Why We Dress The Way We Do

From caveman animal skins to Lady Gaga’s meat dress, our clothing choices make a statement far greater than style.

In the millennia since humans first started wearing animal skins, fashion has evolved to include bustles and bustiers, KISS’s spiky platform shoes, a pubic hair runway show, and Duchess Beatrice’s weird pretzel fascinators. In an incredibly wide-ranging new book, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do, acclaimed fashion writer Colin McDowell explores sartorial questions far deeper than the usual what’s hot/what’s not. Examining clothes as symbols of sex and power, he asks why the human body shape, which doesn’t vary much in form, requires so much variation in its dress.


More than 500 sumptuous photographs feature styles from Padaung neck coils to Mata Hari’s Dance of the Seven Veils to Marlon Brando’s too-tight T-shirt. In a unique structural approach, McDowell dissects the body into 13 parts and details how each has been adorned throughout history. Herewith, a few highlights:

Hot Heads
As the center of perception and personality, the head has “always been revered as the most important part of our anatomy. Ancient peoples considered it possessed magical powers,” writes McDowell. “Why did a suntan replace a pale, peaches-and-cream face as a sign of a high-class woman? Why did men shave their heads so that they could wear closer-fitting wigs in the 17th century–or so that they can wear a beanie hat today?” he asks. Marie Antoinette’s peacock-plumed headpieces are juxtaposed with ’70s blue punk spike hair and the hot pink harajuku wigs of contemporary Tokyo.

Hips Don’t Lie (Unless a Bustle Is Involved)
In his ode to hips and everything in between them, McDowell harkens back to the days of bustles and codpieces, when displaying a bare ankle or calf was a titillating transgression. “Skirts and other loose garments can hide a multiplicity of sins–and also the various strategems used to achieve the ideal shape, such as the many petticoats, horsehair, hoops, and underpinning that swelled out the crinoline ofthe late 19th century,” he writes. Also pictured in this section: the Wild Gals of the Naked West, posing in feathered hats and assless chaps; and Tupac’s exposed boxers, jeans slung low under his “Thug Life” tattoo.

Looks Into the Light
Shiny metallic textiles had their moment in the ’60s, when the space race was on and astro-glam was cool. Until now, though, actual luminescent clothing has generally been limited to black-lit clubbers and sci-fi characters. When fashionable Italian noblewoman Marchesa Luisa Casati dared to wear an outfit spangled with working lightbulbs, the costume short-circuited and she narrowly escaped death by electrocution. But, McDowell predicts, modern chemical technology may mean risk-free glowing clothing is in our near future.

Beauty Bends
McDowell reveals that in 3,000 BC, Egyptian women would highlight, not hide, the spidery varicose veins on their legs. In 1560, Elizabeth I set a fashion for using face powder made of white lead held in place with egg white–the opposite of the sun-kissed Hollywood starlet contemporary ideal. And still today, in a painful beauty ritual, the Mantawaian people of the remote Sumatran archipelago file down women’s teeth into rows of sharp triangular fangs. The moral of the story: However freakishly you choose to manipulate your body, someone, somewhere will probably find it beautiful.


The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do is available for $62 here.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.