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The History of Linen: Unveiling the styles of summer clothing and tips through the ages

…and the dressing is easy. A look at how our ancestors kept cool in warmer months shows us that the past is still very much part of our present

You know summer is approaching when the woollen sweaters and fleece jackets are replaced with cotton tops and linen dresses. Summers can fluctuate anywhere from bright and sunny to blistering and humid. And during this season, there is nothing one wishes for more than to ditch the synthetic, heat-absorbing fabrics for clothes that, even minutely, give them respite from the heat. Not to mention the existence of air conditioners, a boon for many on particularly searing days.

But before air conditioners, high-speed fans and air coolers, how did the generations before us survive the summer season? From architecture that promoted ventilation in homes to drinks that cooled the body, the ancient generations held several mechanisms and tricks in place to beat the heat. What was perhaps the most integral component of their summer survival kit? Their clothes, their summer wardrobe.

An Overview of Clothes

Having evolved from primates, the earliest form of human beings did not particularly require clothing tips. It only was when humans shed off the thick, coarse body hair that they began adopting clothes. This was done to expand to other regions while also surviving cold climates.

While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date, researchers have determined that humans began wearing clothes approximately 170,000 years ago. During that period, clothes were fashioned out of animal hide, grass, leaves, tree bark and fur.

With the expansion of human beings across several regions and the establishment of civilizations, the concept of clothes diversified from a solely physiological purpose to sociocultural purposes as well – from identifying a person’s status to dressing for different occasions.

Linen – A Universal Summer Essential

In terms of fashion, several ancient civilizations often used linen materials in two distinct manners. The first one would be a loincloth, either knee-length or ankle-length that would cover the legs. This was a unisex style and sometimes the only piece of cloth covering a person’s body. The other manner was draping a long linen cloth around the body and cinching it with accessories such as belts.

People belonging to the affluent sect of society would also drape several layers of linen or wool over their bodies, a prominent example being togas that were worn by ancient Romans. The logic was simple – the longer the fabric or cloth, the more expensive it was. This is why only the rich could afford higher-quality, longer linen clothes that were also dyed to display bright colours.

Even today, fashion experts and designers highly recommend having a few linen pieces in one’s wardrobe. Not only can it be crafted to create wonderful designs, but it is also the most comfortable material one can slip onto their body on a hot day.

Ancient Times Greek Costumes of All Nations (1882) by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach

Ancient civilizations were extremely diverse in terms of culture, food, customs, beliefs and fashion. Surprisingly, all civilizations made extensive use of one kind of material during summer: linen.

A textile created from the fibres of the flax plant, linen was a highly popular choice of clothing for the ancient Egyptians, Indians, Mesopotamians, Romans and Chinese. It was and continues to be a material that transcends geographical boundaries to find a place in everybody’s wardrobe.

Linen was widely used due to its high breathability, moisture absorption (read: sweat), heat reflection and comfort. Throughout history, linen garments have been favoured over other commonly available materials such as wool and even cotton.

Summer Clothes Through Different Civilizations

Clothes throughout history were made using natural fibres and materials, namely linen, cotton, wool and silk. This greatly helped people stay cool during summers then as they were more absorbent, breathable and light in comparison to the synthetic fabrics available today.

In the Indus Valley Civilization, clothes were largely either undraped fabrics draped over the body, or stitched clothes such as tunics, cloaks and trousers. Men and women generally wore a loincloth, known as a dhoti, made of cotton along with a shawl to cover the upper half of the body. The Indus Valley was one of the earliest civilizations to cultivate and use cotton in clothing. Since cotton’s properties were akin to linen, it was an excellent material to wear during summer.

Throughout different periods in ancient India, it was common for men and women to bare their torsos. This was more common amongst people of lower social strata, who would cover the lower half of their bodies with a loincloth fashioned from fabrics or leaves.

Statue of the Emperor Tiberius showing a draped toga of the 1st century AD ; Image Source: Wikipedia

In ancient Egypt, linen was widely used due to the region’s hot climate. While cotton was also utilized, linen was lighter, and therefore the preferred material. Men wore kilt-like skirts made of wool, linen or muslin. Women from affluent families often wore a long skirt that was held up with one or two shoulder straps. These dress-like clothes were often sheer and thereby translucent.

