There is a great deal of information known about the costume traditions of many of the ancient cultures. The clothing, hairstyles, and decorative customs of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China, Japan, and other societies, for example, have all been written about in many books. And from about midway through the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 C.E. ) onward there are vast sources of information about the costume worn in Europe. Artwork, monuments and buildings, and written documents are all records, which historians call evidence, that help us better understand different cultures. Yet the knowledge about other cultures that are just as old and that may once have been just as sophisticated is very limited. The costume traditions of most of the continent of Africa are little known, and our knowledge about the traditions of the native peoples of North, Central, and South America, and of Oceania, is very limited. These cultures are named the cultures of the "discovered peoples" because they first became known to Europeans after contact was made within the last six hundred years.
As the cultures of Europe grew more sophisticated after the twelfth century, they developed the ability and the desire to explore the larger world. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, countries such as Spain, France, Portugal, and England sent ships across the oceans to look for new trading routes and establish colonies, or outposts of the country that had sent them there. This period is known as the age of exploration. Explorers from these countries traveled throughout the world. They "discovered" lands that they had not known to exist, such as the Americas and Oceania, and explored parts of Africa that had been completely unknown to Europeans before. These explorers' discoveries provide us with the first information about the costume traditions of the discovered peoples.
The people who were discovered by the Europeans during the age of exploration had a long history. Human life is believed to have begun in Africa about one million years ago, and to have spread from Africa throughout the world. Humans had begun to settle in North America by 10,000 B.C.E. or earlier, and they spread from there south into Central and South America. Humans reached the major islands of Oceania, spanning from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south, about the same time, though they didn't reach the most distant of the islands until about 1300 C.E. In places, such as Central and South America, they built large and well-organized empires of millions; in other places, such as Oceania, Africa, and North America, humans banded together in small groups or tribes and had simple social lives based on hunting and gathering. Each of these cultures undoubtedly had distinct and notable costume traditions, but we don't possess complete knowledge about the history of these traditions.
The earliest information that we have about the costume traditions of the discovered peoples comes from descriptions about them from European explorers and colonizers. These Europeans, however, did not seek to preserve, record, or maintain the costume traditions of the people they discovered. For the most part they believed that Western culture was superior and that the dress worn by the people they encountered showed that they were uncivilized, primitive, and barbarian. European contact led to mass extermination as bloody warfare and disease wiped out a majority of the native populations. Those who remained were urged to give up what were considered barbaric costumes and adopt Western dress. Most did, and thus there were many parts of their own costume tradition that simply didn't survive.
European dominance and disregard for the traditions of the discovered peoples were not the only reasons so many of those traditions have been lost. Many of the discovered peoples did not possess written languages, so they left no records that described their dress or decoration traditions. Many, with the exceptions of the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas, did not record details of their costume habits in paintings or sculptures or architectural detail, so there is little physical evidence of what they wore.
Each group of discovered peoples experienced a different path from the time of discovery to the present. In North America, Native Americans were slowly overwhelmed by the gradual populating of the continent by white people; in Africa, the slave trade provided the dominant exposure to Europeans for many years; in Oceania, contact with Europeans was irregular and generally peaceful; in Central and South America, the ancient empires disappeared as Spain began to conquer the region in the 1500s. As all these cultures developed, people continued to wear the garments and decorations of ancient times, but few records were kept about their construction and their meaning. These cultures thus came into the modern age with a fragmented costume tradition.
Many of the countries of Africa and Oceania are very poor, and there simply has never been enough money to conduct archeological research into the costume traditions of the past. In many of these areas, the tropical climate tends to erase evidence of the past anyway, so there may be little to recover. Still, there is some hope that the meaning locked in the clothing of the past is not lost. Historians and archeologists, scientists who study the physical remains of past cultures, are still determined to forge ahead and learn what they can about the pasts of these cultures.
Flowers, Sarah. The Age of Exploration. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.
Konstam, Angus. Historical Atlas of Exploration, 1492–1600. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.