If you think some of your favourite duds are starting to show their age, you should see what’s been pulled out from the depths of history’s closet. According to research on body lice, humans began wearing clothing about 170-thousand years ago. The oldest existing fibers known to be used by humans date back to about 34-thousand years ago. As clothing is generally made from organic materials, such as leather and cloth (that disintegrate quickly), only a handful of ancient garments and accessories are still in existence. Here are 10 very old articles of ancient fashions, most of which are still recognizable today.
10. Oldest jewelry (130,000 years)
In 2015, scientists announced they’d found the world’s oldest form of bling – eight eagle talons discovered in a Neanderthal site in Croatia. The eagle talons, from at least three separate birds, bore multiple cut marks, notches for stringing, and evidence of polishing, leading researchers to believe they had been worn as part of a necklace or bracelet.
The discovery strengthens the claim that Neanderthals weren’t slow-witted cavemen, but part of a complex, intelligent society that included religion and art. Researchers say it’s likely the talons were selected for a ceremonial purpose, demonstrating Neanderthals’ understanding of symbolism. As the jewelry dates from about 80-thousand years before the arrival of modern humans, it’s also impossible for the Neanderthals to have stolen or copied the design.
Before the discovery, the oldest jewelry in history was believed to be some seashells found in Israel and Africa, aged about 100-thousand years. The shells were found far inland, and showed evidence of having been used as beads.
9. Oldest Footwear (9,300 years)
The oldest pair of kicks in the world were discovered in the Fort Rock Basin in Oregon, in 1938 – and both shoes were still together. Fort Rock Sandals are made of twined sagebrush bark, with a flat sole and a toe wrap. Several specimens have been found, with the oldest believed to be somewhere between 9,300 and 10,000 years old. Researchers believed thongs on the sandal would have been wrapped around the ankle and then fastened to the other side (like this)
Meanwhile, the world’s oldest leather shoe was discovered in the Areni-1 cave in southeastern Armenia in 2010. Estimated to be about 5,500 years old, the shoe is a brown leather lace-up for a small right foot (about a US size 7), suggesting it was worn by a woman. Researchers say the shoe was cut from single piece of leather that was tanned using vegetable oil, and shaped to fit the foot that wore it. It was also stuffed with grass – either as insulation, or to keep the shape of the shoe when it wasn’t being worn.
8. Oldest Crown (6,000+ years)
The crown was discovered as part of the “Nahal Mishar Hoard,” a treasure trove of more than 400 objects found in a cave in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea in 1961. Dating from the Copper Age (4000-3300 BC), the crown is made of blackened copper, and stands about seven inches in diameter (the New Yorker describes it as being about the circumference of “a smallish man’s hat”). Five figures adorn the upper rim of the crown, including two long-necked birds (believed to be vultures), two stylized gates or doors, and a t-shaped object that may be the hilt of a sword. It was found alongside a scepter featuring horned animals, a copper woven basket, and many clay bowls and goblets.
Researchers aren’t convinced the crown was worn by an actual king in the area though – instead, they believe the crown was used in public ceremonies, and during burial rites for important people. It’s also not clear how the crown and the rest of the treasures in the hoard came to lie in the desert cave for so many centuries.
7. Oldest Skirt (5,900 years)
An Armenian cave has turned into an antique fashion warehouse for archaeologists, yielding not only the oldest surviving skirt in the world, but also the oldest known leather shoe (see number nine). The skirt was discovered in the Areni-1 cave in southeastern Armenia; only a fragment remains, but it’s enough to determine the fabric was made from woven reeds, with a counter-weave band running along the edge. It’s impossible to tell how the entire skirt would have looked when it was first made, or whether it was worn by a woman or a man. However, researchers believe this represents the oldest example of reed clothing in the world.
Along with skirt and shoes, researchers at the Areni-1 cave were also excited by the discovery of a mummified goat, believed to date from about the same period as the skirt. If estimates are correct, the Armenian goat mummy is about a thousand years older than most of the mummified animals found in Egypt.
6. Oldest dress (5,000 years)
Often described as the oldest garment in the world, the Tarkhan dress was discovered in an ancient Egyptian cemetery, about 30 miles from Cairo. Dating from the First Dynasty or Old Kingdom period, the dress (or tunic) is made of linen (therefore featuring the earliest known textile fabric used for clothing), and features tightly pleated sleeves and a yoke stitched to a skirt. Researchers say the garment was clearly worn in life, as it showed distinct creasing at the elbows and armpits. It was also discovered inside out, although some believe it was deliberately placed in the tomb that way as a form of funerary significance.