Servants and people belonging to lower social strata often remained unclad throughout their lives. It was an accurate representation of the quote, “Clothes maketh the man.” It was normal for young children to remain unclad and shave their hair throughout their childhood.

The ancient Sumerians and Mesopotamians wore similar clothing to the Egyptians. In addition to linen and wool, they used animal skin as outwear. Men and women both wore long skirts made of fleece-like fabric known as kaunakes, one of the earliest kinds of dresses. Men also wore kilts and shawls regularly.

Statuette of the lady Tiye MET ; Image Source: Wikipedia

Summer clothes for ancient Greeks and Romans were similar in certain ways. Wool and linen fabric were utilized for clothes depending on the season, while silk and cotton were only afforded by rich families as it was imported from India and China. Both civilizations had different styles of draping the fabrics, as the Romans wore longer togas whereas the Greeks wore shorter chitons.

In ancient China, clothing was largely conservative and often covered the entire body. However, long robes made from silk, hemp and bamboo helped them stay cool through the summer. Bamboo was a popular material amongst the rich and poor as it was widely available and absorbed moisture rapidly – keeping workers cool in the heat. Silk was invented in China and became one of its most famous exports to the world as it was very lightweight and airy.

Historic Influences in Modern Fashion

Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda 2019 Collection inspired by Greco-Roman mythology

Ancient fashion and style have consistently been a source of inspiration for umpteen fashion designers. From Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda 2019 Collection inspired by Greco-Roman mythology to Chanel’s Métiers d’Art Collection featuring Egyptian iconography and styling.

When foraying into ancient fashion, designers find inspiration in art, iconography, statues, symbolism, etc. The collection is a balance between history with a contemporary take. While designers take plenty of liberty with the materials, styling and makeup, the essence of many collections lies within the materials and styles that were an integral part of our predecessors’ lives.

Chanel’s Métiers d’Art Collection featuring Egyptian iconography and styling; Image Source:; Photo by Olivier Saill
Chanel’s Métiers d’Art Collection featuring Egyptian iconography and styling; Image Source:; Photo by Olivier Saill

Modern-Day Summer Essentials

Despite the invention of synthetic fabrics such as polyester, rayon and nylon, fabrics sourced from natural fibres throughout history remain a key part of people’s summer wardrobes.

Today, people can also buy summer-suited clothes depending on the thread count. Simply put, thread count refers to the number of horizontal and vertical threads per square inch. Textile experts have stated that materials with a thread count ranging from 200 to 600 are generally of good quality, softer and wear well after years of use. If a piece of cloth is between these thread count ranges, it would most likely be of good quality.

Cotton: 200 to 400
Linen: 80 to 150
Silk: At least 400
Wool: Super 100-120
Bamboo: 150-400

Image Source: Ralph Lauren
Image Source: Marks&Spenser
Image Source: Ralph Lauren
Image Source: Marks&Spenser

Although many ancient summer clothing forms have been replaced by trousers, shorts, shirts and t-shirts, some styles have endured the test of time and are very much in use today.

For example, many people in the Middle East continue to wear a long, baggy chemise or robe that is white, to deflect heat and feel lightweight on the body. A keffiyeh often accompanies the chemise as it protects people from the desert region’s heat, sunburn, dust and sand. Many women today wear long, flowy kaftans during summers, which is a long tunic that is said to have originated in Mesopotamia.

In India, cotton kurtas are worn by a large population of women during summer for easy mobility and moisture absorption. Kurtas have been around for several thousand years across different regions, from Central Asia to Northern India.

As we continue ‘modernizing’ ourselves in an increasingly Western and hegemonic society, it is important to look back and refer to history for certain solutions. Granted, a sheer linen dress may not be the wisest option today, but a loose silk robe or a simple cotton top might be just the thing you were looking for come summer.

A highly regarded principle in the fashion industry is that fashion is evolutionary, not revolutionary. This also happens to be a quote from iconic French fashion designer, Pierre Balmain who said that no matter how far fashion evolves, many a time, it finds inspiration, innovation and solutions from the past.

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