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Holten: Do clothes make the man?

Do you know when humans started wearing clothing? It was about 170,000 years ago, right after the second-to-last Ice Age, when they finally discovered that being nude was a little too “cool.”

We know they started wearing clothing about that time because scientists have tracked the period when head lice decided to move from being head lice to clothing lice. Apparently being embedded in clothing was much more appealing for lice than hanging out in human hair so Mr. Lice said, “Pack your bags” to Mrs. Lice and they moved to a new neighborhood.

Research also shows that the “clothes wearing” era began long after mankind had lost its substantial covering of body hair. In fact, most of the body hair was gone around 1 million years ago and yet, our ancestors were still running around nude from 1 million years ago until 170,000 years ago. That’s a big gap. Then again, since they spent most of that time hanging out in Africa, who needed clothes?

Still, that’s precisely when the saying “clothes makes the man” must have originated, because it was mankind’s new clothes that enabled him (and her) to conquer the world.

After all, can you imagine Ole and Lena trying to homestead in the Dakotas with no clothes on? Perish the thought because that was just not going to happen. In fact, rumor has it that Ole wore both of his winter jackets when he painted his house one July. That’s because the directions on the can said, “Put on two coats.”

Yes, it’s interesting to note that humans were able to survive in Africa for hundreds of thousands of years without clothing and without body hair, and that it wasn’t until they had clothing that modern humans moved out of Africa and into other parts of the world.

In fact, overall, our success as a species was made possible thanks to our controlled use of fire and the ability to use clothing, new hunting strategies and new stone tools rather than just a big club with a spike in it.

It is also interesting to note that it was a drive to express individuality and status that pushed humans to wear more distinctive clothing, shoes and then jewelry, and to ultimately don makeup and sport tattoos. You see, it is group divisions and competition that fuels that “look at me” desire, along with needing to affiliate ourselves with a particular sect. That was never more apparent than it is in 2014.

In all of this, the most important invention was one little thing call the “needle.”

Way back when, needles were made out of slivers of animal bone that were sharpened to a point at one end and featured an “eye” at the other end. With this new invention, man was able to cut up fur hides into pieces to make better-fitting apparel.

In fact, at one point, scientists can see that mankind began to wear close-fitting pants and shirts, that protected them in a much better way from the cold, and eventually they added shawls, hoods and long boots.

But the question for me is, “When did clothing go from being protective to being fashionable?” I’m going to guess it happened almost immediately in some small way, but there is no evidence to support that.

Historians in Europe think that a focus on fashion started about the middle of the 14th century. That’s when the male over-garment went from being a baggy, body-length cover to a shortened, barely-covering-the-buttocks fashion statement, with stuffing in the chest, worn over tight leggings. Not something you’d wear today baling hay.

Still, the bottom line is this: What looks good on one person doesn’t necessarily look good on another. A person’s body shape might ultimately be their biggest fashion statement.

Which reminds me of something Gary Zukav, the American spiritual teacher and the author of four consecutive New York Times Best Sellers once said: “The essence of a person is not the clothing she wears or the things he does. People who love them do not stop loving them when they change clothing or do other things. Your essence is not even your history, culture, race, or what you think and do. It is your soul.”

That’s cool but I still like the quote by James Montgomery, the British poet, best who said, “The fairest and best adorned is she whose clothing is humility.”

Holten is the editor of The Drill and the executive director of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Email him at