History of Fashion: Ancient Greece

Published: 07th January 2010
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With the end of the Minoan civilization sometime between 1500 BC and 1400 BC, a new era began whose principal actors were the people of the mainland. In 18th century BC Indo-Europeans out of Western Eurasia had begun to conquer and settle in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. The Mycenaeans arrived from the north in the early 16th century BC, but were in turn invaded by the Dorians from Macedonia and the Balkans in about 1100 BC. The Aeolians arrived in the coastal region of northwestern Asia Minor about 100 years later. These patriarchal Greek-speakers, the early Hellenes, became aristocratic landowners with fortified acropolis.

The independent city-states had different rulers and forms of government. Although their society was sophisticated, there were few skilled professionals. Most people lived off the land. Public buildings, such as the temples and the Parthenon of Athens, were indeed grand, but most Greeks lived a simple life, and this was reflected in their costume.

Greek attire was simple and involved a minimum amount of sewing. It was no more than a rectangular piece of cloth, either linen or wool, that after wearing could be folded and stored away. The primary wardrobe item for both men and women was the chiton, or tunic. It was worn with a belt, draped over the body, in a way that it covered the left arm while the right arm remained bare. The chiton's length varied according to the wearer's status quo. It could extend to the knee or the ankle. It could also be fastened with pins or brooches (fibulae) on the left shoulder or on both shoulders, or be dyed, embroidered, or edged with decorative elements.

We distinguish four main costume silhouettes, which existed in ancient Greece. These are Cretan Minoan, Mycenaean, Archaic, and Classical, each named after the era during which it appeared. The Cretan Minoan attire included a variety of complex garments that were made in very much the same way that modern garments are made. Skirts and blouses were shaped to the body of the wearer. Women laced themselves in corsets that exposed the breasts and wore flounced skirts stretched over hoops, probably the first type of crinoline. The Minoan silhouette, with its slender waist, accentuated breast, and sweeping skirt, bears so strong resemblance to that of late 19th century Europe, that one image of a fresco from Knossos is dubbed La Parisienne.

Mycenaean costume was influenced by Minoan fashion, yet it was also quite primitive. The primary garments of Archaic Greek were the tunic and shawl. In the Classical era, fabric was softer and draping became more sophisticated so that clothes fell naturally over the body. Clothing was meant to be so subtle that it was difficult to differentiate between the body and the cloth.

The two most common fabrics in ancient Greece were the wool and linen, which were woven into different textures, some thin and loose, other thick and heavy. The import of silk from China began in Hellenistic times, but silk was more rarely used for it was expensive.

Woolen clothing was the prevalent fabric in the Greek wardrobe; wool felt was used for caps and hats, while the men's himation and the chlamys were made of woolen cloth. This is why most garments were off-white until the Archaic period (ca. 800 BC- 500 BC) when new textiles were introduced.

By the 5th century Greeks began to dye all types of garments. Cloaks were dyed in dark and earthy colors, women's clothes were made in floral shades. Numerous types of decoration were used. Gold and silver, as well as yellow, indigo, violet, red, and purple threads were sewn into garments. Garment borders were dye-painted. Motifs from architecture and vase painting were also used in clothes.

Women's clothing
Women's chitons were made to suit their body shape; they were made of narrow material and were draped differently as to cling to the body. Women's garments were distinctly female and required a ritual to put on, which involved wrapping a band beneath one's breasts, a transparent tunic, and a short, sleeveless tunic.

The main women's outer attire - worn over the soft linen chiton - was the Doric peplos, made of a rather heavy woolen rectangle. Half the length of the wearer's height and 180 cm wide, the peplos was folded vertically and then wrapped around the body and fastened by pins or fibulae at the shoulders. Excess material was folded at the top, forming a flap at the back that resembled an abbreviated cape.

Another elegant feminine garment was the Doric podere tunic, which could be embroidered and accessorized with jewelry and a light linen shawl called pharos.

The palla was an overgarment similar to the chiton. It was sleeveless and fixed at the shoulders and gathered in at the waist by a belt fastened at the hips. Women also wore the men's himation over their tunics.

Men's clothing
The most important garments in the men's wardrobe were the chiton, himation, and chlamys.

Men's chitons were wide. They sometimes featured sleeves fashioned out of the extra material. The Ionic chiton, used during the 7th century BC, extended to the ankle. By the 5th century, it had been replaced by a short, knee-length version. This was fuller and softer, often made of linen rather than wool. Small fibulae fastened the material across the shoulders to form sleeves.

The himation was a large men's cloak, made of wool, approximately 2 x 2.75 m, which was wrapped around the torso and draped over the shoulder in such a way that no fastener was needed. As clothmaking and fabric evolved, so did the himation. The new styles were made of lighter wool and became more versatile, bigger, and were draped for a more elegant look.

The chlamys was a short, oblong garment, worn over the shoulders and fastened with a brooch or pin at the right shoulder.

The Hellenistic age heralded the most decorative era in Greek costume, partly because of the introduction of cotton, silk, and gold and silver threads from India. Dress varied in cut, and oriental embroidery and metallic additions were used for decoration. Costume in the Hellenistic age emphasized a person's individuality. It was a time of prosperity for the Greeks, due to a thriving mercantile economy, and the luxurious materials used for clothing reflected the richness of the time.

Next: Ancient Greek Fashion Accessories

The author is the founder and owner of Adriana Allen LLC - a European fashion brand offering handmade and one-of-a-kind handbags and fashion accessories. You can learn more about world fashion, fashion's history, and how to buy fashion accessories at our official blog

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