Who Invented Clothes and When? Surprisingly Difficult to Answer

We came across a news report about the world’s oldest needle – over 50,000 years old and still usable! It got us thinking about the origins of fashion, wondering who invented clothes and when people started making accessories.

Why there's a 100,000 Year Gap in the Story of Who Invented Clothes

Most of us are familiar with pictures from the middle and medieval ages of ornate dresses, fancy stitching and lots of fabrics. That’s at least a thousand years ago.

Further back, many of us have seen pictures of ancient civilisations that dressed well, for example Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Indians, Babylonians, Chinese, Aztecs, Japanese (depending where you were schooled).

But that still only takes us back say 5,000 years or so. Whereas the earliest humans were around somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago (depending on what you mean by “human”).

Like us, you may have assumed that perhaps “cavemen” started wearing animal furs to keep warm. But we hadn’t considered the practical considerations involved – like how they got the furs off the animals, and how they got them to stay on. Especially without tools.

What happened in the hundreds of centuries between cavemen and civilised, relatively well-dressed societies like the Greeks?

The difficulty answering that question is that clothing doesn’t last long in archaeological terms, so there’s no evidence left for us to inspect.

Instead, archeologists and anthropologists have had to piece together pictures and draw inferences from the occasional clue. Here are 4 ways scientists have tried to infer the picture we’re looking for:

  • Extrapolating from remnants of harder materials like bone or shell, that seemed to have been worn with early clothes - maybe fastenings or decorations
  • Examining remains of items preserved in say mud, looking for evidence of faint fabric pattern imprints left in the fossils
  • Investigating and dating preserved tools possibly used in ancient “dressmaking” – such as the bone needle that caught our eye in the first place
  • Perhaps most curiously, looking for DNA or other evidence of microscopic life found around clothes. We thought that meant moths – but it’s body lice, signifying humans starting to lose body hair and so probably wearing clothes!

3 Possible Eras of Fashion Evolution

The results of the scientists’ work on who invented clothes are fascinating. What struck us most was the overall evolution of human clothing.  We see it breaking into 3 separate periods (strictly our view - this isn't something scientists have suggested).

1

Around 50,000 to a little over 100,000 years ago were the earliest signs of humans paying attention to appearance, with crude clothing and jewellery.

2

Then around 10,000 years ago, the start of what we could call design in clothing, but still primarily functional. Including the first (basic) accessories.

3

Finally, 2,000 to 5,000 years ago things got relatively sophisticated. Clothing was for decoration, not just function, and the predecessors of many of today’s essential accessories appeared – including purses and lingerie!

Who Invented Clothes - The Earliest Examples of Fashion

Here are a few of the highlights we particularly enjoyed when trying to discover who invented clothes.

When Did We Start Sewing?

To create clothes that were more than draped animal furs, humans needed to find a way of cutting and holding together pieces of material. Cutting was possible using early knives and sharp stones, and the very earliest way of connecting clothes was to tie pieces together, occasionally making holes to thread material through.

But the breakthrough was the invention of the needle.

A little-known predecessor of humans called Denisovans were using sewing needles around 50,000 years ago. Made from a shard of bone, the 7cm needle even had an eye through which to pass thread.

While an ancient sharp pin would be an interesting find, the fact that it had an eye means they were sewing, not just pinning things together.

We were very curious about what kind of clothes they would have used the needle on, and even more interested in how they made the eye of the needle. Alas no clear answers to either.

Who invented clothes? First needle

Photo credit: Vesti via The Siberian Times

The Earliest Woven Cloth?

The Siberian needle would probably have been used to sew animal hides together. But by around 10,000 years ago, humans had started to create fabric by “weaving” yarn.

In Anatolia, scientists discovered a 9,000 year old piece of linen woven from hemp. Even though we don’t know how they would have it, the fabric looks quite closely woven, so the tools or techniques must have been pretty well developed.

