Once upon a time, a young human with mud on her feet revolutionized the world…
That’s hyperbolic; like fire, the first clothing was probably not discovered by any single person, or only one time, or even in just one place. But I strongly suspect that the first clothing, also like fire, was discovered rather than invented. And although there’s no way to prove it, I believe the first clothes were made of mud.
Mud clothes make sense if you consider our origins. We evolved in Africa, near the equator. It was hot, water was often scarce, and unlike other primates’, our bodies were going bald. We certainly had sense enough to shelter ourselves from the worst of the elements, but few animals can afford to sit in the shade all day and wait for food and water to come to them. No, since the beginning, people have had to go places to get what they need.
Which brings us back to the oasis, or the riverbank, or the lakeshore. At some point, a hot human got mud on her feet and discovered evaporative cooling. And the rest is prehistory.
Recently, some rather better-dressed humans took a close look at the DNA of clothing lice and determined (based on an assumed rate of mutation) that humans first started wearing clothes about 170,000 years ago. Of course, they’re not referring to mud boots or the body paint that likely followed. They’re talking about fur, feather, and fiber – clothing as we know it.
Sometime after the discovery of evaporative cooling, other prehistoric geniuses bent their minds to the necessity of insulation. I figure two things happened: First, our nomadic progenitors started building better overnight shelters, and then they figured out how to carry them on their backs. Whether the first were itchy grass mats or stinky, stiff animal skins is unimportant. What matters is that the first clothes were probably only worn in transit. Somewhere along the way, a brilliant nomad just stopped taking off her shelter at the end of the day. Look ma, no hands and no goosebumps.
Now we wear polyester, which is a petroleum product, and in a way that takes us full circle to our mud boot-wearing days. Too, we adorn ourselves for all the same reasons we always did – shelter, status, sex, etc. In other words, not much has changed since we got the hang of regulating our body temperatures externally. Sure, we have wetsuits and spacesuits (and self-popping pup tents and penthouse suites), but where do we go from here?
When was the last time we saw any truly novel garments in fiction or in life? Is it even possible to revolutionize clothing again, or has human adornment peaked at spacesuits?
A few parting links: