The Past is the Foundation on which the Present and the Future are Built

History is so much more than memorizing dates and events. History is all about us. Our clothing, for example, no longer reflects the corset, which came into vogue among wealthy and influential women in the fifteenth century, but small waists have come back into fashion. Since fashion always changes, a corset may come back! We cannot expect to understand historical costume unless we know what was worn underneath it. Foundation garments are so called because they give a characteristic shape to the figure, and determine the way in which the wearer walks, stands, or sits. The very word “foundation” is clearly significant in many ways.

It’s hard to understand why some elementary study of costume is not part of all history courses. What can we really know about Queen Elizabeth I, or Pharaoh Ramses II, or Cleopatra, or Alexander the Great, or Abraham Lincoln if we do not know what kind of clothes they wore and what they looked like (except we do know that George Washington wore uncomfortable wooden false teeth)? What people wore in the past determined what they were as plainly as what they ate, or the sort of beds they slept in. Would it surprise you to know that Columbus did not wear a wig, but Captain Cook did, and that people wore shoes that fitted the left or right foot equally until the beginning of the eighteenth century?

You might be shocked to see the extraordinary outfits the explorer Samuel de Champlain wore when he walked and canoed through the Canadian wilderness. Throughout history – just as today – clothes make the man or the woman. Clothes not only show what a person can afford or his or her station in life, but what he or she thinks about themselves. Clothes are an extension of a person’s philosophy.

Early sixteenth century corsets were pieces of armor made of iron to control “difficult” figures. Later they were all capable of being laced and strapped tightly to pinch or flatten or lift, according to the fashion of the moment. And don’t suppose these fashions were universally accepted without protest: wits made fun of them; philosophers explained at merciless length that they were foolish; divines roared passionately in condemnation. But one point is worth noting: the fact that a fashion is unhealthy has never, of itself, succeeded in destroying that fashion.

And just as underwear has always been referred to in polite society as “foundation garments,” so is history – the past – the foundation on which the present and the future are built.