Early Western travelers, whether to Persia, Turkey or China frequently remark on the absence of changes in fashion there, and observers from these other cultures comment on the unseemly pace of Western fashion, which many felt suggested an instability and lack of order in Western culture. The Japanese Shogun's secretary boasted (not completely accurately) to a Spanish visitor in 1609 that Japanese clothing had not changed in over a thousand years. However in Ming China, for example, there is considerable evidence for rapidly changing fashions in Chinese clothing.
Changes in costume often took place at times of economic or social change (such as in ancient Rome and the medieval Caliphate), but then a long period without major changes followed. This occurred in Moorish Spain from the 8th century, when the famous musician Ziryab introduced sophisticated clothing styles based on seasonal and daily timings from his native Baghdad and his own inspiration to Córdoba, Spain. Similar changes in fashion occurred in the Middle East from the 11th century, following the arrival of the Turks who introduced clothing styles from Central Asia and the Far East.
The pace of change accelerated considerably in the following century, and women and men's fashion, especially in the dressing and adorning of the hair, became equally complex and changing. Art historians are therefore able to use fashion in dating images with increasing confidence and precision, often within five years in the case of 15th century images. Initially changes in fashion led to a fragmentation of what had previously been very similar styles of dressing across the upper classes of Europe, and the development of distinctive national styles. These remained very different until a counter-movement in the 17th to 18th centuries imposed similar styles once again, mostly originating from Ancien Régime France. Though the rich usually led fashion, the increasing affluence of early modern Europe led to the bourgeoisie and even peasants following trends at a distance sometimes uncomfortably close for the elites - a factor Braudel regards as one of the main motors of changing fashion.
Ten 16th century portraits of German or Italian gentlemen may show ten entirely different hats, and at this period national differences were at their most pronounced, as Albrecht Dürer recorded in his actual or composite contrast of Nuremberg and Venetian fashions at the close of the 15th century (illustration, right). The "Spanish style" of the end of the century began the move back to synchronicity among upper-class Europeans, and after a struggle in the mid 17th century, French styles decisively took over leadership, a process completed in the 18th century.
Though colors and patterns of textiles changed from year to year, the cut of a gentleman's coat and the length of his waistcoat, or the pattern to which a lady's dress was cut changed more slowly. Men's fashions largely derived from military models, and changes in a European male silhouette are galvanized in theatres of European war, where gentleman officers had opportunities to make notes of foreign styles: an example is the "Steinkirk" cravat or necktie.
The pace of change picked up in the 1780s with the increased publication of French engravings that showed the latest Paris styles; though there had been distribution of dressed dolls from France as patterns since the 16th century, and Abraham Bosse had produced engravings of fashion from the 1620s. By 1800, all Western Europeans were dressing alike (or thought they were): local variation became first a sign of provincial culture, and then a badge of the conservative peasant.
Although tailors and dressmakers were no doubt responsible for many innovations before, and the textile industry certainly led many trends, the history of fashion design is normally taken to date from 1858, when the English-born Charles Frederick Worth opened the first true haute couture house in Paris. Since then the professional designer has become a progressively more dominant figure, despite the origins of many fashions in street fashion. For women the flapper styles of the 1920s marked the most major alteration in styles for several centuries, with a drastic shortening of skirt lengths, and much looser-fitting clothes; with occasional revivals of long skirts forms of the shorter length have remained dominant ever since. The four major current fashion capitals are acknowledged to be Milan, New York City, Paris, and London. Fashion weeks are held in these cities, where designers exhibit their new clothing collections to audiences, and which are all headquarters to the greatest fashion companies and are renowned for their major influence on global fashion.
Modern Westerners have a wide choice available in the selection of their clothes. What a person chooses to wear can reflect that person's personality or likes. When people who have cultural status start to wear new or different clothes a fashion trend may start. People who like or respect them may start to wear clothes of a similar style.
Fashions may vary considerably within a society according to age, social class, generation, occupation, and geography as well as over time. If, for example, an older person dresses according to the fashion of young people, he or she may look ridiculous in the eyes of both young and older people. The terms 'fashionista' or fashion victim refer to someone who slavishly follows the current fashions.
One can regard the system of sporting various fashions as a fashion language incorporating various fashion statements using a grammar of fashion. (Compare some of the work of Roland Barthes.)