In many ways, clothes defined our ancestors. What they wore gave clues to their class, occupation, and status in the world. And to some degree, not much has changed. Today, we have uniforms for certain jobs, outer labels on clothing that indicate their expense, and different styles that define how we (and others) see ourselves.
If our genetics and family records found on Ancestry can give clues to who we are now, so, too, can the clothes our forebears wore. Here are nine surprising facts about the history of the clothes many of us wear now.
1. Men wore high heels first.
Well before women strapped on five-inch stilettos, aristocratic European men were setting the trend. Starting in the 16th century, wealthy, heel-wearing men were sending a message to the world: The wearers of heels did not have jobs.
Aristocratic ladies began wearing heels when they started masculinizing their wardrobes. Eventually, lower-class women started appropriating the fashion for themselves. In the early 18th century, men stopped wearing the shoes, as heels became more and more associated with women.
2. The Empire waist is connected to Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Empire waist — a silhouette where the bodice ends just below the bust — actually became popular thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine. A rebellion against the restrictive wear that women wore for centuries, the Empire waist gave women ability to move more freely. French women of the early 19th century embraced the style of the empress Josephine, and many ladies across Europe followed.
3. The wallets used today were made to carry paper money.
While the word “wallet” has been around since the 14th century to describe a knapsack to carry money, the modern meaning of wallet is a recent development. The flat-case wallet as we know it became part of everyday American life when paper money was introduced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1690.
4. The tradition of diamond engagement rings can be traced back to the 15th century.
The idea of wedding rings started when the caveman put cords of braided grass around his mate’s wrists, ankles, and waist, placing her under his control. The engagement ring, however, has a bit shorter history. One of the first documented diamond engagement rings was given by Archduke Maximilian of Austria to Mary of Burgundy upon their engagement in 1477. Before 1867, when diamonds were discovered in South Africa, most of our ancestors were not lucky enough to get engaged with diamond rings.
5. Neckties started with King Louis XIV.
Our forebears wore scarves to keep warm, neckerchiefs to wipe sweat, and sometimes a cloth around the neck to hide missing buttons or stains. However, it was during the 17th century that King Louis XIV brought the early version of the tie into fashion. After he saw how visiting Croatian soldiers decorated their uniforms, he felt inspired. After that, the French regiment wore them as an official emblem. The look was then embraced by the French upper class and spread across the European continent.
6. Stripes were once considered the devil’s clothing.
Often considered the devil’s calling sign, stripes were worn only by people on the outskirts of society. This belief began in the 12th and 13th centuries. For an unknown reason, the tide eventually changed and stripes were embraced by society during the French and American Revolutions and continue to this day to be a popular pattern.
7. Buttons were considered jewelry, not a functional element of clothes.
Our early ancestors did not use buttons to keep their clothes together. Instead, they were used as ornaments to add style to their outfits. The oldest known button is around 5,000 years old and was found in the Indus Valley, in modern-day Pakistan. Around the middle of the 11th century, the button was starting to be used to make more form-fitting clothing. It wasn’t until after the Industrial Revolution that buttons became an everyday item.
8. “Sneakers” got their name from an early 1900s ad man.
During the late 1800s, members of our family tree were likely rocking shoes called plimsolls. These were the original version of sneakers first developed and manufactured in the United States. U.S. Rubber’s footwear divisions manufactured their rubber-soled shoes under 30 different brand names from 1892 to 1913. Eventually the company consolidated all the brands under one name. Originally, they wanted to call the shoes Peds, the Latin for foot. The name was already trademarked, so eventually the company settled on Keds. Henry Nelson McKinney, of the ad agency N. W. Ayer & Son, coined the term sneakers for Keds because the rubber soul made very little noise when people walked in them (so they could “sneak” around, get it?).
9. Wedding dresses weren’t always white.
Unless your ancestors were royalty before 1840, it’s unlikely that any of the women in your family tree were married in white. It was Queen Victoria, who wore a white gown at her wedding to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, who made the trend popular for the masses. Before that, wedding dresses were almost any other color. It’s worth noting that royalty had worn white for many years before Queen Victoria to symbolize the bride’s purity.
Join Ancestry and connect yourself to ancestors so far back that they didn’t wear white wedding dresses, never put on a pair of sneakers, and considered buttons jewelry.