Who invented clothes? World's first linen

Photo credit: DHA Dogan News Agency

There has been speculation that the much older “Venus Figurines” – over 25,000 years old – may have signs of woven fabric imprints on clay fragments. This is far from certain, but if it ever is proven, it would mean we’ve totally misunderstood the evolution of weaving, and therefore probably clothing too.

At the time it was probably used to wrap a baby, but nearly 5,000 years later they’d found a more interesting use for fabric . . .

The World’s First Dress?

Known as the Tarkhan Dress, this rather elegant piece was found in a 5,000 year old Egyptian tomb. It was likely to have been the ancient Egyptian version of haute couture for its wealthy wearer.

It nearly never came to light, as it was in a pile of rags that was overlooked for over 50 years.

It was only in the 1970s, when the pile was sent to the V&A for conservation work, that its importance was realised.

Who invented clothes? World's oldest dress

Photo credit: UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The World’s First Trousers?

Trousers are relatively complex to make compared to the kind of dress above. So it took another couple of thousand years before they appeared – probably linked to horse-riding lifestyles.

In Western China, scientists came across these trousers while excavating a 3,000 year old tomb. The Yanghai site contained a veritable fashion show, including tassled cloaks, colourful boots, silk scarves. They were preserved because of the particularly arid desert environment.

The trousers were carefully made from a single piece of material, with no cutting, co-ordinated stitching and ornate decoration.

Who invented clothes? World's oldest trousers

Photo credit: M Wagner/German Archaeological Institute

The Earliest Racy Lingerie?

Many middle-aged men will be disappointed to learn the first lingerie wasn’t Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C.

It was actually what archaeologists described as “exciting underwear”, discovered in the same Yanghai tomb containing the world’s first trousers

Sadly, we don’t have a picture, but it was reported to be a fringed miniskirt with careful shaping around the hips.

The reason scientists speculated this was more than just functional wasn’t just the decoration and design - the tombs also showed a strong emphasis on sex. In fact, there’s been speculation that the buried were preparing for a lively time in the afterlife, based on other symbols and artefacts found!

From this topic, the next natural step for many would be shoes . . .

The Earliest Shoes?

If you count sandals as shoes, then the earliest were made by Native Americans around 10,000 years ago.

Who invented clothes? World's oldest sandal

Photo credit: Oregon Historical Research Society

But as they were made of twine and bark, you might be more interested in the first closed shoes made of leather. These were found in Armenia, and were made around 5,000 years later.

Incidentally, these were only discovered because even though leather wouldn’t normally survive, they were buried in sheep dung.

Who invented clothes? World's earliest shoes

Photo credit: Gregory Areshian

The Earliest Jewellery?

If you consider jewellery to be about precious metals, then you only have to go back about 5,000 years to find several cultures that worked gold into precious items for women to wear.

But researchers in Kenya found that around 40,000 years ago, people wore necklaces made by stringing beads made of Ostrich shell pieces.

Photo credit: Angela Kabiru, National Museums Of Kenya

Meanwhile in Israel, scientists have found that over 100,000 years ago humans were doing something similar with shells of sea snails.

Photo credit: Marian VanHaeren & Francesco D'Errico

But the oldest jewellery was found in Croatia – 135,000 year old eagle talons that were either threaded or tied together to create the first necklace found by archaeologists. So the first jewellery designers appeared well before the people who invented clothes!

Photo credit: Luka Mjeda, Zagreb

The Earliest Handbag?

While the well-dressed ancient woman was all set for dress, jewellery and shoes 5,000 years ago, she needed to wait another 2,000 years before she’d have a handbag.

In Germany, scientists found this set of over 100 dog teeth, arranged carefully for what was almost certainly aesthetic reasons, as there was no discernible function for them. Scientists believe these were used to decorate the outer flap of a handbag, and the fabric or leather material had rotted away over the centuries, along with the stitching.

Photo credit: Klaus Bentele, LDA Halle 

That’s our quick skip through 100,000+ years looking at who invented clothes. In some ways, some basics of fashion haven’t changed that much, but perhaps it’s not that surprising. After all, they say fashion goes in cycles!