Fashion followed the social evolution of women and concluded to characterize them within society. In the male-dominated society of ancient Greece, women were meant to become good wives, run the household and bear an heir. However, some elite women managed to break the social norms and cultivated independence of thought. They expressed their creativity through garments but also through jewelry, hairstyles, and cosmetics. Clothing served as decoration and signaled the status of a woman. Besides the functionality of clothes, women’s fashion was used as a way to communicate social identities like gender, status, and ethnicity.
Colors & Textiles In Women’s Fashion
Much of our knowledge of ancient greek clothing comes from marble sculptures. That is why many people assume that people in ancient Greece wore exclusively white clothes. When seen on statues or in painted pottery, the clothing often appears to be white or monochrome. However, it has been proved that the faded color of the marble statues was once covered with paint that wore off over the centuries.
Ancient Greeks, indeed, were using natural dyes from shellfish, insects, and plants, to color fabric and clothing. Skilled craftsmen extracted dyes from these sources and combined them with other substances to create a variety of colors. In time the colors became bright. Women preferred yellow, red, light green, oil, gray, and violet. Most Greek women’s fashion garments were made from rectangular fabric that was normally folded around the body with girdles, pins, and buttons. Decorative motifs on the dyed fabrics were either woven or painted on. There were often geometric or natural patterns, depicting leaves, animals, human figures, and mythological scenes.
Although some women bought imported fabric and textiles, most women wove the fabric creating their own clothing. In other words, by using different textiles people differentiated by gender, class, or status. Greek pottery and ancient sculptures provide us with information on fabrics. They were brightly colored and generally decorated with elaborate designs. Ancient fabrics were derived from the basic raw materials, animal, plant, or minerals, with its main wool, flax, leather, and silk.
As time passed and finer materials (mostly linen) were produced, the draped dresses became more varied and elaborate. There was silk from China and a further variety in draping was created by pleating. It’s worth mentioning that the silk from China and fine muslins from India began making their way to ancient Greece after the victorious conquests of Alexander the Great.
The Three Basic Garments And Their Functionality
The three main items of clothing in ancient Greece were the peplos, the chiton, and the himation. They were combined in various ways.
The peplos is the earliest known item of Archaic Greek women’s fashion. It can be described as a large rectangle, usually of a heavier, woolen fabric, folded over along the upper edge so that the overfold (called Apoptygma) would reach the waist. This rectangular piece of linen was draped around the body and pinned over the shoulders with fibulae, or brooches. During ancient Greeks rituals and religious ceremonies, girls were chosen to make new ‘sacred peplos‘ out of large pieces of fabric. Young unmarried women wove a wedding peplos to devote it to the virgin goddess, Athena Polias at the Panathenaea. In other words, we meet the importance of marriage in the festival, through the weaving of the peplos.
Near the Erechtheion is the Peplos Kore (c. 530 B.C.E.), a statue that represents a woman wearing peplos brightly colored with red, green, and blue. Her peplos was white – with the middle part decorated with vertical rows of small animals, birds, and riders. The magnificent cult statue of Phidias, Athena Parthenos is another representation of a woman dressed in a peplos. Dedicated in 438 BCE, Athena Parthenos was forty feet tall and draped in ivory with over a ton of gold. She was dressed in a peplos, richly pleated and belted at her waist. Also, she carried a shield adorned with Medusa’s head, a helmet, and Nike’s wreath of victory.
Around 550 B.C. the chiton, which had previously been worn only by men, became popular with women as well. During the winter, women used to wear garments made of wool, while in the summer they switched to linen, or silk if they were rich. The light, loose tunics made the hot summer in ancient Greece more bearable. The chiton, was a type of tunic, consisting of a rectangular piece of cloth secured along the shoulders and upper arms by a series of fasteners. The folded top edge was pinned over the shoulders, while the folded-down seemed like the second piece of clothing. Two different styles of chiton were developed: the Ionic chiton and the Doric chiton.
The Doric chiton, also sometimes called the Doric peplos, appeared around 500 B.C.E. and was made from a much larger piece of woolen fabric, which allowed it to be pleated and draped. Once it was pinned at the shoulders, the chiton could be belted to increase the drapery effect. Unlike the heavy wool peplos, the chiton was made out of lighter materials, usually linen or silk. During the Persian Wars (492-479 BC) and later, a simple Doric chiton was replaced by the more elaborate Ionic chiton, which was made of linen. The Ionic chiton was belted below the breasts or at the waist, while the pinned shoulders formed elbow-length sleeves.
Ancient Greece Inspired Modern Fashion
Greek designs have inspired many women’s fashion couturiers throughout the centuries. In 1907, Spanish designer Mariano Fortuny (1871–1949) created a popular dress called the Delphos gown. Its shape resembles the form of the Ionic chiton, particularly the chiton of the famous bronze statue “The Charioteer of Delphi.” The Delphos was a monochrome chiton, made in satin or silk taffeta sewn along the long sides in a vertical sequence and continuing to form short sleeves. Unlike the Doric chiton, the Ionic was not folded over at the top to create an overfold. The fabric was wrapped around the body, belted up high, and pinned along the shoulders with bands. The Ionic chiton was a fuller garment, lighter than the Dorian chiton. Ankle-length chitons were a characteristic of women’s fashion, while men wore shorter versions of the garment.
The himation is the last of the three basic categories of women’s fashion in ancient Greece. It is a basic outer garment, usually worn over both the chiton or peplos, by both sexes. It consisted of a large rectangular material, that goes under the left arm and over the right shoulder. The archaeological remains from statues and vases indicate that these garments were often dyed in bright colors and covered with various designs that were either woven into the fabric or painted on.
One of the most common ways for women to drape the himation was to wrap it around their entire body and tuck a fold into their girdle. One example can be found on the caryatid statues on the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens that dates to the late 5th century B.C.E. The sculptor masterfully carved the marble, making the himation surround the upper torso, passing through the left hand and forming a fold attached to the right shoulder with clasps or buttons.
Greek women wore himations in various styles, as warm cloaks over their thin Ionic chitons. In some cases, when women were overcome by emotion or shame, they would completely cover themselves with their himations, draping the cloth to veil their faces. The veil in women’s fashion in ancient Greece also served as a way for women to express themselves and gain control over their movement and status in the male sphere. Greek women who weren’t slaves wore a veil over their dress whenever they left the house. The influence of women’s fashion on contemporary art is evident in the ‘Tanagra’ terracotta figurine, ”La Dame en bleu‘.’ This statue depicts a woman wearing a himation as a veil. Her body is revealed under the folds of the himation thrown around the shoulders covering the head. The veil makes a woman socially invisible allowing her to enjoy privacy while being in public. The custom of wearing a veil in public has been associated with Eastern civilizations.
Belts And Undergarments In Ancient Women’s Fashion
By the classical period, belts became an important accessory of women’s fashion. Ancient Greeks often tied ropes or fabric belts around the center of their garments to cinch their waists. Using belts and girdles, Greek women adjusted their floor-length chitons and peploi to the desired length. While the tunic was the basic garment, it could also be an undergarment. Another feminine style involved wrapping one long belt around the area of the chest or below it. Under their garments, women used to wear a breast belt or a breast band called the strophion. It was a large woolen strip of cloth, a version of the modern bra, wrapped around the breasts and shoulders. Both men and women sometimes wore triangular underwear, called perizoma.