Initially found in 1913, the significance of the find wasn’t understood until 1977 – the tunic was part of a linen pile that had been excavated, but wasn’t cleaned or properly examined for more than 60 years. Conservators at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London mounted the garment on a backing of fine silk to allow it to be displayed as it would have been worn in life.
5. Oldest Pants (3,000 years)
The world’s oldest trousers were found in the Yanghai tombs in China in 2014, and despite obvious use, are still in pretty good condition. Researchers believe the pants were custom made by separately weaving three pieces of cloth – the legs and crotch area – which were then sewn up using matching thread. The pants also feature intricate geometric designs that were woven directly into the fabric, resulting in a comfortable looking pair of pants (a modern remake of the pants was floated on this site). Researchers say pants likely evolved among equestrian tribes in the region around 4,000 years ago, for protection and comfort while riding horses.
The desert conditions surrounding the Yanghai tombs have helped preserve a plethora of delicate textiles and fabrics – other finds there include colourful sheepskin boots, feathered hats, a fringed skirt and a tiny loincloth.
4. Oldest Purse (4,500 years)
Call it the original houndstooth bag. In 2012, archaeologists unearthed the world’s oldest purse in a grave near Leipzig, Germany. Made of leather or fabric that has since disintegrated, the purse was covered in more than a hundred dog teeth from dozens of animals. Researchers say what’s left looks much like a modern handbag flap, with all the teeth pointing in the same direction. Dog teeth were also found in hair ornaments and necklaces, leading researchers to conclude, “It seems to have been very fashionable at the time.”
The excavation site has turned up a wealth of artifacts from Stone and Bronze Age settlements, including stone tools, bone buttons, and an amber necklace. Researchers also discovered a much later grave of a woman buried (from around 50 BC) with about a pound of gold jewelry.
3. Oldest Sweater (1,700 years)
The world’s oldest sweater was found (appropriately enough) on a Norweigan glacier in 2013. Made of lamb and sheep wool woven into a diamond twill fabric, the greenish-brown boatneck sweater was made to fit a man who was about 5-foot-9. The design may have been fashionable in Iron Age Europe – both the cut and the size of the sweater closely resembles another garment found in a bog more than 150 years ago.
The sweater appears to have been both well worn and well cared for, having been patched twice. It may also be one of the oldest surviving examples of upcycling – some researchers believe it may have originally been a sleeveless tunic, with the sleeves added around the time of the second repair. More than 50 fragments of textiles have been discovered in the glacier, many of which are still undergoing dating and analysis. Researchers believe global warming will result in more ancient garments and accessories coming to light in coming years.
2. Oldest Socks (1,600 years)
Much younger than the majority of this list, the world’s oldest socks are still very old – dating back to somewhere between 250 and 420 AD. Considered to be Romano-Egyptian, the socks were discovered in a burial ground in an ancient Greece colony in central Egypt in the late 1800s.
Described by some observers as “alien socks” or “lobster toes,” the knitted wool socks are bright red and feature a split toe, which researchers believe was done to allow them to be worn with sandals. They’re considered a very rare example of a type of knitting called “Nålbindning,” or single-needle knitting – which is described as a very slow technique more similar to sewing than modern knitting (you can learn how to do it here). They would have been started at the toe, and then finished at the ankle.
1. Oldest Bra and Panties (600 years)
Practically brand new compared with the rest of the list, the world’s oldest unmentionables were discovered under the floorboards of an Austrian castle in 2008. Four linen brassieres decorated with lace were found in a pile of more than 2,700 different textile fragments in between the floor joists of Lengberg Castle. Researchers believe the bras date to somewhere between 1390 and 1485 (when they were charmingly referred to as “breast bags”). All four include distinct cups, and shoulder straps, while two appear to be more of a combination between bra and short shirt, including a row of eyelets on the left side for lacing.
The clothing heap also revealed a few pairs of surprisingly modern looking panties, which apparently were worn by men, not women. If you’re curious about how the world’s oldest bra would have measured up, you can make your own version of it from numerous patterns online (including this one).