or pins or belts hold the garments in place, as in the case of the latter two. The precious cloth remains uncut, and people of various sizes or the same person at different sizes can wear the garment.
Another approach involves cutting and sewing the cloth, but using every bit of the cloth rectangle in constructing the clothing. The tailor may cut triangular pieces from one corner of the cloth, and then add them elsewhere as gussets. Traditional European patterns for men's shirts and women's chemises take this approach.
Modern European fashion treats cloth much more prodigally, typically cutting in such a way as to leave various odd-shaped cloth remnants. Industrial sewing operations sell these as waste; home sewers may turn them into quilts.
In the thousands of years that humans have spent constructing clothing, they have created an astonishing array of styles, many of which we can reconstruct from surviving garments, photos, paintings, mosaics, etc., as well as from written descriptions. Costume history serves as a source of inspiration to current fashion designers, as well as a topic of professional interest to costumers constructing for plays, films, television, and historical reenactment.
In many societies, people of high rank reserve special items of clothing or decoration for themselves as symbols of their social status. In ancient times, only Roman senators were permitted wear garments dyed with Tyrian purple; only high-ranking Hawaiian chiefs wore feather cloaks and palaoa or carved whale teeth. Under the Travancore kingdom of Kerala (India), lower caste women had to pay a tax for the right to cover their upper body. In China before the establishment of the republic, only the emperor could wear yellow. In many cases throughout history, there have been elaborate systems of sumptuary laws regulating who could wear what. In other societies (including most modern societies) no laws prohibit lower-status people wearing high status garments, but the high cost of status garments effectively limits their purchase and display. In current Western society, only the rich can afford haute couture. The threat of social ostracism may also limit garment choice. If one is not wearing a specific brand or style of clothing one's social status may fall.
For example, Jains wear unstitched cloth pieces when performing religious ceremonies. The unstitched cloth signifies unified and complete devotion to the task at hand, with no digression.
Clothing figures in prominently in the Bible where it appears in numerous contexts, the more prominent ones being: the story of Adam and Eve, Joseph's cloak, Judah and Tamar, Mordechai and Esther. Furthermore the priests officiating in the Temple had very specific garments, the lack of which would make one liable to death.
Jewish ritual also requires rending of one's upper garment as a sign of mourning. This practice is found in the Bible when Jacob hears of the apparent death of his son Joseph.
Most sports and physical activities are practiced wearing special clothing, for practical, comfort or safety reasons. Common sportswear garments include shorts, T-shirts, tennis shirts, tracksuits, and trainers. Specialized garments include wet suits (for swimming, diving or surfing), salopettes (for skiing) and leotards (for gymnastics). Also, spandex materials are often used as base layers to soak up sweat. Spandex is also preferable for active sports that require form fitting garments, such as wrestling, track & field, dance, gymnastics and swimming.
Common clothing materials include natural fibers, which are renewable, biodegradable, such as:
And synthetic fibers which are man made and not biodegradable, made primarily from petrochemicals:
Less-common clothing materials include:
Clothing suffers assault both from within and without. The human body sheds skin cells and body oils, and exudes sweat, urine, and feces. From the outside, sun damage, moisture, abrasion and dirt assault garments. Fleas and lice may hide in seams. Worn clothing, if not cleaned and refurbished, will itch, look scruffy, and lose functionality (as when buttons fall off and zippers fail).
In some cases, people wear an item of clothing until it falls apart. Cleaning leather presents difficulties, and bark cloth (tapa) cannot be washed without dissolving it. Owners may patch tears and rips, and brush off surface dirt, but old leather and bark clothing will always look old.
Many kinds of clothing are designed to be ironed before they are worn to remove wrinkles. Most modern formal and semi-formal clothing is in this category (for example, dress shirts and suits). Ironed clothes are believed to look clean, fresh, and neat. Much contemporary casual clothing is made of knit materials that do not readily wrinkle, and do not require ironing. Some clothing is permanent press, having been treated with a coating (such as polytetrafluoroethylene) that suppresses wrinkles and creates a smooth appearance without ironing.
Once clothes have been laundered and possibly ironed, they are usually hung on clothes hangers or folded, to keep them fresh until they are worn. Clothes are folded to allow them to be stored compactly, to prevent creasing, to preserve creases or to present them in a more pleasing manner, for instance when they are put on sale in stores.
Many kinds of clothes are folded before they are put in suitcases as preparation for travel. Other clothes, such as suits, may be hung up in special garment bags, or rolled rather than folded. Many people use their clothing as packing material around fragile items that might otherwise break in transit.
Used, unwearable clothing was once used for quilts, rag, rugs, bandages, and many other household uses. It could also be recycled into paper. Now it is usually thrown away. Used but still wearable clothing can be sold at consignment shops, flea markets, online auction, or donated to charity. Charities usually skim the best of the clothing to sell in their own thrift stores and sell the rest to merchants, who bale it up and ship it to Third World countries, where vendors bid for the bales, then sell the used clothing.
There are many concerns about the life cycle of synthetics which come primarily from petrochemicals. Unlike natural fibers, their source is not renewable (in less than millions of years) and they are not biodegradable.
Western fashion has, to some extent, become international fashion, as Western media and styles penetrate all parts of the world. Few places remain where people do not wear items of cheap, mass-produced Western clothing. People in poor countries can afford used clothing from wealthier Western countries.
People may wear ethnic or national dress on special occasions or in certain roles or occupations. For example, most Japanese women have adopted Western-style dress for daily wear, but will still wear silk kimonos on special occasions. Items of Western dress may also appear worn or accessorized in distinctive, non-Western ways. A Tongan man may combine a used T-shirt with a Tongan wrapped skirt, or tupenu.
Outsourcing production to low wage countries like China, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh became possible when the Multi Fibre Agreement (MFA) was abolished. The MFA was deemed a protectionist measure which placed quotas on the exports of textiles. Globalization is often quoted as the single most contributing factor to the poor working conditions of garment workers. Although many countries recognize treaties like the ILO, many have also made exceptions to certain parts of the treaties. India for example has not ratified sections 87 and 92 of the treaty.
Others counter that clothing for cold weather is very much a necessity and the most common of furs, sheepskin and rabbit are clearly not elitist. Mink and fox, raised on farms, consume the leftovers of our food production. If one is eating chicken, fish, dairy, beef, one is participating in a process that feeds mink and fox, which in turn creates pelts for cold weather clothing, fine oils and other products. The carnivores have a niche, even in an industrial food production process designed to deliver food to 6 billion people. Also, many conservationists and scientists are concerned about the long-term impact of synthetic fibers, including fake furs, which are not biodegradale.