Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek Women’s Fashion: Main Trends and Meaning

Ancient Greek women's fashion reflected historical, social, economic, and cultural contexts, evolving across private and public spheres.

ancient greek women's fashion

Ancient Greek women’s fashion reflected historical, social, economic, and cultural contexts, evolving across private and public spheres.

Fashion has always been a way for individuals to express themselves and their identities. In ancient Greece, this was no different. However, the fashion choices of women in ancient Greece were not solely based on personal preference or style, but rather reflected the social norms and expectations placed upon them. From clothing to jewelry, hairstyles to cosmetics, every aspect of a woman’s appearance was carefully chosen to convey her status and role within society.

In this article, we will delve into the world of women’s fashion in ancient Greece. We will explore the various elements of their attire, the colors and textiles used, and the societal implications of their fashion choices. Through this, we will gain a deeper understanding of how fashion played a significant role in shaping the lives of women in ancient Greece.

Clothing as a Symbol of Social Status

In the male-dominated society of ancient Greece, women were expected to fulfill traditional roles such as being good wives, managing the household, and bearing children. This meant that their clothing choices were limited, and they were expected to dress modestly and conservatively. However, as with any society, there were exceptions to these norms.

Elite women, such as those from aristocratic families, had more freedom in their fashion choices. They could afford luxurious fabrics and elaborate garments, which served as a symbol of their wealth and status. These women also had access to skilled seamstresses who could create intricate designs and patterns on their clothing, further showcasing their wealth and social standing.

On the other hand, lower-class women had to make do with simpler and more practical clothing. Their garments were often made from cheaper materials such as wool or linen, and they were not as elaborate as those worn by the elite. However, this does not mean that their clothing lacked creativity or style. Lower-class women would often add embellishments or use different draping techniques to make their garments more visually appealing.

The Three Iconic Garments of Ancient Greece

The Pelos

The peplos holds a significant place as the earliest staple in Archaic Greek women’s attire. Think of it as a sizeable woolen rectangle, cleverly folded at the top to create an overfold, or Apoptygma, that cascades down to the waist. This garment was wrapped around the wearer and secured at the shoulders with decorative pins known as fibulae. In ancient Greece, the peplos wasn’t just clothing; it was steeped in ritual significance. During sacred ceremonies, select girls were tasked with creating a ‘sacred peplos’ from substantial fabric swathes. This tradition underscored the societal emphasis on marriage, with young unmarried women dedicating a specially woven wedding peplos to Athena Polias, the virgin goddess, during the Panathenaea festival.

The Varvakeion Athena Parthenos by Phidias,
The Varvakeion Athena Parthenos by Phidias, (438 BC), via the National Archaeological Museum, Athens

A stone’s throw from the Erechtheion stands the Peplos Kore, a statue dating back to around 530 B.C.E., showcasing a woman adorned in a vibrantly colored peplos. Unlike the simpler garments of her time, her peplos boasted a white base, intricately decorated with a pattern of animals, birds, and horse riders. Similarly, the renowned statue of Athena Parthenos by Phidias, unveiled in 438 BCE, depicts the goddess in a splendidly pleated peplos. This forty-foot-tall statue, cloaked in ivory and gold, featured Athena in a peplos that was as much a statement of art as it was of fashion, complete with a Medusa-embellished shield, a helmet, and a victory wreath from Nike.

The Chiton

By 550 B.C., the chiton, initially exclusive to men’s fashion, had found its way into women’s wardrobes, marking a significant shift in ancient Greek attire. Women adapted their clothing to the seasons, opting for wool in the cooler months and linen or silk during the warmer periods for those who could afford it. The chiton, essentially a rectangular cloth, offered a breezy alternative for the scorching Greek summers, fastened at the shoulders and upper arms, creating an elegant and functional garment. Its design allowed for a dual-layered appearance, giving the illusion of wearing two pieces at once. Over time, two distinct versions emerged: the Ionic and the Doric chiton.

two ancient greek women wore chiton dress
Two Women of Ancient Greece Filling their Water Jugs at a Fountain by Henry Ryland, they wore chiton, c. 1898, private collection, via Getty Images

The Doric chiton, introduced around 500 B.C.E., was crafted from a larger expanse of wool, allowing for a pleated, flowing silhouette once it was secured at the shoulders. This version could be cinched at the waist to enhance its draped appearance, offering a lighter, more breathable option compared to the traditional woolen peplos. Meanwhile, the Persian Wars era saw the rise of the Ionic chiton, favored for its elaborate linen construction. This style featured a belt cinched below the breasts or around the waist, with the shoulder pins creating elbow-length sleeves, introducing a more intricate and refined look to women’s fashion in ancient Greece.

The Himation

The himation stands as the third pillar in the trinity of ancient Greek women’s fashion, serving as a versatile outer garment for both genders. This piece was essentially a large, rectangular cloth draped elegantly over the body, typically slung under the left arm and over the right shoulder. Evidence from statues and vase paintings suggests these garments were often vibrant, adorned with colorful dyes and embellished with intricate designs, either woven directly into the fabric or painted on.

A prevalent method among women for wearing the himation involved wrapping it around their bodies, securing a portion into their girdle for a snug fit. This technique is immortalized in the graceful caryatid statues of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis of Athens, dating back to the late 5th century B.C.E., where the himation is depicted as enveloping the upper body, with clever folds and clasps adding structure and elegance to the marble figures.

