( Originally Published 1869 )
To trace out accurately the original condition, rise, and progress through various stages, of costume in this country, would be a task of some difficulty, and would occupy consider-able space. In a rude age this art originated here as in other countries. The ancient Britons painted their bodies with representations of the planets and other figures. The earliest costumes were made of the skins of wild beasts, or of the leaves of plants, which were at once resorted to to form the necessary coverings for the body. The manufacture and dyeing of cloths seem, however, to have been early known among us, which were probably brought from Gaul; and the cloth garments for some time retained the name which had been given to the hide. Ornaments of different kinds were gradually introduced, such as rings and bracelets. The two causes already referred to,—the influence of foreign art, and the progress of this nation in civilization,—would mainly contribute to accelerate the progress of costume. Probably the former of these causes had more direct, and more extensive influence in this country than the latter.
Among the Anglo-Saxons some variety and grace in costume appear to have been attained, especially in their ecclesiastical civil and military attire.. At the period of the Con-quest, we are told that the Norman dress had been so much imitated by the Anglo-Saxons, as to be scarcely distinguishable from it. Costliness in the material, and variety in the article of dress, much increased after this period. During the reign of Henry II., the sovereign and nobles are represented in full flowing robes, girded with a richly ornamented waistbelt, mantles fastened by fibule on the breast or on the shoulders, chausses or long hose, and shoes or boots, the latter some-times beautifully embroidered, caps of various forms, and jewelled gloves. The manner and fashion of these different dresses underwent many changes during successive reigns, extravagant and costly variations being occasionally introduced, and successive improvements and modifications continually made.
The general character and condition of costume in this country at different periods, as regards the taste and richness displayed in it, have corresponded pretty nearly with those of the other arts. Costume is not, however, so much actually dependent on foreign influence and example for its rise and improvement in this nation, as this nation is indebted to foreign countries, not merely for the improvement of its own art here, but for enabling us to import from abroad the productions of foreign artists. On this account the condition of costume is but an uncertain indication of the general condition of art ; but although the costume of this country at any particular period may be in general use here, it may all be the production of a foreign nation.
The most faithful records of early costume, and of the various mutations which taste and chance and fashion have from time to time effected in it, are afforded by the illuminations in the missals of the middle ages, and by the paintings, especially portraits, from the earliest to the present period. Of all the arts, costume is the most fluctuating, and it is ever in a state of change, of which it is peculiarly susceptible, and for which it depends in part on the taste of the people of each particular country, and in part on the influence of foreign nations. What there is here of taste, appears to be extensively directed by caprice ; though, in turn, this very caprice may be more or less influenced by taste.