The himation was more than just a garment; it was a statement of style and functionality, often worn as a protective cloak over the lighter Ionic chitons. It also played a significant role in social and emotional expression. For instance, Greek women, in moments of deep emotion or modesty, would envelop themselves in their himations, using the fabric to veil their faces. This act of veiling not only served as a personal expression but also as a means of navigating the public sphere with a degree of privacy and autonomy. The veil became a symbol of status and self-possession, marking the wearer as a free woman rather than a slave, and was customarily donned outside the home.

The impact of the himation and the practice of veiling on classical art is poignantly captured in the “Tanagra” terracotta figurine, “La Dame en bleu.” This figure showcases a woman draped in a himation used as a veil, revealing the contours of her form beneath the fabric’s folds, thrown over her shoulders and covering her head. This artful depiction highlights the dual purpose of the himation: as a garment that provided both privacy and a platform for self-expression in the public domain, subtly reflecting the influences of Eastern traditions on Greek sartorial practices.

Colors and Textiles in Women’s Fashion

The Phrasikleia Kore, crafted by Aristion of Paros between 550-540 B.C., alongside its color reconstruction in 2010 by the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt, offers a vivid window into the polychromatic world of ancient Greek attire, challenging the common misconception of a purely white ancient Greek wardrobe. This misconception largely stems from the observation of marble sculptures and painted pottery, which, due to the passage of time and erosion of materials, present a monochrome aesthetic to the modern observer.

Contrary to these assumptions, the ancient Greeks had access to a broad spectrum of colors and textiles, employing them to fashion garments that were as vibrant and diverse as their culture. Wool served as the primary material for their clothing, supplemented by silk, linen, and cotton. These fabrics were transformed into vivid hues through the use of natural dyes derived from plants, insects, and minerals, showcasing a rich palette that was both aesthetically pleasing and symbolically significant.

Custom of Sappho the poet
Custom of Sappho the poet

The choice of color in a woman’s garment was not merely a matter of fashion but was imbued with deep symbolic meanings. Red, for instance, was emblematic of love and passion, reflecting the emotional intensity associated with these states. Purple, a color that required an intricate and costly dyeing process, was typically reserved for the aristocracy, symbolizing status, power, and a connection to the divine. White, often seen during religious observances, was the color of purity and innocence, representing a spiritual ideal and a connection to the sacred.

Terracotta lekythos by  Brygos Painter
Terracotta lekythos by  Brygos Painter, ca. 480 B.C., via The Met Museum, New York; with Marble funerary statues of a maiden and a little girl, ca. 320 B.C., via The Met Museum, New York

These colors and their associated meanings not only enriched the visual culture of ancient Greece but also offered insights into the societal values, roles, and hierarchies of the time. Through the study of artifacts such as the Phrasikleia Kore and its modern color reconstruction, we gain a deeper understanding of the complex interplay between fashion, symbolism, and society in ancient Greece, revealing a culture that celebrated color and diversity in its many forms.

Jewelry, Hairstyles, and Cosmetics

In ancient Greece, a woman’s attire was complemented and enhanced by the use of jewelry, hairstyles, and cosmetics, serving as key indicators of creativity, social status, and personal wealth. Jewelry, crafted from precious metals like gold and silver, played a crucial role in the aesthetic ensemble of Greek women. It adorned various parts of the body, including the hair, ears, neck, and wrists, and served dual purposes—not only as decoration but also as a tangible asset that could act as currency or form part of a dowry, underlining its economic and social significance.

Hairstyles were another avenue through which women in ancient Greece could express their status and wealth. The elite among them opted for complex and time-consuming hairstyles, showcasing their ability to afford such luxuries. These elaborate coiffures were often embellished with jewelry, ribbons, and decorative items, further elevating their appearance and highlighting their sophistication and social standing.

Cosmetics, derived from natural sources like olive oil, honey, and clay, were an integral part of a woman’s beauty regime. The application of white lead for a paler complexion and kohl to enhance the eyes underscored the aesthetic ideals of the time. Beyond their cosmetic appeal, these substances were attributed medicinal and religious values, indicating a deeper cultural and spiritual significance attached to the practice of beautification.

These elements of personal adornment—jewelry, hairstyles, and cosmetics—were not merely superficial or decorative. They were deeply embedded in the social fabric of ancient Greek society, reflecting individual wealth, societal position, and the broader cultural values surrounding beauty, health, and religious practice. Through these practices, women in ancient Greece navigated their social landscapes, expressing identity and status in a visually symbolic language that transcended the mere act of dressing or grooming.

Ancient Greek fashion has had a significant influence on modern-day trends. From the iconic chiton to the use of natural dyes, many elements of ancient Greek fashion can still be seen in contemporary clothing. Designers continue to draw inspiration from the draping techniques, silhouettes, and color palettes of ancient Greek garments.

One of the most notable examples of this is the revival of the peplos dress in the early 20th century. Designers such as Paul Poiret and Mariano Fortuny created modern versions of the peplos, which became popular among women in the West. The simplicity and elegance of the garment made it a timeless piece that continues to inspire fashion designers today.

Conclusion

In conclusion, women’s fashion in ancient Greece was not just about looking good; it was a reflection of society and creativity. Clothing served as a symbol of social status, while jewelry, hairstyles, and cosmetics were used to express individuality and wealth. Through their fashion choices, women were able to break free from societal norms and showcase their independence of thought and creativity. Today, we continue to be inspired by the fashion of ancient Greece, proving that style truly knows no boundaries or time periods.

Lucas Bennett writer on ancient greece
Lucas Bennett
Lucas Bennett focuses on Modern American History. He earned his MA in History from Harvard University. Formerly a public school educator, James now engages in writing historical analyses for various publications.

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